Lectionary 32B, November 11, 2018
1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a problem in our Gospel reading. It is the hypocrisy and selfishness of the scribes, who like to show themselves off as good, righteous, pious pillars of the community, while at the same time, according to Jesus, ‘devouring widows’ houses’. They make a show of being great people, full of religious devotion and moral uprightness, and yet underneath it they are rotten to the core: selfish, hypocritical, throwing the most vulnerable members of society under the bus for their own benefit. They, Jesus says, will be condemned. Even though they’re respected now, it won’t last. Because while society may be fooled by their wealth and the appearances they maintain, the excuses they make for their behavior, God sees who they truly are, and what they’re actually doing underneath the mask of piety.
Then there is the widow. The generous widow, who has literally less than a penny to her name, and yet gives that penny to the Temple, trusting that the priests and Temple authorities will use that money well. Jesus says that she is more generous than all the rich people who give lots of money, because she is giving more than they can afford, while the rich give only a tiny fraction of their wealth. For almost two thousand years, Christians have been holding up this widow and her generosity, and encouraging one another to be just as generous as she is, to give everything we have to God. And it is good to be generous; throughout the Bible, God asks us to be generous with our time, our money, our attention, and our love.
But the thing is, when we focus on praising the widow for her generosity, we miss a crucial question, one which connects her sacrifice with the problem of the hypocritical scribes. And the question is this: why is this widow destitute in the first place? Because, you see, if this society were truly following the laws handed down to Moses and recorded in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, she shouldn’t be. I don’t mean that she wouldn’t be poor; poverty won’t be eradicated until the kingdom of God is truly established on earth. But there’s a difference between being poor and being destitute. This woman has nothing. Her entire wealth is two coins worth less than a penny. Even back in those days, you couldn’t live on that. It’s commendable that she is generous with that pittance that is all she has, but why is ‘all she has’ that small?
If you look through the ancient laws recorded in the Bible, they cover a wide variety of things, and some of them seem strange to us, and a lot of them don’t seem to apply to modern life. But if you look at the overarching themes to those laws, there are some that are just as relevant today as they were back then. And one of those themes is taking care of the vulnerable. See, in any society, there are some people who are more likely to slip through the cracks than others. Some people who are more likely to go hungry, some people who are more likely to be cheated, some people who are more likely to lose everything, some people who are more likely to be abused. In the Bible, the standard way to refer to such people is as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” (That last is translated in a lot of different ways; sometimes it’s ‘alien,’ sometimes it’s ‘foreigner,’ but it’s always someone not-from-here, an outsider.) See, in those days, if you didn’t have an adult male member of the community advocating for you, you would find it hard to do business, own property, farm, buy or sell anything. If you didn’t have an adult man of the tribe speaking up for you, things could get pretty dire pretty fast. So widows and orphans pretty often had bad things happen to them. So did people who didn’t have family ties in the area.
And this extra vulnerability is wrong. Nobody should be abused; nobody should be abandoned; nobody should go hungry; nobody should be treated badly or exploited. So the laws God gave Moses spend a lot of time talking about vulnerable people, and how we should always be careful to see that they are treated well and get what they need to live. It’s not that God loves the widow, the orphan, and the stranger more than he loves rich people with big families. It’s that rich people with big families are a lot less likely to need help and support. Or, at least, when they need that help and support, rich people with big families can usually either buy it or get it from their family. A poor widow, or an orphan, or a stranger with few ties to the community? They slip through the cracks really easily. So, God says, we need to be careful to see that they don’t. We need to be careful to see that they have what they need and are taken care of even if it costs us time and money. We should always be on the lookout to see if vulnerable people need to be helped or protected, God tells us again and again in the laws of Moses. And it’s not just about individuals choosing to be generous. God tells us to set up our society in such a way that there are systems in place to take care of these vulnerable people. The details of those systems in the Laws of Moses wouldn’t work for us today, because our society is so different. But the basic principle remains. We need to take care of vulnerable people.
Back to the vulnerable person in our Gospel reading, the widow who has nothing but two coins worth less than a penny, who is so generous with the pittance that she has. Jesus sees her. But nobody else seems to. All those prominent scribes, who make such a show of piety and devotion to God? All the rich people giving to the Temple? None of them notice her. Not one. The laws of Moses say they should be looking for such people and making sure they receive the help they need. I’m sure everyone there gave lip service to helping those in need. After all, they’re at the Temple! They are the Biblical equivalent of good, faithful, churchgoing people. They are the ones who read Scripture and pray a lot and give to support God’s ministry. If anyone in their society is going to know God’s law and put it into practice, it should be them. If anyone in their city is going to see someone who has slipped through society’s cracks as this widow has, it should be them. And they don’t see her. They ignore her. They may even be judging her for having such a paltry gift instead of their large donations.
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 and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” And what does he see next, but a widow in dire, desperate poverty. We don’t know why she is in such straits. We don’t know how family bonds and social structures failed that she is left with so little. We don’t know what the scribes might have done—or failed to do—that contributed to her situation. We don’t know if the scribes ‘devoured her house’ as Jesus condemns them for doing just a few verses earlier, or if it was just a run of bad luck, or even bad decisions on her part. We know two things: first, she has a spirit of grace and generosity that is boundless and stunning. And second, the people of God who should be looking out for people like her, are failing.
Like the scribes and others Jesus saw that day, we are good, faithful, churchgoing people. And, like the scribes and others at the Temple, we live in a society where sometimes people fall through the cracks. Where some people go hungry even though we have more than enough food. Where some people are homeless even though we have more than enough buildings to house them in. Where some people are sick or disabled and can’t afford medical care. Where some people are abused or exploited. Where some people are alone and friendless even in the midst of a crowd. And, like those scribes and others, it is really easy to do nothing. It’s easy to give just enough to make ourselves feel good, even when we are capable of so much more. It’s easy to stand back and let the system and greedy people take advantage of those with little power and few connections. It’s easy to ignore vulnerable people, and let them slip through the cracks, and shrug our shoulders and say that’s just the way the world works. But that’s not what God calls us to do. That’s not the kind of society God calls us to create. May we see the vulnerable in our midst, and work to create a society where nobody is forgotten or destitute. And thanks be to God for all the people who give of their time and money to help those in need.