January 23, 2019

Sermon: The Widow’s Plight

Sermon: The Widow’s Plight

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

• Mark 12:38-44

• • •

The Widow’s Mite. Glanzman

Every once in a while in my work, I get to know a patient whose family expresses a specific concern to me. The patient is is usually an older woman who is very religious. Problem is, despite her small, fixed income, she is sending money — sometimes lots of money — to televangelists or to certain television religious programs. Often these so called “ministries” are the kind that constantly promise their viewers blessings for giving financially. They preach a prosperity gospel, making claims that God will bring a harvest of financial blessing to those who plant “seeds of faith” by sending them money. Some of these preachers live lavish, luxurious lifestyles, flying around in their private jets to and from their mansions, while many of their supporters are humble people like the elderly women I visit who really can’t afford to be sending them money.

In today’s Gospel, we meet someone who reminds me of these women, a widow who spends her last few coins at the Temple. I’m afraid that we have long misunderstood her story and what Jesus was trying to tell us by pointing her out.

The story we know as “The Widow’s Mite” is closely tied to the story that comes right before it. The key to understanding why Jesus directed our attention to this woman lies in reading the two stories we have in today’s lesson together.

In the first story, Jesus calls attention to the scribes. The scribes were part of the religious leadership of the Jewish people. They were, as it were, religious lawyers who handled matters of interpretation. They ruled on religious disputes, based upon interpretations of the scriptures and other religious writings and laws.

One example of their rulings is found in Mark, chapter 7. Jesus criticized them for making a ruling known as “corban.” Under the corban principle, a person made a vow declaring that a portion of his money was devoted to God. That meant it could no longer be used for other things. Even if the man’s parents became poor and needed that money, the scribes ruled that it had been given to God by a sacred vow and was no longer available to help them.

Jesus disagreed. He said there was a more fundamental and important law that said “Honor your father and mother.” God’s laws were given to help people, not hurt them. They were given to promote love and justice, not to help us find ways around being loving and just.

In today’s text, Jesus criticizes the scribes for treating widows the same way. He says that the scribes were “devouring widows’ houses.” In other words, the scribes were part of a religious system that had devastating effects on the poor and needy people of Israel.

This leads us to the second story in today’s Gospel. Immediately after criticizing the scribes for their mistreatment of widows, we have the story of a widow — a poor woman who goes to the Temple and puts her last two coins into the Temple offering box. Jesus points her out to his disciples as she puts in everything she has.

Now the question is this: why does Jesus point her out?

The interpretation I have heard most often is that he is commending this widow as an example of sacrificial giving. In contrast to wealthy religious people like the scribes, who only give a portion of their income, this woman gave her everything. She represents total devotion to God, while many of the religious people only give a little bit of the riches they have.

I do not agree. I don’t think Jesus is celebrating this woman’s generosity.

Instead, I think he is lamenting that she is part of a religious system in which she thinks she has to give all she has to live on to be acceptable to God. The scribes, Jesus said, were part of a religious system that devoured widows’ houses. Now, here is a poor widow whose house is being devoured. Because of her religion, she gave and gave until she had nothing.

Let’s imagine that this woman came to you for counsel. If she said, “I only have five dollars left in my bank account. The church is having a special offering this week and I think God wants me give it all to the church,” how would you advise her?

I doubt very much that any of us would think that God wanted her to give her last little bit to the church.

Wouldn’t we all think — hey, this poor widow needs help! As the church, we should be giving to help her, not demanding that she give every penny she has to help the church!

But she was part of a religious system that led her to think she had to sacrifice everything in order to be a good religious person. Like the thousands of poor people who send money to televangelists thinking that it’s the way to get God to bless their faith, this woman had been brainwashed into a faulty view of God and what it means to love God.

No, Jesus is not celebrating her sacrificial faith, he is weeping because the religion she’s part of is leading her astray and ruining her life. And he is pointing out to his disciples that this is not the way God means it to be. It would only be a few days later that that same religious system hung Jesus on a cross.

As Lutherans, we are heirs of a tradition that has fought against this kind of religion ever since the days of Martin Luther. Back then, the issue was indulgences. The church developed an entire system of the afterlife and then sold people tickets out of Purgatory to finance its building projects. Poor people all over Europe coughed up the little they had so that great monuments might be built. The people thought they were doing the right thing, the religious thing. They were contributing their money for God’s glory. They were winning their salvation. But Luther saw that it was all a sham and he condemned the injustice of it all.

Right after this story about the widow, Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple. As they converse, Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the religious system that took advantage of poor widows like this one. “One day,” Jesus said, “this Temple and the unjust religion that has developed here will come tumbling down until there is not one stone left upon another.”

