Letting Go Mark 12: 38-44 11-11-18
There’s a cartoon in a recent Christian Century magazine, which U Lu subscribes to, that speaks very much to today’s gospel reading. A man is sitting in an exam room, soberly listening to his Dr. As he is reading from the results of some sort of physical exam. The Dr. says,” Here’s your problem—it looks like you’re paying attention to what’s going on.”
Here’s what’s going on: I think it’s safe to say that University Lutheran Church has its share of widows, the most recent being Marian Bramer. We pray God’s peace and blessings upon Larry’s memory and comfort and love for Marian and the family during these grief filled days.
My guess is that for some widows there have been economic hard times. Granted, we have S.S., pensions, other investment plans to help make it through; retirement homes, nursing homes, but for some it’s tighter, tougher to make ends meet. However, for all, widowhood has left one emotionally grief-stricken. You never stop grieving, do you, dear sisters. Hopefully, as time goes by you remember with less pain.
The widows in our readings for today share your grief, but not your financial security – as little as that may be for some. The woman at the temple was not a poor widow; she was poor because she was a widow. There was no such thing as a rich widow in Jesus’ day. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood.
To be widowed meant not only losing someone you may have loved, but more tragically, it also meant that you were losing the one on whom you were totally dependent. Widows were forced to live off the good graces of other male relatives & anyone in the community who might provide a meal here, a little money there.
Widows symbolize women who are without the protection of family. They were readily trapped in debt; they were most vulnerable in times of drought & famine; they were easiest to disregard or take advantage of in legal disputes. This is the result of lacking an adult male to represent their interests in public. More than likely, they were not elderly, for only about 25% made it to 40. Like it or not, which I don’t, this was the make-up of society in Jesus’ day.
At first glance this story of the widow’s coins has been regarded as a resounding affirmation of the widow’s deed & makes for a good stewardship story, like Pledge Sunday! But this interpretation seems to be at odds with the social context & Jesus’ teaching. The temple system was corrupt. The temple served as a depository & bank, not only for the temple collections, but also for the taxes to king Herod & to the Roman government, as well as personal fortunes. There was a wide gap between the rich & poor. This widow was even at the bottom of the poor – the destitute – since Jesus says the 2 coins are all she had: “Her whole life,”… Everything she needs on which to live.
This temple system exploited & abused the poor. Remember the accusation Jesus hurled at the scribes with their fine long robes & how they devour widows’ houses? Apart from their hypocritical and ostentatious display, the scribes also did real damage. They are “The ones devouring the houses of widows.” When someone died, they would swoop in and help “manage” the deceased person’s estate. These matters were too weighty to be left to women, after all. Naturally, the scribes would charge a fee for this “service.” The practice was rife with “embezzlement and abuse.” Making matters even worse, the scribes accompanied their exploitation with a thick layer of sanctimony–“For a pretense, praying long.” Those with the least, labor to support the lifestyles & privileges of those with the most.
So, this poor woman putting all she had into the temple treasury is an unwitting pawn of an abusive system & is perhaps even corrupted by that very system. Furthermore, what has been understood & interpreted as praise is far from the truth. Nowhere in this reading does Jesus praise the widow’s actions. Our reading has Jesus saying, “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.”
In the scriptural version, The Message, Jesus says, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.” Regardless of the scriptural version, Jesus’ comment is an ironic lament & not a call to take notice. I think rather than praising her great sacrifice, Jesus is lamenting the social structures that have put her in this horrible situation. Jesus is actually condemning a system that is based on the exploitation of the vulnerable—and then disguised as God’s will.
This widow had been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action. In a word, Jesus is condemning a structure of sin, a social injustice. Jesus says of the Jewish situation: the wealthy contribute out of their abundance, what they’ll never miss but she…out of her poverty, what she couldn’t afford….her whole life. The imbalance is not heartwarming; it is oppressive.
Jesus does not lift the beggar-widow up as an example, or suggest that anyone ought to emulate her. She is not a positive example, but rather the barely living representative of a crying shame. She represents the ongoing exploitation of the poor by the temple elite. This is a moment in the story when I’d give anything to hear Jesus’ tone of voice. Is he heartbroken as he tells his disciples to peel their eyes away from the rich folks and glance in her direction instead? Is he outraged? Is he resigned? What does it mean to him, mere seconds after he’s described the temple leaders as devourers of widows’ houses, to witness just such a widow being devoured? And worse, participating in her own devouring?
