Devouring Widow’s Houses: A Few Questions About the Widow’s Mite

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.

Amen.

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Your Father’s good pleasure

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19), August 11, 2013

Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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.

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”  Raise your hand if that was your first thought when you heard Jesus say “Sell your possessions and give alms.”  Sell everything and give it to the poor?  Really?  That’s not a very popular thing to say in America, where we love our possessions. And I doubt it was very popular in Jesus day, either.  We accumulate stuff.  It seems no matter how much stuff we already have, pretty soon there’s something else we have to have.  We love money, too—it’s how we get more stuff, and it’s how we keep score.  It’s how we tell who’s important and who’s not.  Sell it all and give it away?  Really?

When you start to look at the reasons behind our dependence on money and possessions, it often comes down to fear.  We’re afraid of not having enough.  We’re afraid if we don’t get it now, the price will have gone up when we need it.  We’re afraid of what people will think of us if we don’t have the latest model.  There was a study done once of rich people, and it found that people with a lot of money and no debt were, on average, just as afraid of not having enough money as poor people were.  In fact, they were sometimes more afraid!  So here Jesus is, telling us to give up our money and our stuff and give them away?  It’s no wonder that many preachers choose to follow Peter’s lead on this text and others like it and find a way to explain why it doesn’t apply to them and their congregation.  They’re afraid of what might happen if they take it seriously.

But notice how our lesson starts out.  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Do not be afraid—the same thing the angels almost always start out with when they come to bring messages from God.  And Jesus also says “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  That’s the heart of the Gospel, right there.  Or, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”  That is the place where our relationship with God starts—God loves us and the whole world so much that God was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ.  We have been given the promise of the kingdom, the promise of a world where there is no evil, where no one goes hungry, where no one is sick, where no one hurts anyone else.  A world where all our sorrows and our ills are healed, and we are whole and filled with joy.  A world where the master—our Lord God—bends down to serve us out of love.  That is what we have been promised in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We can’t create God’s kingdom on our own; it can only come as a gift from God.  And God has promised it to us because he loves us, and because that’s the kind of life God wants us to live.  That kingdom will come when Christ comes again.

There is nothing we could ever do to earn God’s love and forgiveness; nothing we could do to be worthy of it.  When Jesus says “Store up treasure in heaven!” he isn’t saying “Do good deeds so you can buy forgiveness from me.”  What Jesus means is, “I love you and have already given you a place in my kingdom.  It’s a much nicer place than this rat race you’re trapped in, and all the things like money and power and all your possessions won’t be worth anything in my kingdom.  Why not get out of the rat race?  Why not focus on what you have that’s a sure bet—a place in my kingdom—rather than on stuff that’s going to rot and decay and get stolen.”

So when Jesus starts telling us to do things like give away all our possessions, it’s not a test.  Jesus isn’t saying that the only way to get to heaven is to condemn ourselves to poverty.  When he gives us a warning to be ready, there is no sinister undertone implying that if we aren’t ready in the right way, we won’t get to heaven.  Instead, it’s an invitation to live as God’s people.  It’s an invitation to take salvation seriously.  It’s an invitation to live like the kingdom were already here.  Because we have been saved, we should act like it.  We should love God, and wait for his coming, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  And in this world where poor people have fewer opportunities than rich people, in this world where medical bills can wipe out a family’s whole life, in this world where some people go hungry and others don’t have a safe place to live, part of loving your neighbor is helping those in need.

In God’s kingdom, nobody will go hungry.  So we should feed the hungry.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will be sick, so we should heal those who are sick or injured.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will hurt anyone, so we should stop doing things that hurt people.  In God’s kingdom, there will be justice for all, so we should work to make sure everyone has justice here.  In God’s kingdom, everyone will have a safe place to live, so we should help people have safe places to live.  And if that takes money, well, everything that we have comes from God, so we are spending what God has given us to take care of God’s people.  Whenever we feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the lonely, work for justice, we are waiting for God’s kingdom to come.  We are looking forward to the day when our Master returns.  We are looking forward to the day when the promise of salvation becomes a reality.  We are preparing for what life will be like on that day.

In the meantime, we don’t need to be afraid.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll miss out on the kingdom; we don’t have to be afraid that we aren’t good enough to be saved.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll run out of money or possessions and calamity will strike.  We don’t have to be afraid of what life will bring, because we know that God is with us and that God’s kingdom will come.  Now, we don’t live in that kingdom yet.  We don’t live in that world of milk and honey, that land where all people are welcome and happy and whole and good.  So things in this life won’t always be good.  There will be hard times.  There will be times of wandering in the wilderness.  There will be times of grief and pain and loss.  None of the people in the Bible had an easy life, not Abraham and Sarah, not Moses and the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, not the prophets, not Jesus.  And I’m sure you all know many good, faithful Christians whose lives have been hard, and sometimes heart-breaking.  I know some good and faithful Christians who have lost everything they had—possessions, but even more importantly, they lost loved ones.

But even in the midst of their loss, God was with them.  Even when it seemed like there was no hope, God’s promise stood firm.  God has never broken a promise, and God will not break the promises God has made to us.  God promised Abraham and Sarah a child, and God gave them a child and grandchildren and literally millions of descendants.  God promised Moses and the Hebrew slaves freedom, and they walked out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  God promises us that we are saved, that we are God’s own beloved children, and that God’s kingdom is near.  God has never broken a promise, and God never will.

So what do we have to be afraid of?  Why do we need to hoard possessions and money and ignore the needs of those around us?  Why do we get so caught up in the cares of life that we forget whose people we are and where our home really is?  We are the children of God, and God’s promises are sure.  We look forward to the kingdom and the life God has promised us.  May God help free us from our fears to live in the light of that promise.

Amen.