The Poor Are Our Teachers – November 11, 2018
As the coins clatter away
Her heart beats with fear and joy.
The widow flings her poverty
In the face of power.
When you have heard the lessons from Scripture read on a Sunday morning, I wonder what you might be thinking about. I wonder, for example, what went through your mind when you heard this short Gospel passage about the scribes and about this widow. And I wonder what you are expecting the preacher might have to say about it. (Sometimes this preacher wonders that too!)
I suspect that many preachers will get in their pulpits and preach on this brief snippet about the Widow’s Mite. They will talk about good stewardship, giving all we can, even quoting some of the saints who taught about giving at a cost and doing little things with great love.
It’s not difficult to make this text the centerpiece of stewardship preaching, especially since we hear it every three years during a season when most churches are in the thick of their pledge campaigns. They will say that the gist of this story Jesus relates is that the measurement of exemplary generosity is how much is given according to one’s ability to give. Indeed, the image of Jesus observing how we give is a valuable thought as each of us decides what we will give to advance God’s mission through the work of this faith community.
But that’s not all Jesus is talking about in this Gospel. There’s much more to it—as usual.
Many preachers concentrate only on the widow’s story but this rather short Gospel today has two parts. The first is a disapproval of the prideful practices of the scribes who are criticized for liking to parade around in long robes—clothing that was the sign of their higher education—and for expecting everyone to pay attention to them because of their status.
They are arrogant, uptight, snobs. They want the highest place of honor at table when they go to a dinner party. Yet the worst thing about them is how they take advantage of widows and then show off their false piety by pretentious, phony long devotional prayers. Yet the scribes themselves were not necessarily rich and because of that often sponged on other’s hospitality.
The second part offers us the contrast of the widow. Throughout Scripture, the treatment of widows is a benchmark of community justice. Only a few times are they seen as anything more than needy and defined by their loss.
We don’t know the name of this widow in the Gospel which is probably the way she would have wanted it. She had no home address and it had been that way for years even though she had once lived in a nice neighborhood. When her husband died suddenly, she lost her identity.
Hebrew law allowed the estate of the deceased husband to by-pass his wife so widowhood had hit her hard. To add to her misery, religious leaders believed a premature death such as her husband’s was the result of his sin and her situation ensued as part of that curse.
Still she had kept her faith and in spite of the harshness of her broken life, was grateful for the little she had. And so she would go later that morning to the temple where, smelling musty and looking disheveled, she would go to the treasury and put in her two copper coins. And walk away quietly with no concern about how her gift will be used. She just gives and goes on her way. But she is an affront to these scribes and other leaders who loved to appear religious while they ate up the properties of such widows by benefit of their status and privilege—leaving them homeless and destitute.
I read a sermon by a rector who relates overhearing a conversation while having dinner at a very expensive restaurant. It was a week before Election Day. She heard a man at the next table say very clearly and firmly, “I don’t agree with one man, one vote! Why should someone who contributes very little to the economy get the same vote as people who run large businesses and create jobs and income for the government?”
The rector continued to eat her sumptuous meal in silence but she thought of all the mothers who don’t get paid but raise their children to be adults to contribute to society. And she thought of all the people who get paid minimum wage to do the jobs that most people don’t want to do and without which we could not function. Of course, what this man said sadly echoes the sentiment of lots of others today. He just said what he thought out loud after having too much wine. But
Jesus thinks differently.
The widow Jesus observes in the Gospel has received a lot of attention throughout the centuries. While she is remembered for her radical generosity, she is an iconic figure of all the unnamed poor and powerless in society. She is a very real person, but she is also a symbol of all the widows, widowers, children, and all minority groups who have no voice, who are considered dispensable, even worthless.
Why is Jesus telling us about her? Does Jesus seem like the kind of teacher who wants poor people to give away their very last resources? Do we seriously believe that he rejoices when a poor person’s generosity deprives her or him of their livelihood? Of course not!
The widow’s generosity places the reality of abject poverty right before our eyes. It should tell us that the poor are not parasites who drain society of its resources and that, in fact, we live in an economy that siphons its resources upward and leaves the vulnerable to face destitution on their own. The two brief stories we hear today resonate with us because of the many examples of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, those with power and authority and those who live at others’ mercy—much like the society in which the widow lived.
Noted author, Sister Joan Chittister, has said that everyone we meet in life is on a mission to teach us something new. Little did the scribes who were strutting about and posturing in their flowing robes know that centuries later their hollow lives would be showcased for believers and nonbelievers alike as examples of bad religion nor did the humble widow realize that her story would come down to us as the embodiment of a deeper understanding that the poor are not only our neighbors, they are our teachers. They know what it is like to be hungry, down and out, and dependent on God alone.
Risking all, she frees herself of her last small treasure.
As the coins clatter away her heart beats with fear and joy.
The widow flings her poverty in the face of power.
What might you have expected to hear about the Gospel stories today? How will they help us to change our attitudes about giving, about the poor, about those who don’t seem to matter much in our society? Maybe we even learn to fling our own poverty into the face of power?