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Widow’s Might

November 9, 2015

“Widow’s Might” 1 Kings 17:8-16, Mark 12:38-44 © 11.8.15 Ordinary 32B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In a day when relatively few people could read and write, especially among the poor, a learned man, a scribe, who could do both provided an essential service. The ancient wisdom teacher Ben Sira (39:1ff) said of the scribe: “He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables…. He serves among the great
and appears before rulers; he travels in foreign lands and learns what is good and evil in the human lot…. If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom of his own and give thanks to the Lord in prayer.”

There’s really no exact modern equivalent for the scribe. He was part lawyer, part judge, part librarian, part clergy, part copyist, part administrator. It’s worth noting that Ezra was a scribe. In the sixth century BC, he oversaw the instruction of the returned exiles in the law of God, as both a representative of the Persian emperor and one who was familiar with Jewish customs.

By Jesus’ day, the scribes were sometimes associates of the aristocratic priestly families. And, of course, they had to maintain a lifestyle which would not embarrass their patrons. So their closets were full of long, elaborate robes. They attended and gave sumptuous banquets, at which they sat at the head table; and they welcomed honorific greetings on the street.

They made their money by providing fee-based services. Their work would have included writing contracts, keeping records, and especially, serving as executors of estates. This is where they had contact with widows, whose houses they devoured. Anybody who has ever had to handle an estate and work with an attorney knows exactly what Jesus means. Legal costs can eat into an inheritance big time, especially if there’s some problem with the will or relatives want to make a fuss.

But whereas the lawyers I have worked for and with didn’t maliciously and intentionally consume estates, the scribes Jesus criticizes figured out ways to embezzle and raid the funds. No piece of parchment was without a fee attached, and their executor’s cut was substantial. Plus, the widows they exploited for gain were encouraged to give to this cause and that, rather like people today sometimes are targeted for scams from some telemarketer or a televangelist or even a worthwhile cause that keeps sending mailing after mailing with little premiums, asking for donations. “Send us $20, and we will mail you in return this blessed, anointed prayer cloth.” “Here are some Christmas cards done by starving artists in Outer Slobovia; thank you for your generous donation.” So, though they were charged with protecting the interests of widows, the scribes with their long robes and longer prayers actually only cared about lining their own pockets.

The widow Jesus sees putting in her coins was one of the victims of these men. One moment, she was prayed for, the next, preyed upon. The Greek text describes her as among the poorest of the poor, a beggar. She got that way from trusting the shysters who came to her modest home with another paper to sign, another service to provide, until she had nothing left but two lepta, which of course the KJV renders as “mites.” We know the lepton as a category of subatomic particle, most notably the electron, but in Jesus’ day a lepton was 1/128 of a denarius, which in turn was the daily wage an employer paid a laborer for working in the field or digging ditches. So, not much at all, even less than the translations say, such as “farthing” or “penny” for two.

The two coins were all the money the widow had. Literally, they were her “whole life.” When she gave them, she would have nothing. How did she expect to live after going to the Temple and giving her meager offering? How would she buy food or pay the rent or compensate a doctor? Maybe she had in mind the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, who gave the prophet her last food, and was blessed with a never-ending supply of oil and flour. But Jesus makes no such promise here. She may have given everything, then when whatever little she had in her house ran out, she died slowly of starvation.

Contrary to what I and others have preached in the past, the widow is not praised by Jesus for her sacrificial giving. Nor is she condemned for being complicit in her own oppression. Our Lord simply states a fact about the gift. Nor are the rich fat cats throwing their tithe into the coffers criticized. It’s the scribes who raise Jesus’ ire, because they are the ones who have convinced the naïve and trusting widow to act as she did, when there was certainly no requirement to give everything to God through the Temple.

But if Jesus doesn’t commend the widow as an example of sacrificial giving, what’s this story about? In a word, noticing. Seeing.

On the one hand, Jesus wants us to see hypocrites for what they are. The scribes he criticizes did everything for appearances, from their clothing to their prayers. There was nothing genuine about them. They were charged with protecting the vulnerable, but instead they took advantage of them. The problem was not so much with Judaism or the Temple, and today the problem is not so much with the Church or government or corporations, but rather with those within the institution who have figured out ways to promote their own interests while claiming to look out for that of their constituents.