Jesus and Luther both helped to remind us that we are not here to serve God by following manmade religious rules and expectations. We are here to receive God’s love by faith and then to share it with one another and our neighbors, especially those in hard and sad life situations.

I think God is calling us today to have our eyes open, to look around us as Jesus’ disciples did that day, to let Jesus show us that even religion can have a damaging, deadly effect on those who are involved with it.

In contrast, the faith of Christ enlivens us, empowers us, and frees us to do what is just, to be devoted to faithful love, and to walk humbly with our God. May it be so with us.

Amen.

Comments

  1. This interpretation makes more sense than traditional interpretations, because it is it is more consistent with the narrative context and with Jesus’ teaching in other places. Enough of the wolves in sheep’s clothing. But you have to watch out, CM, some may start calling you a Liberation Theologian.

    • Ditto.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Yep

    • Christiane says:

      what comes to mind, this:

      I remember the people who advocated a flat 10% tax across the board for our country . . . . which would mean a boondoggle (sp?) for the wealthy for whom it would hardly be noticed what they had to pay just 10% out of their abundance;
      but unfortunately, proportionally 10% would have been the difference in a poor family for a man to be able to give his children a basic provision of food, clothing, shelter, dental care etc. . . . .

      didn’t matter that the wealthy supporters understood this, no

      didn’t matter at all

      I wonder about how we ‘translate’ the teachings of sacred Scripture into our own time and place in a way that honors those Scriptures, particularly the teachings of Lord Christ
      . . . . . maybe there IS after all some relevant good to be seen in how we are playing out our modern roles between the haves and the have-nots in our own time, call it what you will. One thing I know is this: what Our Lord taught in sacred Scripture is transcendent going back in time and forward in time and has a meaning that touches every human person who ever lived, lives now, or ever will live (think ‘Incarnation’ here). So in our own time, in our humanity’s incorporation into the Body of Christ, how do we now live in accordance to His words????

      The widow who sacrificed. The honest poor working man who pays those monies that would provide for his children a more decent existence. Maybe the ‘Gospel Lesson’ is not so far from the hated ‘liberation’ theology after all????

      We close our eyes to so much and turn away from too much. And when we are FORCED to see the suffering that results, we grow defensive ???

      My godmother of blessed memory gave a lot to Pat Robertson for many years. She collected bottles and turned them in for small change and sent that money on also, hoping that it would be put to good use. Once, she had parked on the side of a highway, and was struck by a car as she was ‘gleaning’ for the 700 Club. She spent many weeks in hospital and it was in the area where the 700 Club has its head-quarters, so I called them, and told them her story and asked if someone from the organization might come and pray with her in the hospital.

      I was told over the phone that they did not do that sort of thing and the person hung up on me. Eleanor is gone now and is safely passed into the ‘world to come’ in the keeping of her Lord. I have HER witness always, to self-sacrificial giving, to service, to generosity, to loving kindness, to humility. As for the 700 Club, I have no comment. They spoke to me all I needed to know about them.

  2. Andrew Zook says:

    Great sermon! That’s a completely different take than I’ve ever heard. And sadly, I think I know a few church people who would council the woman in your scenario to give “her last bit to the church” if she says “God told me to do that”. Random flitting thoughts in one’s head, interpreted as God speaking, do trump all reason or justice, or practicalilty for some people I know. The crazier the better, because it’s considered validation of your “faith”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The crazier the better, because it’s considered validation of your “faith”.

      That’s what comes from making God’s Wisdom not a superset of human wisdom/knowledge of reality, but a completely-unrelated Spiritual Thing. In the latter, the less sense it makes in physical reality, the more Spiritual and Godly it must be.

      Islam took that road after the Mongol Invasions ended their unbroken early winning streak, and look where it got them. As in 9/11 was done as a Validation of Faith.

  3. Mike, I like this interpretation, especially as it’s introduced by the story of the religious leaders and their devouring of widow’s houses and means. But there may be two sides to the, uh, coin.

    Although it was an abuse by the leaders, and a sin to extort the widow’s last penny for the sake of the Lord’s work, it was also a blessing to the widow spiritually. There is an irony in this, along the lines of “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” So perhaps there are two messages after all—but the part of the widow’s giving seems to be the only part we hear.

    • Good point. Ironic indeed!

      I’m sure we’ve all experienced “blessing through giving.” I guess the rub is being TOLD we need to give, eh?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > it was also a blessing to the widow spiritually

      I am not convinced the text support that. I wonder if that is something we very much want to see in the story.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Viewing having nothing as blessing requires the aesthetic nonsense all too common in religious thought; nobody freezes to death, contentedly, under a freeway overpass, overwhelmed with religious peace.

        • The Stylites would probably disagree with you – but I’m of the opinion that the Stylites were freaking nuts (apologies to the EO brothers and sisters here).

