Sermon: The Widow’s Plight
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.’
• Mark 12:38-44
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Every once in a while in my work, I get to know a patient whose family expresses a specific concern to me. The patient is is usually an older woman who is very religious. Problem is, despite her small, fixed income, she is sending money — sometimes lots of money — to televangelists or to certain television religious programs. Often these so called “ministries” are the kind that constantly promise their viewers blessings for giving financially. They preach a prosperity gospel, making claims that God will bring a harvest of financial blessing to those who plant “seeds of faith” by sending them money. Some of these preachers live lavish, luxurious lifestyles, flying around in their private jets to and from their mansions, while many of their supporters are humble people like the elderly women I visit who really can’t afford to be sending them money.
In today’s Gospel, we meet someone who reminds me of these women, a widow who spends her last few coins at the Temple. I’m afraid that we have long misunderstood her story and what Jesus was trying to tell us by pointing her out.
The story we know as “The Widow’s Mite” is closely tied to the story that comes right before it. The key to understanding why Jesus directed our attention to this woman lies in reading the two stories we have in today’s lesson together.
In the first story, Jesus calls attention to the scribes. The scribes were part of the religious leadership of the Jewish people. They were, as it were, religious lawyers who handled matters of interpretation. They ruled on religious disputes, based upon interpretations of the scriptures and other religious writings and laws.
One example of their rulings is found in Mark, chapter 7. Jesus criticized them for making a ruling known as “corban.” Under the corban principle, a person made a vow declaring that a portion of his money was devoted to God. That meant it could no longer be used for other things. Even if the man’s parents became poor and needed that money, the scribes ruled that it had been given to God by a sacred vow and was no longer available to help them.
Jesus disagreed. He said there was a more fundamental and important law that said “Honor your father and mother.” God’s laws were given to help people, not hurt them. They were given to promote love and justice, not to help us find ways around being loving and just.
In today’s text, Jesus criticizes the scribes for treating widows the same way. He says that the scribes were “devouring widows’ houses.” In other words, the scribes were part of a religious system that had devastating effects on the poor and needy people of Israel.
This leads us to the second story in today’s Gospel. Immediately after criticizing the scribes for their mistreatment of widows, we have the story of a widow — a poor woman who goes to the Temple and puts her last two coins into the Temple offering box. Jesus points her out to his disciples as she puts in everything she has.
Now the question is this: why does Jesus point her out?
The interpretation I have heard most often is that he is commending this widow as an example of sacrificial giving. In contrast to wealthy religious people like the scribes, who only give a portion of their income, this woman gave her everything. She represents total devotion to God, while many of the religious people only give a little bit of the riches they have.
I do not agree. I don’t think Jesus is celebrating this woman’s generosity.
Instead, I think he is lamenting that she is part of a religious system in which she thinks she has to give all she has to live on to be acceptable to God. The scribes, Jesus said, were part of a religious system that devoured widows’ houses. Now, here is a poor widow whose house is being devoured. Because of her religion, she gave and gave until she had nothing.
Let’s imagine that this woman came to you for counsel. If she said, “I only have five dollars left in my bank account. The church is having a special offering this week and I think God wants me give it all to the church,” how would you advise her?
I doubt very much that any of us would think that God wanted her to give her last little bit to the church.
Wouldn’t we all think — hey, this poor widow needs help! As the church, we should be giving to help her, not demanding that she give every penny she has to help the church!
But she was part of a religious system that led her to think she had to sacrifice everything in order to be a good religious person. Like the thousands of poor people who send money to televangelists thinking that it’s the way to get God to bless their faith, this woman had been brainwashed into a faulty view of God and what it means to love God.
No, Jesus is not celebrating her sacrificial faith, he is weeping because the religion she’s part of is leading her astray and ruining her life. And he is pointing out to his disciples that this is not the way God means it to be. It would only be a few days later that that same religious system hung Jesus on a cross.
As Lutherans, we are heirs of a tradition that has fought against this kind of religion ever since the days of Martin Luther. Back then, the issue was indulgences. The church developed an entire system of the afterlife and then sold people tickets out of Purgatory to finance its building projects. Poor people all over Europe coughed up the little they had so that great monuments might be built. The people thought they were doing the right thing, the religious thing. They were contributing their money for God’s glory. They were winning their salvation. But Luther saw that it was all a sham and he condemned the injustice of it all.
Right after this story about the widow, Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple. As they converse, Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the religious system that took advantage of poor widows like this one. “One day,” Jesus said, “this Temple and the unjust religion that has developed here will come tumbling down until there is not one stone left upon another.”
Jesus and Luther both helped to remind us that we are not here to serve God by following manmade religious rules and expectations. We are here to receive God’s love by faith and then to share it with one another and our neighbors, especially those in hard and sad life situations.
I think God is calling us today to have our eyes open, to look around us as Jesus’ disciples did that day, to let Jesus show us that even religion can have a damaging, deadly effect on those who are involved with it.
In contrast, the faith of Christ enlivens us, empowers us, and frees us to do what is just, to be devoted to faithful love, and to walk humbly with our God. May it be so with us.