Mark 12:38-44 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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.”
Sacrifice. The Veterans we recognized earlier know a thing or two about sacrifice. From missing holidays and important family events to putting themselves in harm’s way; their willingness serve was and is a sacrifice. Today, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War 1. Soldiers who battled in World War 1, knew about sacrifice.
The unnamed widow in today’s text knew about sacrifice. Perhaps you’ve heard her story before. Her face has haunted me all week. I wish we knew her name. I wish we knew for sure that her real-life fierceness exceeded the piety we’ve imposed on her. We know she was an impoverished widow in first century Palestine not seeking to be noticed; a woman living on the margins of her society. She had no safety net- no husband or sons to advocate for her, no pension to draw from, and no social status to hide behind. She was vulnerable and invisible in every single way that mattered in her society. She would have been a member of “the least of these” group, the ones Jesus challenges his followers to care for.
Yet she comes to the outer courts of the temple with an offering of two small copper coins, the smallest coins minted in Judea at that time which are about the equivalent of a penny. In ancient Israel, the “poor” were not necessarily required to give; they simply did so because they believed in the goodness of the institution, the goodness of its leaders, and the need for religious institution to remain. Why would the widow give the last bits she had? Perhaps she knew that once she gave her all, she would need to rely on the resources from the religious institution to provide for her. Perhaps, in the widow’s eyes, giving was an important act of faith.
Yet the scribes did religious actions for the sake of appearances. Scribes would have been very familiar with Torah writings, yet in their corruption they ignored writings such as Deuteronomy 15: 7 which instructs “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” As well as Deuteronomy 24:17 says “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.”
These are just a FEW examples of what God considers JUST in the Torah; the writings that the Scribes and the Pharisees were meant to teach and uphold. One of the things we must remember about these Scribes and Pharisees is that they were not just the “priests, or religious scholars” of that time. They were also the political and community leaders, the land and business owners, and the judges and lawyers. These “holy” men were supposed to use funds to care for the widows. Instead, many of them said long prayers for the sake of appearances, demanded the best seats in the synagogues and parties, and took advantage of widows like the one who gave the temple her two cents and who hoped for help from a broken institution.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus had just answered the question what is the greatest commandment, and challenged people “to love God and to love neighbor.” To care for widows would be right in step with the greatest commandments mentioned earlier; yet the scribes took advantage of widows instead. The call of Jesus is unambiguous: Do not exploit the vulnerable and care for those the world relentlessly seeks to crush. Yet the scribes were doing the exact opposite.
It might be tempting to leave the widow’s story as merely a lesson and morale for how to give, or as a call to give everything we have…but to do so we are missing of the larger points. Though church history uses the widow as a “model giver”, it becomes exceedingly important to note that Jesus never commends the widow nor demands that she give at all. Jesus never applauds her self- sacrifice, or invites us to follow in her footsteps. He simply notices her, and tells others to notice her too. Often times, as we communicate with one another our tone of speech is extremely telling of how we really feel. I would give anything to hear the tone of Jesus’ voice as he called attention to a nameless widow. I can only imagine his voice sounded heartbroken as he tells disciples and others to peel their eyes from rich folks and glance in her direction instead. I can only imagine his tone of sadness as he points out another injustice in the world as people fall to take care of and love their neighbors.
In her work, “The Other Ones”, pastor and poet, Rachael Keefe poetically describes the scene in Mark’s gospel. Listen to a selection from her poem, she writes:
You could see the woman, the widow, the one without means
she kept to the shadows, head down and quiet, even her steps were silent
as she approached the treasury box to add her two cents
far less than others put in
No one took notice
yet you saw her and spoke of her sacrifice and her value
You did not let her go unseen, one among many,
many so much prettier, shinier, showier
who wanted to be seen giving what they would not miss
in a way that spoke of their own significance
and drew attention away from those whose value
they overlooked with training and intention
A widow whose name has not been spoken in thousands of years
acted out Your teachings and wanted nothing for her effort
and we still fail to see
We see her two copper coins and recognize (sometimes) the beauty of her gift
yet we still make it about the money and think that You are asking more of us
than we can possibly give
More than anything else You would like us to open our eyes as Bartimaeus did
and see the way You see and stop confusing money and possessions and success and power–with value and worth and humanity and beloved-ness
Who have we failed to notice hiding out on the margins where we cover them
in shadows and shades of undesirability?
Who holds their gifts out to us like two copper coins whose value isn’t measured in
dollars and cents?
So what did Jesus notice in widow? Jesus saw what everyone else was too busy, too spiritual, too self-absorbed to see. He saw the widow’s courage as she allowed last scraps of security to slip out of her hands. In noticing her Jesus noticed her dignity- despite her being a person who was marked as expendable even in the temple she loved. He saw her tiny gift had value in God’s eyes. Jesus lamented as he watched the scribes take advantage people like her and he denounced injustice and corruption. Would we see the widow? The least of these?
Friends, through our daily living out of our faith, we too are challenged to notice people. But what might our text tell us about giving as we approach the end of stewardship? Perhaps the point is to challenge us to look at giving through a slightly different lens. Perhaps this drives us to look at giving as a form of evangelism. How might our daily lives look if we seek to view giving our time, talents, and resources to the church as form of evangelism? Giving can be one of the ways we as a followers of Christ work to show others another way of loving God and loving neighbor. When we give we show the love of God to our neighbors through joining with community partners to ensure children of Winchester do not go hungry. Through giving to events like Men on a Mission, through giving to the Helper Fund, and through giving to support all the other various missions of First Presbyterian, you are allowing the church to do its work and ministry. You are empowering the church to notice our neighbors.
How might we all take even the smallest steps to response to the call to give our tithes and talents this week? We do not wish to take the last of what you have to live on. We don’t want you to give all that you have and be left with nothing. We are looking for ways to excite and encourage each and every one of you to go out into this world and bare good fruit. To give whatever time, talents, and resources you can and to notice our neighbors, even those who often go unnoticed. As one of my wise pastor friends says, “Remember that whatever you give – it does not go TO the church but it goes THROUGH the church and out into the world.” Amen.