Monday, November 12, 2012

The Widow's Offering

November 11th, 2012    “The Widow’s Offering”     Rev. Heather Jepsen

Mark 12:38-44

          In this morning’s reading we find Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples.  I can just see this bunch of country rabble rousers entering into the holy place.  Their eyes would be wide with all the adornment of the temple.  The walls were lined with cedar and adorned with gold.  There were bronze columns and sculptures.  There were rich colored veils in blue, purple, and crimson.  The disciples surely stood there with their mouths opens, much as any of us would upon seeing such a rich sanctuary.

          Their eyes of course would be drawn to the scribes; those students of the scriptures and temple laws.  Here were the men who had studied the Bible their whole lives; surely they must be closest to God.  The scribes were lovely in their long flowing robes and they were clearly powerful men, being greeted by everyone with great acclaim and respect.  Long flowing robes were a sign of class and a royalty of sorts, only people who don’t do physical work can wear long flowing robes.  Manual laborers, the majority of those in Jerusalem and beyond must wear clothes that they can work in, much like you and me.

          The disciples would have been impressed by just the sight of this holy place and these holy people.  But Jesus is not swayed but such man made opulence and status.  Jesus warns his followers, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”

          Jesus wants the disciples to be wary of the things which attract men, the things which men use to show their power over one another and to lift themselves up as high as possible.  Jesus has told us before that the best seats at the banquet are not seats at all but rather those who do the serving.  Jesus has taught us that we are to be humble in our honor and to be servant leaders.  Jesus warns that even those that appear most holy can be corrupted and that the saying of long public prayers is no cover for the devouring of widows’ houses.

          The group moves through the temple into the treasury where people would be giving their offerings to further the work of the temple.  Now the temple was full of the noise of coins dropping.  The offerings were made in thirteen big receptacles shaped like ear trumpets.  So every offering that was given would make a loud clanging noise of metal on metal.  Consider the nature of the larger offerings; (this was before dollars and checks) those who were offering large sums of money were literally bringing large bags of coins to the temple and dropping them into these tubes, the noise would be deafening

          Now, how Jesus notices this one poor widow among all the clatter and show is a mystery.  But he does see her and her two copper coins and he points her out to the disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  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.”

          Now I want you to listen to that again and listen closely.  Nowhere in this sentence does Jesus actually praise the act of the widow, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  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.”  Even when we read of this event in Luke’s gospel there is no praise of the widow’s actions. 

          Doesn’t that surprise you?  I know it surprised me because in my mind I seem to remember Jesus giving some lesson about faith and praising the widow for her abundant giving.  I know that at least is the sermon I have always heard preached on this passage.  But when we read the text; the praise of the widow, the story of great faith is simply not there.  In the text we only find the widow’s actions themselves; two coins, silently given in the treasury.

          So who is this widow?  What is she doing in our gospel?  Is Jesus simply pointing out how the scribes devour widow’s houses like he just mentioned or is it something more?

          One thing that really struck me was that this widow’s gift does not make any sense.  A widow in the time of Jesus was the most vulnerable member of society.  Without her husband she has no way of earning any income or protecting herself.  Without a male to speak for her she has no rights – nothing.  For her to put everything she has into the temple treasury is simply insane.

          Now I know that the situation for widows is different today but try to picture a similar scenario.  Imagine a mother of three who has recently lost a husband in Afghanistan putting into the offering plate the whole of her bank account; or an elderly widow putting all of her social security check into the plate on a Sunday morning.  That is a challenging scene, and as your pastor, I am not sure what to do with it.  Is the church then to care entirely for them, in a manner similar to the early church in Acts?  We know that doesn’t happen often now and it certainly didn’t happen in the temple in Jerusalem.    

          So who is this woman?  We know that she is someone that Jesus points out to us; she is someone that Jesus clearly wants us to see.  Though not literally praising her for her actions Jesus wants us to see this insane giving, to notice it, to not pass the widow by like so many in the treasury were doing.  Perhaps he wants us to see that it is not a matter of the amount that we give – it is the manner in which we give of what we have.

          Those giving the larger sums in the temple were making a big noise about it.  It would be a big show to see large bags of money and to hear the loud clanging as coins rolled into the offering receptacles.  In contrast, this quiet widow was giving literally everything she had and making no noise or show about it at all.  What must have caught Jesus’ eye was the manner in which she was giving.  Her gift was between her and God – not for show in the temple.  Not for public acclaim.  Just a simple widow giving from her heart, what she was moved by God to give to the church.  And though we may not know exactly what motivated her, this simple widow was moved to give to the church everything that she had.

One interesting thing about the history of interpretation of this passage is that through the years, the widow’s act has been divorced from the rest of the chapter.  We know of her offering, but we frequently forget what Jesus was talking about right before and after the offering occurred.

This story is told within the greater section of Jesus’ final time in the temple in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus has already sent out the money changers, and he has been arguing with the religious authorities for pages.  In our very reading Jesus scoffs at the scribes and the hypocrisy of their ministry.  Jesus is on an anti-temple kick which will continue through this Sunday to next week when he declares that the whole system will fall.

So in the middle of this, we have the widow giving all that she has to the temple, a temple that is about to be torn down.  Mark seems to want us to see that not only does she give everything; she gives everything to a broken and corrupt system.  She gives everything to something that Jesus basically condemns.  It certainly puts a twist on the typical interpretation of this passage.

We may never know who the old widow was or what she was doing in the temple with her last two coins, but we do know that Jesus points her out to us, that Jesus wants us to notice this insane giving.  Jesus may not explicitly praise the widow’s giving but we know that giving literally all you have is not a foreign concept to him.  This morning we celebrate Communion and we honor and remember the sacrifice that Christ made.  We come face to face with the fact that Jesus put in his last two coins, Jesus gave to us all that he had, his whole life.  And not only that, Jesus gave all that he had for something that was corrupt and condemned.  He gave all that he had for the brokenness that is humanity.  He gave himself to us so that we might have abundant life through him. 

          And what are we to do with that abundant life, but to share it?  Jesus wants the whole of our life in return; a commitment to him of our time, our talents, our offerings, and ourselves.  Yes, like the temple, the church is a broken human place; but still it strives to do the work of God, still it is worthy of an offering.  I am not asking you to give a certain dollar amount; and I am certainly not asking you for your last two coins.  I simply want to encourage you this morning, and every day to listen to the Spirit of God in your heart and to respond as fully as you are able. 

We have many opportunities for giving in our lives, not just to the church but to the world around us, the broken human world.  We can put money in the plate or text money to the Red Cross, we can give to support causes of social justice or we can donate to a local charity, we can take the time to visit a neighbor or we can offer a home to a stray animal.  Our opportunities for giving are endless.

          As believers, we know that everything we have comes from God.  We speak of it whenever we give our offerings in the church.  In light of the widow’s offering, I want to challenge you this morning to ask yourself not, “How much should I to give to God, from what I have?”, but to ask yourself “How much, of all that God has given me, should I keep for myself?”  Amen.

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