Sermon November 7 Mark 12:38-42 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Now consider the widow and how she gives. Little did she know that day that she'd go down in history – nameless but renowned – as without a doubt the greatest example of willing and generous giving, of readiness to make a sacrifice as an expression of love for God and neighbour, in the entire bible.
The Widow and her Widow’s Mite – it can be spelled MITE and it’s about how small her offering was but still how extremely generous because she had so little give, or it can be spelled MIGHT and it reminds us that true strength is always in the amount of generosity of spirit, and not in the actual amount.
And either way, this Widow is awesome. She’s just an amazing and wonderful and heart-warming example of love for God and neighbour as sacrifice. Giving up what she has, what she needs, as an act of love for others.
She’s the perfect embodiment of selfless generosity. But not only that, she's the perfect example of the very readiness to make sacrifices, to do the hard things, that WE'RE being called to now as Canadians and Christians – as what loving our neighbour looks like in a poverty crisis and a climate crisis.
The only thing is -- it really wasn’t what Jesus was trying to get his disciples to notice, when he called their attention to her in the passage we just heard. Because he was NOT trying to preach to them a sermon on sacrifice and generosity in which she was the ultimate heroine. That wasn’t his point at all. In fact, it was kind of the opposite of his point.
If we picture the scene, Jesus and the disciples are sitting in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem. And it would have been crowded, lots of people coming and going, and in that climate – dry and hot – and at that time -- with all the crowds -- instead of all the official temple-y stuff all happening inside the actual temple, lots of the official temple-y business and meetings and interactions would happen OUTSIDE. In that courtyard. Where Jesus and the disciples are sitting.
So, as Jesus points out, there are temple scribes striding about looking terribly impressive. Noting who’s coming in to worship during the festival, enjoying parading around in the long robes that proclaim their importance, meeting with one another discussing important business… And presumably button-holing everyone they see with long impressive prayers evoking their hopes of each person’s deep-pocketed generosity, before they steer them unsubtly in the direction of the donation box.
It’d be pretty hard to escape them, one imagines, but that’s not what gets Jesus angry about them. What gets Jesus angry about them isn’t what they’re doing at that particular moment, in the courtyard of the temple. What gets Jesus angry about them is what they apparently do the rest of the time.
Which he describes briefly but fairly eloquently as “devouring widows houses”. It could be anything from charging extraordinary burial fees to women when their husbands have died, to guilting them into special donations for prayers while the husband was sick or now that he’s passed, to even convincing them that the holiest thing a woman could do in widowhood was to leave all her assets to the temple and go live with one of her children.
Any one of those things, and more. Jesus has obviously seen ample evidence, maybe in the experience of his own mother, who seems to have been widowed by this time, that the scribes of the temple are notorious in this regard. They “devour widows houses”. They take advantage of these women at their most vulnerable time, and Jesus is appalled by them.
Just as one of the things that appalled Martin Luther and helped fuel the outrage that made him push for Reformation in the church, was the practice of guilting people into paying for special masses in order to flip a loved one who had died out of Purgatory and up into Heaven. It’s that kind of emotional manipulation of people in a time of grief and loss, when they’re really vulnerable, that infuriated Martin Luther just as much as any of the finer theological points he ever argued.
And it infuriates Jesus too. That’s why he calls the disciples’ attention to them, to the scribes, parading around impressively. That’s why he tells them to ‘beware’ of these men in fine robes. Because they are NOT impressive. They devour widows’ houses, they exploit the vulnerable at their weakest moment, for financial gain. They are, in fact, what’s wrong with the whole temple enterprise as it stands. They’re what’s broken in the whole religious system of the time. They’re part of the reason Jesus has turned up! They infuriate him. He’s appalled by them. And he wants the disciples to understand why.
And then, not a moment later, just after the scribes stride by, and with perfect timing, as though it was meant to be, here then comes the ultimate example, for Jesus, of what these scribes have wrought. A widow who has nearly nothing at all, and she’s brought it to the temple, and she hands it over. Two little coins, adding up to a penny. Everything she had to live on. And she hands it over.
