24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8th, 2015
1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We all know the story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus sees a widow give a few coins—all that she has—and praises her generosity, saying it’s greater than the large gifts from the rich people around her, because she gave everything whereas they only gave a small portion of their wealth. We commonly use it to talk about giving—about how all gifts are important, about how much God loves a generous giver. And all of those things are true. But the thing is, the story of the Widow’s Mite is only part of the story. It belongs to a larger section, and it sounds a bit different when we look at the whole story.
First of all, let’s back up all the way to the Old Testament. You see, when God was telling the Hebrew people how to set up their society, he spent a lot of time talking about widows. Not just widows, either, but orphans and foreigners, altogether as a group. And the thing that widows, orphans, and foreigners all have in common is that they were very vulnerable. Because in those days, women, children, and foreigners were second-class citizens. They didn’t have as many rights as men did. They could be cheated and abused quite easily, and most people wouldn’t really care. So God commanded them to be extra vigilant that vulnerable people were treated well—that they received both justice and mercy. It wasn’t enough to just assume that the laws were fair; all of God’s people were to pay special attention to making sure that the widows, orphans, and strangers were given the benefit of the doubt. And even ensuring justice wasn’t enough. God’s people were to see to it that the vulnerable people always had enough to get by, even in tough times. They were supposed to be generous to all those in need, regardless of who they were or why they needed help in the first place.
Now, this special care wasn’t because God loved widows more than he loved anyone else; it wasn’t because foreigners or orphans were somehow more deserving of justice and mercy than anyone else. It was because they needed it more. I mean, if one of the pillars of the community gets in a dispute with a poor widow on the fringe of the community, or with a stranger with no connections to anyone else in town, the community leader has a natural advantage. He’s probably prosperous, he’s going to have lots of friends and resources he can call on to make sure that he gets everything he deserves and more. But someone on the outside, someone poor and alone, they’re not going to have those resources. That’s why they need help—not because they’re more deserving, or better, or anything like that. It’s because they’re alone, and a lot more vulnerable than most people, and it’s all too easy for them to get crushed by the wheels of society. And when times get tough, the pillars of the community have a lot of resources to help them get through, whereas a poor widow or an orphan or a foreigner would be all on their own.
So, in all the laws, a care and concern for widows, orphans, and strangers is one of the common themes. And it’s not just in the laws. It’s in the Psalms, too–consider our Psalm for today. “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” It’s no surprise that the Psalm contrasts God’s care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow with the ways of the wicked. Because treating vulnerable people badly is one of the major marks of the wicked!
And it’s all through the Prophets, too. When you read through the books of the prophets, they spend a lot of time telling the people of Israel that they are falling short of God’s call for them. When the prophets criticize the Hebrew people, it’s usually not for what we would consider “religious” reasons. It’s not because they believe the wrong thing, unless they’re so far astray they’re into outright idolatry. It’s not because they’re not worshipping in the right way. When God gets angry in the Old Testament, it’s because of how they treat the most vulnerable people in their communities—the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the poor people. When the people at the top of society don’t make sure that the people at the bottom get fair treatment and help when they need it, that’s when God starts getting really upset.
With that in mind, let’s go back to today’s Gospel reading. In the verses before today’s reading, the religious leaders and community leaders have been all up in Jesus’ face, trying to trip him up so they can discredit him. As usual, they only succeeded in showing that they were in the wrong. That’s where our Gospel for today begins. Having just proven that he knows the spirit of God’s law better than they do, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses … they will receive the greater condemnation.” In other words—the people at the top, who work to make themselves look good and have the best stuff in society, look at how they got that way. They should have been taking care of widows, and instead they’re taking advantage of them. They may have a good life now, but they’re going to be judged harshly.
Then he turns around and sees lots of rich people giving large donations, and a poor widow with almost nothing who gives everything she has. He talks about powerful people devouring widows’ houses, and then he sees a widow with nothing. And the question I have to ask is, why did she only have two small copper coins? Why is that “all she had”? If those rich and powerful people who were going around in fancy clothes and taking the best seats in the house and making a big deal about their generosity, if they were actually doing what they should be doing, that widow would not be down to her last penny. Because they would have made sure she was taken care of.
And yes, that widow’s generosity was wonderful. It was awesome. God calls all of us to be generous with what we have—our money, yes, but also our time, our attention, our love, our talents, everything that we have and everything that we are. The widow is a wonderful example of this, and our first lesson gives us the story of another generous woman, the Widow of Zarephath. It was a great drought, nobody could grow crops, and God sent the prophet Elijah to a town outside of Israel, to a foreign woman, and she had nothing. She was down to the last flour and oil she had, and once it was gone, she and her son were going to starve to death. But God sent Elijah to her, and he asked her for bread, and even with starvation waiting just around the corner for her and her son, she shared what little she had. That’s a kind of abundant generosity we don’t see too often. And it’s a generosity that God rewarded—she and her household were saved from starvation. God kept that little bit she had and gave more, so that she and her family had food even in the midst of starvation. It wasn’t a great feast, but it was enough. By sharing what little she had, she blessed Elijah and God blessed her in turn.
Let’s contrast that with the scribes and community leaders in the Gospel reading. They’re the ones that people look up to in the community. They dress nicely, they go to all the right parties and know all the right people. They give to all the right causes, worship regularly, on the surface they look like exactly what every faithful person should aspire to be. And yet, in their midst was a woman with nothing. Maybe she’d had a run of bad luck. Maybe she’d done some stupid things and wasted what she had. Maybe she’d been cheated out of her pension. Maybe her children didn’t take care of her, or maybe she had no children. We don’t know the exact circumstances of her misfortune, how much of it was her fault and how much of it was other peoples’ fault and how much of it was nobody’s fault. But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter, in the end, why she was destitute. What matters is that nobody seems to care. The whole society has been charged by God to see to it that vulnerable people aren’t left destitute, and here she is, in the midst of their prosperity, with literally only a penny to her name. And she gave it, and I am sure God did many great and wonderful things with that penny that you and I can’t even imagine.
But it makes me wonder. What kind of a job are we doing? Are there people in our midst that we have forgotten about, pushed out, ignored as they struggle? Who are the vulnerable people in modern-day America, and how are we treating them? Who are the vulnerable people in our community? North Dakota has had a lot of strangers over the last several years, with the oil boom, and when things go well they make good money … but it’s so easy for something bad to happen, and they’re left with nothing. How good a job do we do about making sure that the outsiders receive justice and mercy, fair treatment and help when they need it? Are we the widow, generous with everything we have, or are we the leaders who focus on our own wealth and status while forgetting she even exists? Have we built a society with justice and mercy for all people, especially the most vulnerable, or have we built a society that works to benefit the people who already have more than enough? If Jesus were here, today, watching us put our offerings in the plate, who would he point out that we haven’t even noticed?
I pray that we may work towards a world where all people receive justice and mercy as God would want.