Sermon: Is the poor widow a good example or an awful warning?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
7th of November, 2021

Mark 12:38-44

I know what I should do with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark. I should preach about the importance and imperative of giving, even if the amount that one can give is small, with the widow in today’s story as a model. I should say that one of the greatest joys I get from being in fulltime employment is being able to give money away – which is true. I should talk about the psychological studies that have found that giving makes us happy – and there are many. I should mention that over this past lockdown I donated money to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre whenever I felt frustrated and sad and received an immediate dopamine hit – which I did. I should affirm that the charity of the impoverished widows among us is worth more than the philanthropy of the Andrew Forrests and Frank Lowys and Gina Rineharts who merely give away millions from their billions – which I am sure is right. If I preached that sermon we could all pat ourselves on the back, or possibly be inspired to give a little more if we do not yet donate enough to notice it, and end the service feeling satisfied.

However Jesus did not live his life nor Mark write his gospel so that we in twenty-first century Australia could congratulate ourselves on our generosity. Everything I have said about giving is true, but it is unlikely to have been why Jesus pointed out the widow’s action to his disciples. Today I am going to give you two different and contradictory interpretations of the story of the widow with the least coins. I do not know which reading is correct, and I suspect that we cannot know because we are reading the story millennia after it was written on the other side of the world from the community for which Mark wrote. I will leave the choice between these two understandings up to you.

The first interpretation of today’s passage looks at what was happening immediately before the poor widow made her offering. We heard it in the reading: Jesus tells the large crowd gathered around him in the temple to ‘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.’

We are not told how the scribes devour widow’s houses. Maybe they use undue influence to convince the widows to let them manage their property. Or it could be that they use fine-sounding religious language to encourage the widows to give all they have to the temple. If the second suggestion is the case, then when Jesus subsequently comments that the widow ‘out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on,’ rather than praising the widow he’s showing an immediate example of the religious institution taking away a poor widow’s last penny.

Imagine if this were not a story in the Bible. Imagine if in real life we saw a poor widow giving the very last of her money to religion. My immediate response would be that any group that demanded someone’s last penny would be a cult. If any of us read, heard, or saw a news story about someone giving everything they had to a church, we would be appalled. So why should we imagine that Jesus would be any different? We know that Jesus encouraged extravagant acts that made no financial sense, like the gift of the woman who anointed him with precious perfume. But we also know that he came bringing life in abundance and preaching good news to the poor.

There is no invitation in this story for the disciples or us to imitate the widow. There is no statement that Jesus looked on her and loved her; no command to go and do likewise; no remark that she is not far from the kingdom. Jesus simply says that the widow with her two small coins gave more than the rich with their large sums, and he gives his reason for making that statement.

The widow’s religious thinking, her belief that it is good and right for her to give all she has to the temple treasury, has accomplished the very thing that Jesus just accused the scribes of doing. She now has nothing to live on; her house has been devoured. If we read the story this way, then Jesus’ attitude to the widow’s gift is disapproval rather than admiration. The story is not about the difference between arrogant scribes and poor widows, or about the relative value of the gifts of the rich and the poor. Instead, it is an example of the ways that the official religion of the time oppressed the poorest members of society.

Following this story, in the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel, there is a discussion between Jesus and his disciples about the temple. One of the disciples says of the temple: ‘Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ And Jesus says to him: ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2) The gift of the widow to the temple treasury is not simply misguided; the final irony is that it is also a waste.

That is one reading of the story of the poor widow. Jesus, who came to bring good news to the poor, is not pointing out the widow to the disciples as a virtuous example to be imitated. Instead he is reminding them that those who follow his way are not to take from the poor but to provide for them. But there is another reading.

If we look at the story of the poor widow not simply in the context of Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes, but in its broader context in the Gospel, the actions of the poor widow may be hinting at what Jesus himself is about to do. Jesus is teaching in the temple during his last days on earth. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph; cleansed the temple; and had a series of interactions with the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders in which they have tried to trick him and Jesus, at least according to Mark, has successfully confounded them. Immediately after today’s story Jesus warns his followers about the coming apocalypse, and then Mark begins the story of the Passion. Jesus is about to give up his life for humanity. He describes the woman giving ‘all she had to live on’ but this could also be translated as ‘her entire life’. She is doing what Jesus will do.

Before Jesus entered Jerusalem, he had an encounter with a man who asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to sell what he had and give the money to the poor, and we are told that the man ‘was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions’. (Mark 10:22) What the rich man was unable to do the poor widow has done. If we read the story this way, with the poor widow’s gift as a forerunner of Jesus’ crucifixion, we see her donation as showing her absolute trust in the God she knows as the protector of widows and orphans. She has given up her livelihood and inherited eternal life, in the same way that Jesus will take up his cross and lose his life and be raised from death.

Like the poor widow Jesus will give up all that he has, his entire life, and like her, he will give it up for something that objectively does not deserve his gift. The poor widow gives money into the treasury of a temple that will soon be destroyed. Jesus gives up his life for us, for humanity, in all our messiness and banality. As the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome: ‘while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. (Romans 5:6-8) This is at the core of the Christian faith; that even though we did not deserve it God incarnate in Jesus was willing to die for us out of love for us. Whatever we think that means, whether we think that Jesus’ death was an act of solidarity with humanity or an atonement for sin, we are certain it was for us.

The temple was destroyed; the widow’s gift was wasted. Jesus died for humanity; it is up to us to honour his gift and ensure that it is not wasted. Whether Jesus intended the poor widow to be an example for us to imitate, or a warning of how far religion goes wrong when it abuses the poor, we do know how Jesus wants us to live. We are given the message again and again through the gospels. We are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who gave everything he had, his entire life, for us. We are to receive this gift from him and to pass it on by the ways in which we live for others. May our lives make a difference in the world, as Jesus has made a difference in our lives. Amen.

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