Jesus doesn’t point her out to the disciples because he wants her to be an example. He doesn’t say to them, as he does so often in other circumstances, go and do likewise. Jesus points her out to the disciples in his outrage. He’s just told them to beware of the scribes who devour the widow’s houses, and now look! Look at this widow coming now, he’s saying to them. This is what happens when vulnerability is exploited. This is what these scribes have wrought. A widow who has next to nothing is putting her last two coins in the offering plate! Look at that, Jesus says to his disciples. Do you see it?
Because sure, it could be an expression of genuine heartfelt complete and utter trust in God’s goodness to see her through what will now be abject poverty, and (if she’s lucky) total dependence on any children she may have had – but seriously? Any system that allows, that encourages, that depends on, someone offering everything she has, all she has to live on, because it’s that important that she make an offering? Like there's no other way to show her love for God and neighbour?
Is a system that is profoundly wrong. And Jesus, in his frustration and his outrage, needs his disciples to understand that. To understand HIM when he says ENOUGH.
Enough with the message that devotion to God equals giving money to the temple, and enough with it especially when it’s aimed at the poorest of the poor. Enough with that kind of exploitation of the vulnerable, that emotional manipulation, that has clearly gone into building up this temple they’re standing in front of – and, notably, just a few verses later, Jesus reminds the disciples how easily the whole place could topple down around their ears –
And so enough with that kind of messaging, with the guilting of the vulnerable, and the manipulating of the poor, and the emotional blackmailing of everyone else. It’s built up a system that’s benefiting some, in their fine robes, with the best seats at the table, on the backs of others. This widow has put her last two coins in the plate because she's learned it’s that important that she make an offering. To show her devotion to God. And if that’s what it takes to keep this system functioning, Jesus is saying to the disciples, enough.
The widow IS an example of deep and selfless generosity. But Jesus is not preaching a stewardship sermon, and that’s not what she’s an example of here. What she’s an example of here is just how seriously wrong things have become, when the livelihood and life of a poor widow – a real person, beloved by God -- is considered expendable in service of a system that -- in theory, at least -- is meant to be about devotion to God. For whom the most important thing actually should be that she's cared for in her poverty and vulnerability.
It makes Jesus outraged, it makes him frustrated – remember, this piece of the story comes right before he turns over all the tables of the moneychangers! But most of all, I think, it probably just makes him sad. That things have become so broken.
Which I can understand. Because more than anything, on Remembrance Day, that’s how I feel. Sad for the people that fought and are still fighting. Sad for those who didn’t return, or who returned seriously injured and changed forever. Sad for their families, for the communities that lost them.
But mostly just so sad because every name on the Honour Roll and every veteran that walks by on parade is not just a person their own self, who’s gone through an experience I can’t even imagine -- but each and every one of them is also a reminder that we remain so profoundly broken as a human family that the system we persist in, the way we are with one another, means that sometimes people’s lives – real people, beloved by God – become expendable. Sometimes, as a human family, we give our children guns so they can kill each other. It’s outrageous. It’s almost bizarre.
So as strange as it may seem, it seems to me that how Jesus felt that day when he saw what the scribes had wrought – when he saw characterized as 'a beautiful sacrifice made in love' an actual widow handing over her last two coins, and they were only worth a penny –
In a way, I think, it’s a bit like the feeling of Remembrance Day. What have we as a human family wrought? We hear the names on the honour roll, we see the parade of veterans walk by, and every single one of them is a crystallization of our collective brokenness. Of our collective incapacity to find a way to live together on this planet without sometimes giving our children guns so they can kill each other. And until we find a way to heal that brokenness, we need to look it in the eye. We need to stand up and honour with our attention every single one of them we’ve ever sent into that catastrophe.
Because how can we show our devotion to God? By really making it mean something when we say ‘never again’. Amen.