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 A Widow's Might

Sermon - 11/11/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 12:38-44

I'd like to share with you the story from the Gospel of Mark. The second half of this story is very familiar, and it's found in the 12th chapter, verses 38-44. You may want to open that up in your pew Bible, as I'm going to refer to a few things here & there throughout this section of Mark that we'll take a look at. It begins:

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ 


You may know this story as the Widow's Mite, right? Coming from the old-English word, not a Hebrew or Jewish or Palestinian coinage. A Mite was a coin in the realm of England during the time when the King James version Bible was created. It was the smallest coin of their realm, worth about half of a penny, and so used for this translation. Mite is M-I-T-E, by the way, the bulletin is correct, you'll notice the sermon title is A Widow's "Might", we'll get to that later.

But, I suppose there might be a few people thinking this a rather odd passage to use on the Sunday after we have dedicated our estimates of giving for the year. You're used to hearing this passage read during so-called stewardship season, when we focus our attention on what we give and what we pledge, and the estimates we make.

So, isn't the whole point of this story to inspire us by the faithfulness and the trust of this widow who put in everything she had. Whereas we just give out of our abundance, right? If only we had more dedicated souls like this widow. . . . . do you know what we would have? If we had 100 such widows, we'd have $1 :) Do the math :)

So I want to change the way we think about this story. Not only do I think that there's a different way to read this, but that that kind of traditional interpretation is exactly what Jesus is refuting. And once we see what Jesus is doing in the temple, it raises a lot of questions about what we do in the church, which I hope that we will take very seriously. So let's get on with it.

First thing I want to do, and why I asked you to open your Bibles, is that I want to take note of the entire literary context in which this occurs -- the story, as it's told. You'll remember parts of the story, I know, because the whole context here is the conflict Jesus has with the religious authorities, from the moment he comes into Jerusalem. That begins in chapter 11, you remember that triumphant entry of Jesus into the city and all the shouts of Hosanna and everything. And what's the first thing Jesus does? He cleanses the Temple, over-turning the money-changers' tables. And then Jesus says, in verse 17:

Quoting from Isaiah: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, you have made it a den of robbers". Now, remember that, as in the very next verse we are told the Chief Priest and the Scribes begin this plot to kill Jesus because of what he has done.

Then, skip ahead a little bit, a little bit later, the next day apparently, in verse 27, still in Chapter 11: "The chief priests and the scribes and the elders began to question his authority". And they put a series of questions to Jesus. First the Pharisees, and the Herodians tried to entrap him with their trick question, and then the Sadducees tried to entrap him with their trick question, and then in chapter 12 (I'm skipping through a bunch here), one of the scribes is impressed with the way he responds to these trick questions (this guy is a pretty smart guy), and so he asks him what appears to be a serious question about which is the greatest commandment. The point here is it's one of the scribes -- he kind of stands out from the rest, in contrast to the rest.

And then in verse 35 in chapter 12, Jesus asks a question: "How can the scribes say the Messiah is the son of David when David calls him Lord?". So it's his own trick question, and they can't answer it. Then we get to verse 38, and we are told to beware of the scribes. Part of what's interesting here is the chief priests and the elders have kind of dropped out, and now the focus is on the scribes, who are targeted as the legal scholars who use the law and their interpretation of it to abuse their place of privilege and to take advantage of the poor. They are the ones who have turned God's house into a den of robbers, in other words. So that's the first point.

Secondly, note when Jesus goes into the Temple on this trip, he sits opposite the treasury, to watch people as they come in and put in their offerings. Now, one of the things you have to know, is that in the Jewish tradition, you don't take money into the Synagogue or into the Temple. I learned this the hard way, I was speaking at the synagogue a number of years ago here in Eugene, it was a full house, and I kind of made a joke out of it and said "You know, if this were a Christian church we'd take an offering". Everyone chuckled politely, and then afterwards someone took me aside (one of the members of the Synagogue) and informed me that they don't do that in their tradition because they don't bring their wallets into the Synagogue. Yeah, because that's profane, that's the secular world, and this is the place of the holy, the sacred. So we don't bring that into the Synagogue. Yeah, I didn't know that either :) So I learned.

So, in that good tradition, what if we took our offering at the door, right? Only let's follow this story, and let's dress someone up like Jesus and set him right there so he can watch everybody as they're putting in the offering, to see how much you put in. Do you know what would happen if we did that? Two things: one, giving would go up. Two, the preacher would be fired by the end of the week :) Nobody wants Jesus to be watching them every moment. And I would never do anything crass like that.

So instead I've had engraved on our offering plates a nice, helpful, inspiring slogan: "Remember, Jesus is watching you. First Christian Church, where guilt comes free but you don't" :)

See, that's the way we typically read this story. It's kind of like this big guilt-trip. Look at this poor widow, how much she has put in, now how much are you going to put in? Right? And I really don't believe that is the point. Because I do not believe in guilt-trips. It's bad psychology, it's bad theology.

So here is the point: the position of Jesus opposite the treasury is not about physical location and keeping an eye on you, it's about a philosophical orientation: Jesus is opposite the treasure. He is in opposition to that financial system that is taking advantage of the generosity of the poor. That's the point. It's turned it into a den of robbers, devouring the houses of the widows.

