Proper 27, B
There’s a farmer in southern Minnesota who took excellent care of his land and his animals. He kept the animals clean and well fed. He was such a good farmer, in fact, that when his birthday came around, his chickens and his pig wanted to do something nice for him in return. The chicken said, “I know what we’ll do. We will give him breakfast in bed.” The Pig said, “Good idea! What will we give him?’ The chicken replied,”We’ll give him bacon & eggs.” The pig cried out, “Hold on! That’s OK for you, for it is an occasional contribution, but for me, it is total commitment!”
The gospel story today has traditionally been read as a celebration of total commitment, giving all that you have and all that you are. Living a life based on faith and giving, contrasted with false piety and buying status. It is the story of the widow’s mite. We typically hear very little about the scribes, almost in passing really, as a contrast to the widow’s noble behavior. It’s possible that we hear so little about those scribes because, generally speaking, the people giving the sermons are sitting in the most prominent seats, walking around in long robes and spouting long prayers. The robe wearing, prayer spouting prominent seat sitters don’t get such a good rap in this story.
The commentaries I read this week suggest a new take on the story concentrating more on those self aggrandizing, house devouring scribes. These commentaries propose that Jesus’s take on the situation, rather than heaping praise on the widow, is a lament against the system that would allow her to give more than she can, as the system marches merrily along, fiscally and socially rewarding the perpetuators of the system. If this story were in the news, their proposal for headlines, rather than “Widow Gives Her All For The Cause” would instead be, “Pompous Imposters Pressure Penurious Pensioners”. Some even criticized the widow for her role in perpetuating the abusive system that claimed her last two copper coins.
This widow lived in a system that rendered her essentially invisible. We are in Jerusalem now. We have jumped right over Palm Sunday and are looking at events in the week before Jesus’s execution. In fact, this observation is the last in Jesus’s public ministry according to Mark. These events take place in the temple. For a very long time, the temple lay in ruins, well, half ruins anyway. Herod has had it restored to all of its former glory, a fitting house for the Glory of God, no longer an embarrassment to the faith of the people. Or is it? Jesus challenges its virtue – house of God or not. It has become a monumental erection to the glory of the hierarchy, built on slave labor; built on the willing and unwilling contributions of the impoverished and marginalized.
We are not immune to systems and cultures that warp our perspectives. We just survived an election. Whatever your thoughts about the results or the process, understand that 6 billion, billion with a “B”, dollars were spent on campaigning for that election, an election in which both parties spent a great deal of time talking about the economy, but neither had much to say about abject poverty. Yet roughly 46.2 million people in the US live in poverty (2011 Census information). About 1.5 million American children are homeless each year (according to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family) Fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year. In spite of a decades old agreement by the world’s wealthiest countries to give 0.7% of their gross national income to international development aid annually, in 2008 the United States gave just below 0.2% of its gross national income. God’s children live without clean water, adequate food, civil rights, shelter, medicine, representation. How does the system, the culture allow us to not see the tragedy?
Back to the widow. Unnoticed, alone, impoverished, she gave everything. Jesus lamented the system, but I think his life and his words show us he valued her commitment. To quote D. Mark Davis, “In a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and she is contributing toward an unjust system. She is giving all that she has and she is abetting a system that will take away all that she has. It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will, in turn, exploit her.” Jesus honors the widow’s willingness to give, without honoring the system that would take the last penny from a widow. To quote Suzanne Guthrie, “The old widow trusts in God. The old widow loves God. Jesus, a holy fool himself, understands this foolish love. In the economy of the sacred this love is reckoned to her as righteousness.” The widow teaches how to give. Her giving foreshadows Jesus’s own willingness to give everything, up to and including his life for the sake of others. Mere days later, Jesus will give his life for something corrupt and broken: for all of humanity, that all humanity might know abundant life.
Today is Veteran’s Day. Today we remember before God a group of men and women who were willing to give everything, including their lives, for others. History has proclaimed some wars “justified”, some not. As Christians, we surely abhor the very concept of violence and anger and destruction. We follow the God of creation, abundant life and love. But war is not yet out-loved, power still corrupts, and men and women still offer their own lives to stand up for those who need protection. We honor these people. We pray for peace. We honor the widow. We work for justice. We honor Christ. He asks that we give ourselves, that ALL God’s people might know abundant life. It’s about life. It’s always about life…
If you would live according to the Gospel, abandon yourself simply and entirely to the action of God. (Jean-Pierre de Caussade 1675- 1751)