If this is not a story for people to dig deeper in their pocketbooks, then what is? The 2 little coins in the woman’s hands were probably all she had. The truth is — and the extremely poor know this as well — those coins weren’t going to change her life. When you’ve got so little, a penny or two isn’t going to move you from welfare to work. She could be at peace & joyful, which I find hard to imagine, in knowing she was able to give to the temple treasury, because with the coins or without them, she was still a dependent person.
Well-off people, like most of us here, can’t say the same. My money gives me independence & freedom from living like the poor widow. I like it that way. I dare say, you like it that way, so you & I will not be putting our entire paychecks in the offering plate today, or on our 2019 financial pledge. But I’ve also seen poor homeless people in worship looking for an offering envelope so they can give the only dollar in their pocket toward God’s work. Remember the recent news story when that homeless vet gave his last $20 to a stranded female motorist? When you’re that low on the economic scale, giving isn’t the problem; getting is.
The widow wasn’t dependent on her money or her status in life; she had none of these. She was dependent on God & her neighbor for everything. She didn’t have 2 feet to stand on; she didn’t have bootstraps to pull up. She was totally dependent.
And that’s what Jesus pulls out of her story, like a pearl of great price. This is what we are to be like before God — dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are people without any resources except the riches of God’s mercy. The issue is not how much money we have in the bank, but what that money is for us. Is it our heart, our security our source of power, or is it a tool for our stewardship? Are we dependent on our money to give us all we want & need from life, or are we dependent on God to make us rich — rich in grace, faith, hope, forgiveness, relationships? What has God entrusted us with to care for all what’s around us? Do we explore the theological values that are behind how we as the church understand the use of the resources entrusted to it? How do we, the people of God reflect the character of God?
The widow serves in Mark’s gospel as a symbol far beyond the destitute & the vulnerable. Mark uses this incident as a symbol to sum up what he has been saying in these 12/13 chapters thus far. I think this becomes clearer when we notice the position the story occupies, the theme it embodies & the contrast it illustrates. The position: even as Jesus utters these final words, a shadow falls across the scene – the shadow of the cross. This is the last event before the bloody passion begins.
This widow serves both to summarize Mark’s teaching of discipleship – in other words, what it means to follow Jesus & be one of his disciples – and to prefigure the one who is about to put in everything he has – his whole life. The theme: the total giving of oneself is exactly what Jesus has been getting at, in one form or another. The contrast: this widow is the opposite, not only of the scribes “Who devour widows’ houses,” but also of the disciples & the tenants in chs. 11 & 12 who are scrambling to keep & improve their position. The central issue is a contrast. The others contribute “Out of their abundance.” Their gift is a leftover. The widow gives “Out of her lack.”
It is not so much what she gives but what she holds back. The central matter is one’s stance before God. Do I come before God “full,” ready to reach into my personal abundance & lavish upon God my praise, honor & worship? Or do I come before God “empty,” like the tax collector, the blind beggar & the little child, with nothing wonderful to offer but my own hungry lack. This widow is not just a high example of sacrificial stewardship. She becomes the very image of faith & discipleship. Faith comes before Christ empty-handed. To be empty is to have the capacity to be filled. And that means receiving, not giving or doing. Having been rid of everything, having stood empty & childlike & poor without claim before God, one is able to receive everything, even one’s own life as a gift.
Such a person is rich even if one’s last penny was placed in the tray.
Jesus has put in everything – his whole life – to the death, pinned to the cross & raised from death. By his death & resurrection we have been clothed in forgiveness & life. And what should we do? Give him our 2 measly coins, abandoning ourselves to his future.
Calling us to his side, Jesus points to the widow & asks us: “Which will it be? Will you give, even liberally, out of your own abundance, what you’ll never miss? Or will you give out of your emptiness, what you can’t afford, let go & give all?”
Letting go. Letting go. Something worth pondering, isn’t it? Especially, at the dawn of receiving Pastor Susan, and the challenge of our 2019 stewardship goals.
May we be like the concerned person in the cartoon: paying attention to all that is going on.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 11-11-18” name of the sermon.