Beyond The Widow’s Mite

A Sermon for Proper 27: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

We know the story of the widow’s mite. We are used to hearing it as a stewardship story. We understand how she is giving all she has; two coins, worth a penny. Sixty-four pennies is a day’s wage so 1 is worth about 10 minutes wages (Harrelson; Keener and Walton). She gives “all she had to live on” literally, she gave “her whole life” (v.44) (Gaventa and Petersen). We see the contrast between her and the wealthy who give a lot, out of what they have left over. It is a valuable lesson in stewardship. It is also a valuable lesson in what it means to trust God (Logue; Lewis). Because in this story we also have to trust. We don’t know how the story ends, so

  • we have to trust that the widow’s story turns out all right; we have to trust that whether she lives or dies, she was God’s (Logue). And knowing the widow is not alone in her plight
  • we have to trust that we can and that we will, act to help the widow(s) to live fully (Lewis).

However, reading the story this way ignores the three verses before it, which seem to be linked if for no other reason than Jesus condemns scribes

because they love to say long prayers for the sake of appearance, but at the same time they devour widows’ houses (Mark 12:40).

And this takes us back to the beginning, well not all the way to Genesis, but to Exodus and the Ten Commandments. The 5th commandment is:

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Ex 20:12).

‘Honor’ literally means “to be heavy” or to “give weight to” (Brueggemann). The parallel verse in Deuteronomy gives an expectation of seeking the overall welfare of the family (Clements). Scripture demands special protection for widows, they are vulnerable, they have no protection, they have no advocates. While Scribes can act as guardians and manage widows’ affairs, often they used the opportunity to seize widows’ property and enrich themselves (Keener and Walton; Harrelson; Gaventa and Petersen). Earlier, Mark tells of Jesus condemning Pharisees and scribes for the practice of Corbin (7:11). Corbin originally was to designate a gift as a sacrifice consecrated to God. Later, you could vow to gift something to God sometime in the future and remove it from other obligations like honoring your parents (Sakenfeld).

Going back

  • to the beginning,
  • to Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes devouring widows’ houses,
  • to the practice of Corban,
  • to the commandment to honor father and mother

helps us to see beneath the surface of the widow’s story. It may remind us of that idea in Job, that wealthy are right in God’s eyes and poor are not. Seeing from the beginning helps us to see that belief system in the widow’s story (and yes it seems that we are not done with Job, we may never be) (Logue).

There is another little tidbit that helps us to see beneath the surface. In the ancient world Temples often doubled as banks, they were a safe place (Keener and Walton). The picture of the wealthy leaving the bank function of the Temple, and dropping some token into the Temple’s coffers, where the widow will place her life trusting in God to live, completely recast this story. It reflects uncomfortable, inconvenient images of the state of the world. We want the story to be about stewardship because then we can avoid its truths;

  • that we are good at ignoring the widow, so we don’t have to think about how we should, or worse yet, would respond to her circumstances;
  • how we hold her up to heights that make it easy to forget who she truly is; and
  • how we support what builds us up at the expense of those in need (Lewis).

It gets more inconvenient if we dare to wonder if we have ever been in the same position the widow is in, or if we know someone who has been. I know I do.

In 2008 I accepted the position as Rector of St. Peter’s Bon Scour, Al. They were surrounded by five housing developments, not including a billion-dollar development on the other side of the river. They wanted to prepare to grow. And if you don’t, we should remember the fall of 2008 and the collapse of the housing market. By the end of my time there, Angie and I meet two families who were in the process of losing their homes. We have a relative who lost their home. People were losing their homes even though HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) was in place. It wasn’t until much later it was learned that two of the largest US banks and several loan service companies intentionally did not direct eligible families to HARP and those loans foreclosed; in other words, they devoured those families’ houses, those families’ lives. It is more disturbing when we learn that the cost of the program was paid for by investors not the banks or loan servicers. The conspiracy of fraud and racketeering activity may reach 100 million charges (not homes) (Home Owners For Justice). As far as I know, the Banks (meaning stockholders) have paid large fines. I have not heard of a single bank executive being charged with a crime or paying a fine. These scribes defied Godly commandments twice, first by devouring family’s homes, and then by structuring it so someone else pays for it.

It’s a dangerous thing to read beyond the surface the scriptures. It’s a dangerous thing to see the truth

  • of our world
  • of our nation
  • of our community
  • of our church and
  • of our selves.

It’s dangerous because we just might come face to face with the widow’s faith. We just might be inspired to wonder “Can we place all we have, all our life in God’s hands?” especially when we remember that it is a dangerous (a fearful) thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:31).

We live in turbulent times. It is easy to feel all fogged up and spun about. Not only are we challenged to place our lives in the living God’s hands we are also asked to confess those ways in which we devour family’s homes, families’ lives, including through perverse nationalistic fervor festering all sorts of isms, and anti-isms; racism and anti-Semitism and all the rest.

The widow is like Job, we don’t get any answers to the questions that her story raises. I don’t know if I can put my life, my family’s life, which is harder, in the hands of the living God. I know I should, I know I want to, but there is this trust thing, this tiny nagging unbelief. Thus, my prayer for me, my prayer for us is “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).


References

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Home Owners For Justice. foreclosure defense overview loan modification. n.d. web. 11 11 2018. <https://hofjorg.wordpress.com/foreclosure-defense-overview/loan-modification/).>.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on Mark 12:38-44. 11 11 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. The Widow’s Might. 11 11 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Logue, Frank. “Giving, Pentecost 25 (B).” 11 11 2018. Sermons that Work.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.