So Jesus calls us to notice when someone claims to be a spiritual, moral person, but consistently and intentionally lies, ignores calls for justice, and even uses a position of trust to harm others. He tells us to beware of those who talk a good game, but don’t follow through with programs and funds and advocacy to make justice, peace, and compassion a reality in society. It’s not what someone says that matters, even if they can pray beautiful prayers. It’s not how he or she looks, even if their appearance is red-carpet worthy. It’s what the person does. Look for consistency between words and actions. See what’s really going on. Try to get a glimpse behind the mask. Call out and hold accountable hypocrites in church and society. By their fruits you will know them.

On the other hand, we have the widow, who would have been invisible to most people as she stood on the street begging or even as she put in her two little coins. Everyone would have passed her by, hurrying to whatever urgent business they had. But Jesus sees her. As one commentator has observed: “Jesus notices the widow. He sees what everyone else is too busy, too grand, too spiritual, and too self-absorbed to see” (Debie Thomas http://www.journeywithjesus.net/theeighthday/446-the-widowed-prophet). 

As the old song reminds us, we can look without seeing. Jesus invites us truly to see those around us as he noticed the widow among the crowds coming to the Temple. His question, in essence, is: “Do you see the widow?” Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.

Who is the widow? She is the kid fading into the woodwork, not joining in with others in games or socializing. She is the neighbor whom you or I never see and know little or nothing about, but who may have great needs. She is the person who gives of herself or himself sacrificially every day, but we never notice or say “thank you.” She is the spouse or the friend or the child across from you at a meal table, but you are not noticing or talking to each other because your eyes are on your phones. She is the forgotten veteran, the homeless stranger, the ignored elderly whose opinion is never asked, the not-so-good-looking in a society obsessed with image and beauty. She is any of us when we are not respected, appreciated or affirmed.

As someone has written: “…I still think this is a stewardship story. Only it is pointing us to something much larger than how much I will put in the offering envelope this Sunday or any Sunday to come. Rather, this raises questions about how I steward my whole life as well as the lives of those around me—near and far. Most especially those I haven’t noticed. Indeed, it seems to me that our financial stewardship is meant to be just the start of changing us so that in the name of Jesus we might attempt to change the world. And it all starts by seeing. Especially those it is easy not to see” (Janet Hunt, http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2015/11/seeing-widow.html).

To see someone is to validate him or her, to count that person as important and worthy. In South Africa, the Zulus greet each other by saying “Sawubona,” which means “I see you.” The response is “I am here.” If you remember the movie Avatar, “I see you” was the salutation used by the native tribe. It also happens to be one possible translation of the now-familiar word Namaste, which literally means “I bow to you.” Says a Zulu speaker: “As always when translating from one language to another, crucial subtleties are lost. Inherent in the Zulu greeting and our grateful response, is the sense that until you saw me, I didn’t exist. By recognizing me, you brought me into existence….

She goes on: “…[N]ext time you meet and greet someone, greet them wholeheartedly…take a moment to reflect consciously and actually ‘see’ the person—see them beyond the physical. By truly ‘seeing’ them you are bestowing one of the greatest honours upon another human being. You are shedding light upon them; a spiritual light that is energising and empowering—this light brings them to life (they exist!)

“This is actually sooo simple! We meet and greet people everyday…but do we actually take a moment to truly see the magnificence within them when greeting? Unfortunately we usually don’t. Sadly, this is actually a reflection of ourselves because by and large we don’t see or recognise our own magnificence. Truth is, it is only when we actually ‘see’ ourselves and acknowledge our own inner greatness that we have the capacity to recognise this in another (Bridget Edwards, http://hubpages.com/education/Namaste-and-Sawubona-a-Zulu-greeting).

Jesus noticed the small, the insignificant, the hidden. He was the Son of the God who sees. Our vocation as his disciples is to do no less than he did, to see through sham as well as notice those who give of themselves freely and faithfully. And to see ourselves through his eyes.

The widow who gave those two coins that day was strong. Her might was her conviction that whatever the corruption of the institution or even her place in contributing to her own demise by her willing trust, God would take care of her. If she died, then her soul would be borne by the angels into Abraham’s bosom, where she would finally be cared for, noticed as she had never been before. She was a courageous woman who was willing to put her life on the line for what she believed in, for her commitments, and even poverty and starvation and death could not keep her from following through on what she saw as her calling.

In her actions, the widow foreshadows what Jesus did. This incident in the Temple takes place on Tuesday of Holy Week. Four days later, Jesus will be executed. He will give his all, his whole life, just as the poor woman did, giving himself into the hands of sinners, giving though those to whom he gave his life were not worthy.

Do you see this widow? Notice those who act as she did. They embody the same spirit as that which dwelt in Jesus, who gave his whole life. For you. For me. For us all.

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