Adam J. Copeland
Nov. 8, 2009
The Widow’s Mite or Jesus’ Sight?
For some of you, today’s gospel passage might have sounded a bit funny. It’s one of those classic passages in the King James Version: “And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.” The passage, still today, is often called “The Widow’s Mite” even though many of us wouldn’t know a mite if we saw one.
What’s a “mite”? Well, I had to check, but found that a mite is something small — often a coin, or a child, or an animal. According to the KJV, the widow gave “two mites,” which together make one farthing. A farthing was an old British coin taken out of circulation forty years ago. So, though iconic, the “widow’s mite” translation doesn’t even make sense in Britain any more!
The NRSV reads: “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” But no matter what translation we use, the point is clear: the widow was poor, dirt poor, and she gave all she had — two tiny coins — to the treasury of the Temple.
I’m told we haven’t conducted a Stewardship Campaign here for several years. Instead, the session models the next year’s budget on the previous year and trusts the congregation will come through. But many churches, around this time of year, are eagerly awaiting the results of stewardship drives. And many a preacher out there, I’m sure, read the story of the Widow’s Mite with a certain glee this week.
Fantastic, a story that’s clearly about sacrificial giving to the church. The widow only had two coins, and she gave them both. What a fantastic message for stewardship season! Just ask: what would the widow do and sign those pledge cards. Man, some sermons just preach themselves.
If we were in the midst of a stewardship campaign, I admit, I’d be sorely tempted to preach a similar sermon. But we’re not, and I’m not going to.
Such a simplistic sermon (and reading of the text) does not do justice to the word. As usually happens, God is up to something here a bit more tricky, more compelling, and more extreme than we might first imagine. The story of the widow’s mite calls all authority into question until the reader is left with nothing but God and God’s promises.
For several chapters before today’s reading, Jesus repeatedly connects the Temple with corruption. He goes to the Temple and throws out all those selling and buying good inside God’s house. Next Jesus tells a few parables against the scribes and the Pharisees, the upholders of Temple etiquette. Then, sitting in the Temple himself, Jesus begins the passage we read today.
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 the banquets!
The story about the widow’s mite continues, and Jesus then leaves the Temple and says that it’s going to be destroyed. The great Temple in Jerusalem, the center of the faith, destroyed. And a few years later, it was.
That’s the problem with the traditional reading of our story today. Jesus doesn’t praise the widow for giving the mite — though it’d make us feel better if he did. No, Jesus, in the next few verses, says that the Temple she just gave to will be destroyed. What sort of stewardship drive is that?
A few years ago I spent a year working as an Assistant Minister in the Church of Scotland. Now the Church of Scotland is a rapidly changing denomination; or as some say, “a rapidly dying institution.” Churches are being closed left and right.
One day, I visited an American friend serving a downtown church in a neighboring small town. We got to swapping stories about our impressions of our congregations, and he told me that the day before, he worked late at the church and decided to get supper at the Fish and Chip shop downtown. (Fish and Chips are sort of the go-to fast food meal in Scotland, and they’re delicious.) Anyways, it was a small town and he just walked across the courtyard to get from the church to the shop. The shop wasn’t more than fifty yards from the church.
Well, an American wearing a clergy collar stuck out like a sore thumb in that tiny Fish and Chip shop, so the owner struck up a conversation with my friend.
“So what brings you to our town?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m working with the church.” my friend said.
“The church right there, right out the widow.”
“Really? That church? I had no idea it was even still open.”
My friend took his meal to go, astonished. That church had stood there for hundreds of years, but now it was so quiet, so archaic that the shop owner fifty yards away didn’t even know it was open. That church had lost its vision. It was missing a mission and it was close to death.
In the surrounding verses of our text this morning, Jesus doesn’t just call the Temple into question, he attacks the Temple leaders as well. “Beware of the scribes,” he says, “they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Now of course the scribes weren’t literally “devouring” houses — I don’t think ginger bread houses even existed yet. “Houses” refers to the widows’ inheritance and resources; the scribes were inducing the widows to give their meager resources to the Temple [see The New Oxford Annotated Bible note]. Jesus is not very happy with these scribes in their fancy robes who rob the poor. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” he says.
So Jesus’ undercuts the Temple, the center of the Jewish religion at the time. And Jesus says the scribes rip-off the poor. About now we’re thinking, “come-on Jesus, give us something good here” give us an uplifting message for stewardship season.
It’d be nice to think Jesus cracked on the scribes, insulted the Temple, and raised up the great example in the widow. But the text doesn’t actually say that. It’d be a great comfort if it did. It’d make a great stewardship sermon, but that’s now what Jesus is up to here.
When Jesus tells the story of the widow giving her only two pennies, he never actually praises her. He never actually makes a value judgement over her great sacrifice. He just says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those contributing to the treasury.” Sure, she gave out of her poverty, they out of their wealth. But Jesus never says “be like her,” he just says don’t be like the scribes.
Have you ever been really broken down. I mean, truly, broken down until there’s nothing left of you? I’ll be honest: I haven’t, so I’m not quite sure about this. But I’ve been thinking this week, with the horrible shooting at Fort Hood and with Veterans Day approaching, about the military. I’ve heard the challenges of boot camp described as breaking one down, chiseling one away until you’re at base and then building you back up in a new way, as a solider.
I think that’s what the Word does today, breaks us down. Don’t put your trust in the Temple — we can live with that. Don’t put your trust in showy religious leaders — that’s ok too. But then this old widow gives her all to that corrupt institution, and Jesus doesn’t praise the act, he just says it like it is.
Her money, all her money, is given to corruption. She has nothing to live on and what she did have will only feed the fat cats in charge. The widow isn’t an example of good giving, she’s an age-old example of being duped. She’s the modern day equivalent of a senior who’s been tricked into giving out her bank account information to a criminal. She’s the widow who gave all she had to a charity that wasn’t a charity at all, just a front for some swindler with a Swiss bank account.
So what’s left? Jesus broke us down, what’s to build us back up here? What is the good news in this now disturbing text?
Jesus noticed her. Jesus was hanging at the Temple and hundreds were bringing their money forward, the rich, the powerful, the prestigious. The ones with the new cars, the nice shoes, the fancy phones they came forward to place their offering in the plate and Jesus noticed her. The widow. The woman without an income who, in that society, was worth absolutely nothing. Jesus noticed her.
Jesus is always doing that: talking to the prostitute, being kind to the foreigner, welcoming the children. Jesus doesn’t give a lick about power and prestige, he’s about caring for the vulnerable. That’s what he ultimately gives his life for: the vulnerable, the corrupt and condemned, for us, for all of humanity.
That church in Memphis that I mentioned in the Children’s Sermon must be thousands of miles from nearest Fish and Chip shop, but they’re being noticed nationally because they notice those who Jesus did. Liberation Community Church’s motto is “Building a Church Without Walls” and so, they welcome all — the alcoholics and drug addicts, the homeless and the gamblers. It’s not a wealthy congregation, they have under 100 members, but they run an after school program serving 25 kids a day. They host job training sessions, a summer camp, and legal services. They welcome single mothers and orphans, and if you walk by their church, you know it’s not closed. No way: you notice them, because they notice those whom Jesus noticed: the vulnerable.
This old passage on the widow’s mite doesn’t lend itself to a simple stewardship sermon. No, Jesus is up to much more. Take notice.