Mark’s gospel is not strictly an historical or biographical account. Instead, Mark’s purpose is to provide a theological record of Jesus as the Christ who is the mighty worker of miracles rather than the great teacher. And yet in this chapter – chapter 12 – Mark offers challenge and opportunity as we met Jesus the teacher – Jesus, who:
• teaches through the parable of the vineyard
• who fearlessly stands up to the question of paying taxes to Caesar
• he discloses the truth of his coming resurrection
• and he both startles and comforts in his response regarding the greatest commandments.
When we rise to meet him here, we continue to discover the power of his teachings in our lives.
Today’s episode has a long history of being seen as a critique of showy religious practice held in tension with a display of faithful sacrifice. We must be careful here. It’s possible for us to condemn too quickly or honor without fully understanding. A quick reading of this passage might encourage us to deepen our repugnance of overly pious behavior rather than examine ways we may practice our own versions that are outwardly demonstrative rather than inward and truly humble.
Let’s also pause before we put the poor widow on a pedestal; and pausing, ask:
“Why do we honor sacrifice?” In today’s world, sacrifice often means something very different from an act of devotion or worship. It often means giving up more than we should – or, worse yet, less than we can. In the United States we ask those in the working class and those who are poor to bear the weight of tax cuts that benefit those who are wealthier. Just ask Warren Buffet to explain the difference in rates of taxation paid by him and his office’s receptionist. His rate’s about half.
Another of the uncomfortable truths about sacrifice is that it so often seems best when someone else is doing it. We breathlessly admire such figures as Mother Theresa, the families of slain or injured soldiers, and teachers in tough inner-city schools.
We put them on the pedestal with the poor widow, which serves to keep them distinct, and may also keep them distant from our daily lives. The focus may be on their giving and the inadequacy of ours, but nothing changes. This is one of the problems with putting things on pedestals – we don’t imagine ourselves alongside them because what they represent for us is often more than we can give, or more than we can imagine ourselves being capable of giving.
Perhaps a helpful way to think of the widow’s sacrifice is to not think of it as sacrifice. Perhaps it is, instead, an offering. A delicate and significant shift takes place in our perspective when we open such a door. We can mine this passage anew, and continue to discover the power Jesus’ teachings still have on our lives as we imagine ourselves in the story.
The two small copper coins represent more than money. They represent faith and belief, and how these must be lived out in our lives, in concrete acts and not solely by rituals that have, so often, lost the power to make a difference in our lives – a difference, through us, in the lives of the poor and marginalized – widows, orphans, resident aliens and the ever-increasing number of people who struggle to obtain stable housing and sustenance. In this city alone, the numbers are staggering.
Unfortunately, rituals are powerless when they do not call forth deep acts of faith from us, through our witness in the world. The widow’s mite represents faith-filled offering as found in presenting all of who we are, and all we hope to become, to God – for service in the world. Indeed, offering in this sense is something other than prayer, tithes, Eucharist or Communion. In the end, it’s not so much the isolated act of giving, or even receiving, as it is the act of being.
We may begin by presenting ourselves – all of who we are – to God in this Communion meal. And when we can do so, we’re made able to take the grace and hope we find in the wine and bread, and make it live in our lives in ways that not only sustain us, but model for others the enormous power of offering all of who we are to the rest of creation.
But it’s not something we can do at arm’s length. It’s personal. Intimate. Yet making unsung and positive impact in the lives of those less fortunate. Offering all of who we are to the rest of creation is valuable. And value is more than putting a price on our actions or our offerings in the church.
Today’s gospel passage gives us the opportunity to explore what it means to put in everything we have – all that we have to live on as a people of faith. The energy, creativity and enthusiasm of the youngest among us. The wisdom, experience and honor of those longer-lived in this community. Artists, organizers, archivists, financiers, hospitality makers! – all come together with the actions of each and every steward among us – stewards of everything from the day-to-day mundanities to our loftiest aspirations.
In today’s passage we find Jesus where he has been since he entered Jerusalem about two chapters ago; he sits, teaching, literally and figuratively opposite the temple treasury. A sizeable group of contemporary scripture commentators perch over him like raptors, watching his every move – speculating on whys and wherefores. We’re reminded by them that Jesus never suggests that it’s a wonderful thing that this poor woman in our story has put all she had to live on into the temple treasury, going away destitute. Instead we’re shown how the text actually suggests the opposite. “Beware the scribes who like to walk around in long robes…they devour widows houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” Jesus says this and immediately watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow’s last two coins – all she has to live on.
Some commentaries are even blunter, seeing Jesus as angry as he sits fuming, opposite the temple leaders. Infuriated by a widow made destitute by her tithing obligation, Jesus summons the disciples for another solemn teaching. And while his comment here has long been reduced to a quaint commendation of the superior piety of the poor, he is instead seen by many nowadays, as making a scathing indictment of a temple system that no longer places protection of the poor as a first place priority. Jesus is seen by these as exiting the temple for the last time, in Mark’s gospel, and he’s disgusted. It’s easy to imagine he’s disgusted, especially when we realize that in his very next conversation, outside on the temple steps, he tells the disciples that all of this – the temple – will be destroyed, “not one stone will be left here upon another”. It also just became a little more difficult to cling to the notion that the widow’s sacrifice is, of itself, a model defined economically.
Rather, she begins to look like a prophet. Especially when lifted up in harmony with some other women in Mark’s gospel.
In two chapters hence we find another woman who is lavishing pure nard upon Jesus. “Truly I tell you”, he says, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
And just two more chapters later, of course, when some other women bring ointment to anoint what they think will be Jesus’ dead body, they’re confronted with Good News about life!
And the best news we can confront now is this: All of the giving, all of the presentation of our complete selves, only makes sense in light of the resurrection. The singular act of Jesus on the cross – in faithfulness to God’s promise of abundance – is that moment in history with the power to redeem even the sinfulness of those institutions that have tipped over into the mission of self-preservation.
What would it be like to someday operate within an economics that grows out of our understanding of God’s abundant providence for all God’s children? What would it be like to be stewards of Creation (capital C) in which we all help one another flourish, trusting in God’s abundant care?
This is stewardship season – an unfortunate nomenclature since every season is actually stewardship season. And while I cannot always make this claim, I’m at present finding myself able to experience abundance a bit differently. Perhaps the story of this particular widow bears a lesson for me that relates to financial risk. This is probably because tithing flies so completely in the face of our culture’s economics, it soon becomes clear the extent to which any resistance is based in fear.
And such fear stands a much greater chance of dissipating with each step we take toward viewing our care for the least as more than a program. It’s a vital link that invites further examination: our care for the least as more than a program – an act of being. The more we, together can enact a call to all of society to prioritize addressing unnecessary need in our midst, the more we will understand the offering of ourselves as the very life of our worship flowing from this place, into our communities – and in ways that shape a politic that truly reveals God’s purposes.
Thank you, friends, it’s great to be on a team that leans in this direction.