The Poor Widow and the Immoral Church
Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV)
As [Jesus] taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor 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."
Partners in Mission here at Cross of Grace have recently received packets of information and a pledge card regarding our upcoming Commitment Sunday for the Building Fund. You might imagine we scheduled the Commitment Sunday to conveniently coincide with today’s gospel reading. After all, this story is often understood as scripture’s exemplary story of generous giving. The story of the “widow’s mite” as it is often referred, lends itself nicely to the message that the church needs your money and you would be blessed to give it away. However…
…we didn’t pick the Commitment Sunday to coincide with this text. Truth be told, the gospel texts for this Sunday and next are perhaps the worse we could have picked to coincide with a building fund campaign. The gospel lesson next week is about Jesus’ promise that the temple (aka, the church building) would come crashing down…and why that’s a good and holy thing. That story is directly related to today’s gospel and its real, though often obscured, message of how the temple system of Jesus’ day and age was set up to exploit the vulnerable.
Here’s some context about today’s gospel story that could completely change what you thought you knew about the story of the widow’s offering. This section of Mark’s gospel is an explicit warning against the scribes – the powerful religious figures who controlled every aspect of Hebrew life through the Temple system. You can see that in the first verses, “Beware of the scribes…”
In verse 40 Jesus illustrates scribes as people who “devour widows’ houses” – a reference to the practice of scribes automatically taking over as trustees of widows’ estates following the death of their husbands. The scribes were seen as the people most suited for this responsibility because they were pious and trustworthy, as evidenced by the fact that they wore long robes said long prayers (wink wink). “As compensation [the scribes] would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 320).
Knowing full well the depths of injustice at the hands of the scribes, Jesus watches the events at the treasury. The treasury was a public space where people could either make a show of how much they were worth and how generous they were; or a place where people had to confess just how little they had.
At the treasury, there are many there who are extremely wealthy and they give abundantly, both because they can and because it serves their own interests. Their giving supports the very religious, political, and cultural structure that enabled them to get and stay wealthy. It’s a self-perpetuating system that ensures the wealth stays distributed only among the upper class.
Then there’s the widow. The widow gives two coins, which the gospel writer points out were practically worthless. Jesus understands this woman, out of a sense of obligation and powerlessness just gave away all she had to live on. Like others before her, this widow has been taken advantage of by an institution that claimed it would take care of her. Her estate has been stolen from under her in her grief; and still she has to obey the oppressive religious obligation to give. It’s not admirable, it’s deplorable.
This isn’t a story to inspire generous giving. Instead, it is a story that condemns a religiously-supported system that props up the wealthy on the broken backs of the poor who have been abused, neglected, and stolen from. And as you’ll see next week, Jesus tells his disciples that when they confront this system, they will suffer the consequences.
This might seem like a downer of a gospel text, but there is good news. The good news is that Jesus recognizes oppressive systems in our world and does not approve. God the Father, who is very Christ-like, also does not approve. Systems of oppression that keep people impoverished while the rich feast, are neither divinely inspired nor divinely maintained. They are not products of the Kingdom of Heaven, and therefore they will not ultimately endure.
God’s favor does not rest on those people who keep their boot heel pushed on the neck of the poor. That is the good news.
The good news is that we still have time to choose a better way: the way that will endure, the way that is part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the way of God, the way that recognizes how one’s actions ripple down the river and affect the poor, vulnerable, outcast, and afraid.
It’s your responsibility to allow this scriptural truth to work in your own life, raise your awareness, and let it lead to you repentance – a change your actions.
As for me, as a pastor, as part of a religious institution that makes financial demands on its practitioners, here is the message I have to proclaim today: If you find Cross of Grace to be an oppressive and unjust system that props up select few at the expense of the most vulnerable, then you have two options: 1) find somewhere else to be spiritually nourished, or 2) stand and fight. Point out the ways that we fail to live in the light of the good news as announced by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Point out the error of our ways before it’s too late and our church crumbles just like the Temple two thousand years ago.
But, if you find that Cross of Grace is a place that proclaims the good news in word and deed, regardless of what it might cost us in the eyes of others in this community; if you sense that Cross of Grace stands for something good and beautiful in this world as it does the work of liberating the oppressed and advocating for the outcasts of society, then join us. Reaffirm your commitment to the unique mission and ministry God has gifted this congregation. Yes, that means giving abundantly if you have financial means. But it also means following Jesus beyond these walls. It means experiencing a daily dying to yourself and daily allowing God to change your mind so that you can follow Christ instead of your own fears, instincts, or desires.