A sermon, based on Mark 12.38-44, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018
The poor widow. O’er the years, the subject of countless stewardship sermons and, depending on the perceived necessity for a stern message to hesitant givers, stewardship lectures about the sacrificial giving that delights the heart of God.
And great her sacrifice! “Many rich people,” giving from their abundance only a fraction of their material worth, “put in large sums.” The widow, from her scarcity, her poverty, “put in two small copper coins.” Sixty-four such coins added up to a denarius; a day’s wage. The widow only had .03% of what was required to live for a day. Nevertheless, giving “everything she had, all she had to live on,” she walked away from the temple treasury literally penniless!
Whenever, if ever the message about our giving would be preached and taught at this degree of fullest sacrifice, doubtless, it would be hard to hear and harder, impossible to heed. Who can live, survive on nothing? Whatever our financial situations, each of us possesses resources to satisfy our needs and to gratify our desires. And none of us can afford or would desire to sacrifice everything for anything! Anyone! Even Jesus! Thus, we might dismiss our poor widowed sister as mindlessly, madly self-sacrificial.
Or, perhaps, not.
Jesus is in Jerusalem. The place where he will face not his do-or-die, but rather his do-and-die moment, his final confrontation with the authorities who reject his proclamation of the kingdom of God. That confrontation is the context of his scathing condemnation of the scribes.
Here, Jesus acts as a prophet. Not, as commonly understood, foretelling the future, but rather forth-telling, declaring God’s word. According to an old saying: God speaks into the prophet’s ear and from the prophet’s mouth that word comes. As it is given, it is spoken. As God speaks, the prophet repeats (as distinct from preachers whose sermons are scripture-based interpretative expressions of ancient words for contemporary times). In short, a prophet declares God’s will, which is bad news, for the people have forgotten it and need to be reminded of it; yet it is also good news, for God, in love, refusing to forsake wayward people, desires to declare anew the divine will.
The scribes, the experts in God’s Law, represent the religious institution of the Temple. As all institutions over time, its focus is the preservation of its power and privilege. This conflicts with the gospel that Jesus proclaims of God’s love and justice for all, thus, a life in which greatness is self-sacrificial service, in which the last in the world’s eyes are the first in God’s sight, and in which the neediest, like widows and children, are granted the highest regard and the greatest care.
Jesus condemns the scribes – surely, not all, but, as surely, those – who “walk around in long robes” (the outward sign of their social rank and role), who “have the best seats in the synagogues and…at banquets” (affirmations of their status), and who “devour widows’ houses,” compelling this poor widow to contribute all she had and, thus, inevitably soon to lose her home.
This poor widow, as a self-sacrificial, nay, a life-sacrificial giver is a symbol of institutional robbery and systemic victimization. She is a sign of what happens when an organization, whether secular or religious, whether governmental, educational, social, commercial, or ecclesial, in its worldly self-interest sacrifices every ideal, sacrifices everyone for the sake of its preservation.
Therefore, in our day and time, I hear Jesus’ declaration unto the scribes as a prophetic word to us as Christians and to the church at large. Jesus calls us to examine our hearts.
Are we, in our Christian living, more concerned about the preservation of our blessings and benefits and less, little about our service for our sisters and brothers of greater need?
Are we, as a congregation, more concerned about what we derive from our existence as a community of faith and less, little about our service to and in our larger Laurens community?
I leave us with these questions because I cannot answer for us, but only for me. Even more importantly, I leave us with these questions, for Jesus calls each and all of us to answer.
Illustration: The Widow’s Mite, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot depicts Jesus (left), dressed in white and seated with some of his disciples, offering his commentary as the poor widow, her child in her arms, having made her contribution, walks away from the Temple treasury whilst others (right) look on her with disdain and still others (middle, rear) make their larger offerings.