What a beautiful little story. A plucky widow whose two tiny coins represent all her worldly goods, and yet she is willing to toss it all into the treasury at the Temple. Unstinting, faithful giving that was noticed by Jesus. What does this story bring to mind for you?
After years of ministry a pastor develops the ability to read minds. This morning that particular skill is pretty easily employed. I’d be willing to bet my next pay check that upon hearing the gospel, this thought came through your mind: “Oh here it comes, the annual stewardship sermon. Her courage in giving should inspire us to generosity. Jesus is amazed and pleased at her faithfulness and isn’t that what we want Jesus to think of us. Go and do likewise. ” And blah, blah, blah!
Am I right? Can I read minds or what!? And as I looked through some old sermons on this passage, that’s pretty much the sermon I’ve typically preached! The problem is, that’s not the point of this parable. I’m sorry to have misled you this long. This week as I was preparing for our midweek study, I saw the error in my preaching ways. You might say it’s about the widow’s mite and the preacher’s plight. The preacher’s plight is that it’s easiest to interpret this story as being about what we should be doing. The harder thing is to look at what God is doing here.
We might sum up this passage in Mark by saying– there ain’t a lot happening but there is a whole lot going on. There has been plenty going on prior to this scene of the widow and her two copper coins. Jesus has been on a tear, offering one searing criticism of the Temple authorities after another. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Jesus debated theology with the Sadducees, and exposed them as shoddy interpreters of the Law whose lives did not match their words. He denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes, the Temple lawyers, who demanded the place of honor, yet robbed the widows of their inheritance.
Then we come to the well-known passage of the widow’s offering. Mark, with his usual economy of words, portrays a vivid scene in the Temple courtyard. Apparently there were 13 donation chests, each labeled with the particular purpose to which the funds were dedicated. My understanding is that the monies were placed into those chests through horn- like metal tubes through which the money dropped into the chest.
So, the more money you put in, the more noise you make. And I suppose that upon hearing the racket that a big gift made as it entered the box, people would turn around to see who the big giver was. One could make quite a show of it, really. Compare that racket to the almost silent Plink Plink of two copper coins, the least valuable coin of the realm. Not a lot happening in this simple story, but there is a whole lot going on.
Let’s take a step back and consider the plight of the widow in the biblical times. Without a male provider or protector, she was pretty helpless. And there were many widows in the time of Jesus, because it was typical for very young women to marry older men. The men died, and the widow was left behind. The legal system was pretty inaccessible to a woman, so she needed an advocate to get an estate settled in any kind of way that was fair to her. Naturally they would turn to a religious leader. And this is where the scribes came in.
The scribes were the authority on Jewish law. Jewish law extended to every aspect of community life and the Temple was at the center of that life. But the authorities had created such a complicated system that any one dealing with the Temple needed an “attorney.” They were supposed to be teachers of the law, and instead quite often used it to their own advantage. They would help to settle an estate, but at substantial profit to themselves; often impoverishing the very person who had turned to them for help.
Jesus was exposing a system that robbed the vulnerable while lining the pockets of the already wealthy Temple insiders. So he came to the courtyard that day and quietly watched everything that went on. He was a true mind reader! Because he didn’t just read minds, he could read hearts…which is you distinguish what’s happening from what’s going on. What was happening was a well-functioning Temple where the religious rules were being observed and people were giving their tithes. The scribes were walking about in their flowing robes and saying their long prayers. They were greeted with respect in the marketplace and the Temple court.
That’s what was happening. But what was really going on was easily discerned by Jesus. The Temple had become an indefensible institution, one that refused to protect the poor. He railed against it at every opportunity. A religious institution steeped in hypocrisy cannot stand. And Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, a few short sentences of scripture later.
And yet there is something else happening in the Temple courtyard, and Jesus notices it. As Debie Thomas notes , Jesus sees what everyone else either overlooks or is too blind to see. “Jesus’ eyes are ever on the small, the insigniificant, or the hidden.” And this widow, Jesus observes, gives her all to the very same institution that has impoverished her. She sacrificed everything for something that was not worthy of her sacrifice.
Once she gave everything she had to live on, her earthly life was over. Wednesday night one of you asked what would happen after she had done that. The simple answer is that she would die. Her sacrifice spoke volumes about trust, dignity, and an abiding faith that the world does not get the last word. The unjust system that had impoverished her, made it impossible for her to live, did not get the last word. God gets the last word. In a sense, so did the widow. She was prophetic because her sacrifice prefigures Jesus’ sacrifice. She gave her all, and so did he, just a few days later.
Was the world worthy of God’s sacrifice of offering up his only Son? No. Could God afford that? No. But it was a price God was willing to pay in order to redeem this broken world. This staggering payment, more costly than all the world’s coin, was a down payment on the new heaven and earth into which we will all be ushered at the end of the age.
From Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “The truth is that the 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.” Likewise, in a breathtaking act of generosity and sacrifice, God would give His only Son; an extravagant “all-in” gesture that would change the world forever. There is nothing we can do to match that gift, nor is there anything we can do to deserve that gift.
The preacher’s plight is that it’s easier to say what we should be doing to make God love us. That’s why we use this passage for stewardship sermons! It is much harder to convince you that God loves you no matter what. When we come to truly believe that, this world will be transformed.
As Scott Hoezee puts it, we all live immersed in the prior grace of God’s gift in Christ. So everything we do, including what we put in the offering plate, is merely a response to that grace. We are a free people, beholden to no one. I bet that the widow took great joy in what she was able to put in that offering box. We can also take great joy in everything we are able to do in God’s name. Every time we share our abundance, every act of loving kindness, every moment of putting others ahead of one’s self—represents the freedom we have as new creations in Christ.
When Jesus said that the second commandment was to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, he was not setting forth an impossible task, or trying to make life harder. He is showing us a more abundant way to live that will leave us with far more than it ever takes from us. The widow gave all, and thus had all. She chose the only way that enabled her to say no to injustice and yes to God.
The message is not for us to go and do likewise. We are not asked to put our last two dollars into the offering plate. We are asked to be the offering. By that I mean that we are asked to be the channel through which Christ moves in this world.
Maybe Jesus wasn’t the only one who noticed that widow, in the Temple court. Maybe someone else saw it and was stunned by her gift. And maybe it moved them to wonder what she was all about and what she knew about God. Maybe someone will notice you and me. And through us, maybe the world will learn what Kingdom living is all about.