Proper 27, Year B
I try to live with all in Christian charity. Really, I do, with varying (mostly miniscule) levels of success. But the editors of our lectionary are really making it difficult for me this week with where they end the gospel reading. Fortunately they give us impetus in the other readings for this week to think about the gospel differently, but they've given us a selection of verses from Mark to create the perfect collection of readings for "stewardship Sundays," all neatly packaged for sermons suggesting that we should all emulate the widow of this Sunday's gospel, whom Jesus praises so for her generosity. More sermons than not this Sunday, I suspect, will move from that point and use a rather uncritical equation of Temple=church to say that Jesus wants us to give more money to the church, trusting that God will take care of us if only we have the courage to pledge more.
There's one problem with this reading.
Actually, I have to amend that. There are MYRIAD problems with this reading, but let's start with the biggest one:
Where do you see any suggestion at all in the text that Jesus thinks it's a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coppers -- all she had to live on -- in the Temple treasury, going away destitute?
It just isn't there. If anything, the text suggests the opposite. The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and DEVOUR WIDOWS' HOUSES. That last bit is particularly important because of what follows:
Jesus watches a bunch of guys in long robes take a widow's last two coins -- all she has to live on.
Then Jesus says something. What he says boils down to "and just in case you thought I was making stuff up on that point, check out this woman -- she just put literally her last cent, all she had to live on, in the treasury to maintain this lovely building."
But he doesn't stop there, even though our lectionary editors would leave people whose primary exposure to scripture is in Sunday services thinking as much. The conversation continues. Jesus' disciples have the nerve to say, "Yeah, but look at the building! This is glorious!" and Jesus responds with a prediction that it will all be destroyed -- an act that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus attributes to no less of an actor than God.
Note that Jesus did NOT say, "Not one stone will be left on another ... unless you all are as generous as this widow. Now dig deep, people -- this building must be maintained at any cost!" Jesus doesn't criticize or blame the widow for the dynamic here; he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the robed guys collecting the widow's money. That's something to think about when we're all vesting on Sunday morning!
But Jesus doesn't come anywhere close to praising the dynamic of poor people being left with nothing by people claiming to be God's people. Preachers, I beg you not to come anywhere close to suggesting otherwise this Sunday.
Jesus' point here is not to suggest that God's people must never have buildings in which to meet. The earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem met in the Temple courts, after all, and Christians' houses around the first-century Mediterranean provided not only places to meet, but places to house those whose choice to follow Jesus meant that their families tossed them out on the street.
That sharing of resources in which none have too much and all have enough -- sharing celebrated in our reading for this week from 1 Kings -- and not any number of impressive vestments, eloquent prayers, or gorgeous examples of architecture -- is what makes a place holy to the Lord who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146:8). When the Letter to the Hebrews speaks dismissively of "a sanctuary made by human hands," in contrast to the true one, it does so in that venerable and blessed prophetic critique of religious and political establishments naively assuming or cynically cultivating a belief that the defense of any piece of ground, the maintenance of any building or institution, or the observance of any ceremony could ever justify making more widows and orphans or failing to care for those already among us.
I believe that is the message God is calling us to proclaim on "stewardship Sunday" -- and on stewardship Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday too. I believe that every day is stewardship day, a day to remember "who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them" (Psalm 146:5), and to whom therefore all those things and all they produce belong. It is a day to remember that freely offering back to God all God's gifts to give justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger, freedom to the prisoners and sight to the blind. It is a day to remember, and to act in remembrance of God's grace to us, most especially in sending us Jesus, that those bent down by the world's troubles may be empowered to walk tall.
That, more than any building or any ceremony, is what glorifies God. And when we participate in that process, that mission of God in the world, we come closest to seeing God's glory on earth. There is nothing more exciting, exhilarating, and joyous than that -- nothing on earth more likely to inspire us to cry out:
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
And thanks be to God!
Thanks for turning us in this direction.
Posted by: Ann | Nov 11, 2006 11:07:24 AM
Another person on the same track:
Posted by: Ann | Nov 11, 2006 12:29:32 PM
I agree with Ann -- nice call. Good perspective. In my study group we looked at the polarity between the description of the scribes and of the widow. It became clear that this is NOT a stewardship sermon. Who will give it all up?
One of our crew suggested that the widow is a parable of Jesus, the one who did give it all up. I like that perspective, too. At that point, for me, the question becomes where are we on the continuum of the scribes and the widow? I can't (won't) give it all up, but do I follow?
Posted by: John | Nov 11, 2006 8:48:20 PM
OK, you caught me (just in time!). I was in fact going to go there and do a classic "give it all up for church" stewardship sermon. Yet I know with absolute certainty that no one will do so, especially a few in the congregation who, like the rich young ruler, probably SHOULD give up all they had and give to the poor. I like your take on it--that what makes the church the church is not the building, nor even the programs, but the people and how they follow Jesus in all that they do, including giving.
Posted by: Tom Sramek, Jr. | Nov 12, 2006 1:08:47 AM
More than it is ...not about stewardship, I think its about ...not about appearances.
The Gospel text starts off with the appearance of holiness put up by the men in long robes which Jesus says is misleading. Then when commenting on the money, he contrasts again the appearance of the ones who put a lot vs the widow...which he again says is misleading. The widow who puts less actually put more. Then its to the Temple...the appearance...is also misleading. Its looks so great...but its only appearances...it will look terrible later on. What counts more...the physical temple or some other temple ?
But to focus on the giving part the lesson: we are told Jesus/God does not to look at the absolute amount we give...we should ask if we give out of our excess or till we feel the pinch ? Because we may be rich and give a lot quantiatively ie 1 million dollars and think we are doing great...or look down on someone else who gives only 1 dollar...but Jesus tells us to look beyond the numbers to what we are REALLY giving...out of our spare change or sacrificially. We should emulate the widow to give generously but there is no lesson about giving all to the Temple etc Jesus seems to teaching His disciples to look at the above 3 matters in a different way...
ie who really is holy...those in long robes ? who really gave more ? is the Temple really great ? Is this more accurate ? Giving generously..is always a given...as you shared, it should be Stewardship Mon, Tue etc...
Posted by: ger | Nov 13, 2006 4:43:25 AM
I have been exploring the biblical understanding of stewardship throughout Pentecost however, I was very uncomfortable looking at this pericope as a stewardship story. I haven't been stuck too often for a sermon idea, but this year I am afraid I looked at all the readings and was just drawing a blank. Thank you for your insight into this story, it moved my thoughts from the widow's mite to the widow's might.
Posted by: Karen | Nov 3, 2009 1:03:10 PM
After preaching the traditional interpretaion of this pericope about the "giving all" by the widow and invited people to do likewise, one of my members, after the service, called my attention to your interpretation. We did not have time to discuss further because I was busy with other members. I am blessed to read your comments before my meeting with him on Sunday. Thanks.
Posted by: Amos Oladipo | Nov 11, 2009 5:14:27 PM