Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.Then 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. For 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.’
All In: Mark 12:38-44
Oh, Church, I heard something this week that has messed me up. Twice, colleagues whom I deeply respect, but who don't know each other, shared a biblical interpretation that I had never heard before. I was shocked when I heard it, not because I found it to be a flawed argument, but because it completely changed how I understand today's Gospel reading. I was shocked and convicted enough by it, that is seems worthwhile to share this interpretation with you. You may have heard today's Gospel story before. It is often called the Widow's Mite or A Widow's Offering. We preachers often trot it out around Stewardship time. It can seem like the perfect story about generosity.
Tell me if you have heard this sermon before: Jesus is with his disciples and has called out the hypocrisy of the scribes who wear fancy robes, demand the best seats, and show off by praying for a long time out loud. He said that they devour widows' houses. We learn quickly that we should not be like them. Then, suddenly an actual widow comes into the scene. She walks up with the wealthy people who donated big amounts of money. She slips in two copper coins, a pittance, but it was all she had to her name. Jesus points out that she has actually given much more than the rich people because she gave all that she had. With this woman as our example, we preachers will then say, "Surely we, who have so much more than this woman had, can afford to give more to our church than she was able to give to the temple. Surely, we can up our pledge. She gave all that she had. We can manage a measly 10% pledge. So, sign your cards and pass them to the front."
I don't say this just to shame my colleagues. To be honest, the only reason I haven't preached a similar sermon is because I used to be a hospice chaplain who didn't preach very often. I would have totally used this woman as an example of generosity even in the face of desperate circumstances. I mean, who among us doesn’t know someone like that... someone who hardly has a thing and is always the first one to share or support missions close to their heart. I could have easily been a preacher who saw this widow as an example of extravagant, even foolish, generosity that I should try to emulate. Well, here's what's been messing me up this week. At least a couple different biblical scholars have suggested a better interpretation of this scripture has a lot more to do with the actions of the religious leaders than it does the actions of the widow. What they mean is that in order to interpret this one widow's story, we need to pay attention to what Jesus is doing in the rest of the Gospel. And, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was keen on calling out hypocrites.
What exactly makes one a hypocrite? If we pay attention to the first part of today's reading, Jesus' gives a pretty succinct run-down. You spend a lot of money on fancy clothes. You use your education and privileged position for shallow gains. You make a show of your faith without actually living out the core tenets of that faith. And, you take advantage of the poor. Remember, Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you missed either one of these things, you missed out on living the life God called you to. As we learned from Rev. Joe last week, God and neighbor are a package deal. Some of the neighbors in greatest need were the widows: women who had not simply lost their husbands, but who likely had no family at all to call upon for help. The people of God understood that they had a particular call from God to care for people in such a situation. That call was embedded in scripture and in the the practice of the law. When the Psalmist wanted to describe God's capacity for grace, they called God the parent to the orphans and the protector of widows. The law even made allowances for poor people to avoid giving to the temple if they could not afford it, a fact that the scribes in this story seem to have forgotten.
The scholars that I have read this week argue that what Jesus is really doing in this text is calling out his religious community for forgetting God's priorities. He is not using a poor woman to guilt people to giving more. He is calling out a temple system that consumed every last dime of the poor but does not seem to be offering the support for them that was demanded by the law. It is an actual shame that she has so little. Her faith leaders should be bound by their faith to help her. It seems as though she has been forgotten as they concern themselves with fancy clothes and fancy dinners. Jesus is clear. We should not be like these religious leaders. We should not forget people in need while we make sure our own life is comfortable. We should do everything in our power... through God's power... to avoid creating a religious institution that relies on the money and commitment of people in need but does nothing to seek justice with and for them. We are called to love God and love our neighbor. We are called to turn our skills and our money into to action on behalf of our neighbors. Every pledge that we turn into this church this morning should be made with this goal in mind. Every hour that you spend in service with this church should be spent with this goal in mind.
Look, this really shouldn't be a new challenge for this church. I know that you know how to serve. This year, you have donated $1552 to our special offerings, all of which are service-oriented. You have also donated pounds and pounds of food to the food pantry and 30 stuffed animals to our ambulance service to bring comfort to kids in need. Eleven of you have signed up to help teach Sunday school alongside our three regular teachers. Anywhere between five and thirteen of you regularly volunteer to bring rich music into our worship services. Your call to serve is evident everyday. But, we also know that there are still so many needs in this community. I think our challenge over the next year is to look at this list of community needs that we have compiled, and find a new way that our congregation can help meet them. Maybe that means we work with the Cancer Center to help drive people to their appointments. Maybe that means that we have a game night where we invite all the kids in town to come teach us how to play that card game everyone likes so much. Or, maybe there's some way to invest in our town that we haven't even imagined yet. I have faith that the Holy Spirit will help us find it. This is where we will find the deepest faith that Jesus taught. This is how we can avoid the temptation of hypocrisy. Let's make every dime we spend and every moment we share be of service to the God who empowers us and our neighbors who teach us something new about the Divine. Let's go all in.... all in for God, and all in for the widows who trusts us with their well-being. This is our primary call as Christians. And we can't ignore it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Debie Thomas: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/theeighthday/446-the-widowed-prophet
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2662
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3717
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.