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            People can disagree. I believe those peopel are full of crap, likely drowning in privilege, also possibly insane.

        • As C.S. Lewis pointed out somewhere, if “Blessed are the poor” means that literal penury is a blessed state, then it is a big mistake and perhaps a sin to give material assistance to the poor. I think the illustration of the widow included in the post gives the right picture: her face is full of fear and distress, and uncertainty, as she throws her last coins into the offering. How could it be otherwise, unless she was completely deluded?

    • Ronald Avra says:

      It is a bit difficult to understand the widow’s perspective in her act of giving. Whatever Jesus’s opinion of her action, He didn’t attempt to restrain her, and certainly didn’t condemn her. That said, as Chaplain Mike notes, this story is generally presented in the absence of its context, and clear examples of abuse crowd the ‘Christian’ television networks.

  4. Oh, man… I can’t wait to try out this interpretation on the next person who uses this account to promote tithing!

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      To be a fly on that wall! 🙂

    • We need for pastors to get beyond their perceived obligation to preach on a literal 10% tithe (given to their church, or it doesn’t count) and to realize that it’s OT law borne of a need to tax the populace, yet in our society a possible spiritual abuse to preach.

  5. Burro (Mule) says:

    About a week ago, I read something in one of the IMonk sidebars that affected me profoundly. It was a pastor from a deeply revivalistic tradition who complained that when people “accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior”, it actually made them worse people than they were before.

    He said that despite the difficulties in their life that propelled them into the gravity field of Christianity in the first place, they were uniformly more interesting, more empathic, less conformist, and more altruistic before their conversions than after. To me, that is a condemnation of the highest order, and I think it has more than a grain of truth.

    Which is surprising, since Jesus Christ remains an attractive, aspirational figure especially in the Gospel records.

    • Perhaps converting to Christianity and following Jesus are not the same thing?

      • +1. CM’s sermon would even seem to suggest it. You can follow the rules or you can follow Jesus. Pick. Sadly, many Christians believe following Jesus means “rules” and/or “planting the flag of truth on this hill I will die on.”

        I try to focus on the gospel accounts (what is Jesus’ nature and character) and bearing fruit of the spirit. I don’t always get it right, but hopefully I’m a better “Christian” person than I was prior to being a Christian.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      I have experience which support that narrative. Very sad. It sounds at this point too much like a quibble or deflection to say I do not blame “Christianity”; as “Christianity” does, in my experience, operate principally as a way to sweep things under the rug.

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        Is there any way, then, to avoid becoming either a scold or a hypocrite?

        And don’t mistake, some left-leaning Christians can be scolds as bitter as the most separatist GARBC ‘soul-winner’. Christiane is a good example of how not to be one, though.

    • That’s very interesting, and I can see it being true. There are Christian traditions who encourage people to believe in Christ, and there are those who do the “accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior.” I’ll bet the personal Lord and Savior crowd tend to be the very legalistic, very strict, “my way or the high way groups.” And no, they don’t make the best people, and from my experience, the emphasis on personal relationship helps to create a self-centered faith.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        …and there are those who do the “accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior.” I’ll bet the personal Lord and Savior crowd tend to be the very legalistic, very strict, “my way or the high way groups.” And no, they don’t make the best people, and from my experience, the emphasis on personal relationship helps to create a self-centered faith.

        YES on all counts.

        A Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation will create a “MEEEEEE Gospel”. Add Rapture Eschatology (they usually go together) and your only concern becomes clutching your Fire Insurance Policy (always personal, never group) and keeping your nose squeeky-clean to pass the Rapture and Great White Throne litmus tests. Everyone else? That’s their problem; your only purpose is to Wretched Urgency Witness to them (as many as possible in as quick a succession) so they can be Saved or Lost.

  6. Ronald Avra says:
  7. I love how scripture molds around our lives.

    My take of this story is that Jesus is pointing out that God’s way of counting money or offerings isn’t the same as the world/ priests do. God sees the sacrifice in the giving from the widow while there is no sacrifice from the rich. I don’t think he is advocating giving all, nor is he devaluing or pitying her act. Again the kingdom of God turns things around.

    • –> “My take of this story is that Jesus is pointing out that God’s way of counting money or offerings isn’t the same as the world/ priests do.”

      Excellent point. This is the way I’ve viewed this in the past, too.

      –> “Again the kingdom of God turns things around.”

      Jesus is shown doing that all the time in the gospel accounts.

      Good comment!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Though it is also a sign of the depth of the narrative that you can have two contrasting interpretations of the same scene, both making sense in context.

      • That is what’s so wonderful about the scripture! And what I was poorly trying to say in my first comment. It molds around us, teaching us perhaps different lessons at different times/seasons of our lives.