Third, immediately after this story, what happens? I see a couple people still have their Bible's open, good, good :) The prediction of the destruction of the Temple. They're admiring this nice beautiful building, you know, a bunch of hicks -- fisherman from Galilee, maybe they've never been to Jerusalem before -- they're admiring this beautiful, big, wonderful building, and Jesus says 'Guess what, it's all going to be torn down'. In other words, this Temple to which this widow has just given her last 2 cents.

So if Jesus knows what he's going to say at the beginning of chapter 13 (about the building being destroyed), why on earth does he praise the gift of this widow at the end of chapter 12 who has just given her last 2 cents to this beautiful building that's going to be torn down? Does that make any sense? It's kind of like being a Duck fan and betting on the opponent. It's heresy! Treason! And just plain stupid!

Now, fourth, read what Jesus says about this woman's contribution very carefully. And I ask you: is he actually praising her for giving what she is giving, or is he simply making a statement of fact? This woman has put in more than everyone else. Is that praise on her, or is that judgment on them? Or maybe it's both at the same time.

So here's my proposal (and this isn't anything unique with me, many scholars suggest this): that when Jesus accuses the scribes of devouring the widows houses (and note it's the widow's houses, not just the poor in general), he accuses them of devouring their houses, and we ask: "I wonder how they're doing that?" This is how they're doing that -- this is why the story appears immediately after this verse. This is the illustration, this is the proof of how they're devouring their houses by taking advantage of their faith and their generosity.

And so what we have traditionally praised as a shining example of faith and dedication is actually a damning condemnation of the abuse and injustice. And the irony is, it's the dedication of the widow that reveals the corruption of the scribes which in turn is the justification for the destruction of the Temple. They have turned it into a den of robbers. And so the widows mite is the proverbial straw on the camel's back. So we should instead speak of the widows "might" that breaks it, that brings the Temple down.

And please note, very important, this is not a judgment or a condemnation upon Judaism, upon the Jewish faith. But rather, specifically on the established religion participating in the injustice. And as I said at the beginning, it raises serious questions about us and the religious establishment of which we are part of, any establishment of which we are a part. Are there times when we, perhaps unwittingly, are part of such injustice?

So Thursday morning, 5 of us went up to Portland to the breakfast for the Oregon Faith Roundtable Against Hunger, for the Harvest of Hope award given to Phyllis Weare, she received this award for this Sunday breakfast we serve here at First Christian. Sylvia Hayes was the speaker, first lady of Oregon, who spoke about her own experience of poverty growing up, what it was like, and what she had to overcome. And now as the First Lady, of using that experience to make sure she has the Governor's attention, and indeed he has appointed her to head-up a task force on prosperity to make the relief of poverty one of the essential goals of the state of Oregon.

In the course of her remarks, she quoted Senator Robert F. Kennedy speaking at the Cleveland City Club on the impact of violence on society. It happened to be Good Friday of 1968 (she didn't say that, I happen to know that because of what she did say, that he was speaking on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and that was Maundy Thursday). So here is Senator Kennedy speaking on Good Friday, and consider then that context of this day after the assassination, and also of his own fate just a couple of months later. It makes his remarks just all the more stunning. In it, he laments all the lives lost to violence, and he asks:

"What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyrs cause has ever been stilled by his assassin's bullet. Some look for scapegoats, some look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul"

This is 44 years ago. I think about the sentencing this week of Mr. Laughner, and his attempt to assassinate Gabby Giffords, and just on and on and on. Well, this sermon is not about that kind of violence, this sermon is about poverty, so what's it have to do with that? And this is the part that Ms. Hayes quoted from Kennedy's address. He spoke of another kind of violence:

"Slower, but just as deadly. Destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference, inaction and slow decay. This is a violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter. To achieve true justice among our fellow citizens, we must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortune of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by hatred or revenge".

And then he spoke about all that we share, regardless of who we are. The chance to live out our lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment we can. And then he closes with this:

"Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and women. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us, and to become in our hearts brothers and sisters and countrymen once again".

Surely we can. So this is my take-away from Jesus' praise of this widow, and the condemnation of the scribes: that we have a lot to learn from the widows who have given their all. From the families who have lost their homes to foreclosure. From the unemployed who find no work. From the veteran who finds that they're of no more use to their country, who now lives on the streets. This is the violence of poverty.

Every child who goes hungry is a judgment on those who do not share from their abundance. Every person without shelter is a judgment on institutions concerned with their own success rather than the survival of others. Every family without a home is a judgment on society that takes no responsibility for the welfare of others. The vulnerable, the poor, the homeless and hungry reveal the cracks in societies' foundations, which left unchecked can only lead to the collapse of our most cherished institutions, including this one.

It's only if we end the violence of poverty that we can hope to find the peace of prosperity.

So yes, we aspire to be as faithful and dedicated as this widow. But may we never be as heartless as those who take advantage of her generosity. And so we learn from the widow, that her welfare is our good, her destiny is our own.

And that's why what we do here, you see, in this church, is so important. That's why our many ministries to assist those in need are so vital and your support so critical. And we call those things that we do, to feed the hungry or to clothe the naked, or to shelter the homeless, we call them outreach ministries, but maybe we should call them 'inside-outreach-ministries'.

For in helping others, we help ourselves more. In sharing the love of Jesus, we find more love for ourselves. In giving from our abundance, we are abundantly rewarded. In sharing from our poverty, we are greatly enriched.

May it so be.


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