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The Problem of the ‘Widow’s Mite:’

Written by: Reimers, Christine E.     Posted on: 05/16/2007

Category: Sermons


1 Kings 17:8-16
The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
Psalm 146 (selected verses)
2
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them. . .
7
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
8
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

Mark 12:38-44
Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "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."
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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."
READ: The gospel of the Lord.



The Problem of the Widow's Mite:

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. This is a text often associated with stewardship drives, often the phrase a ‘widow’s mite’ is the stand in for true generosity and self-sacrificial giving. A surprising number of Internet sites offer the ‘lepton’ – the small copper coins – for purchase – as if the story were somehow about the coin!

Listen again, Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, watching the crowd, in the midst of the multitude of important temple leaders -- important men -- Jesus saw a widow, recognized one who was usually invisible, and voiceless in Temple and public society – a woman, a widow woman – identifiable by her widow’s garb, a poor widow woman making her way quietly forward, careful not to bother the important temple leaders and the crowds of men coming to the Temple to make their offering. Jesus saw a widow put in two small copper coins.

Why did Jesus take notice of her? What did Jesus see in this poor pious woman pilgrimage to make her obligatory temple contribution?

Jesus not only sees her, but her watches her actions – this one who has no voice in the church or society, this one who lives on the margins. Jesus sees her; he watches her, and takes note of her giving as she faithfully contributes to the treasury. There is no dialogue – the widow has no voice in this narrative, we have no reason to believe she even knew she was noticed. We have every reason to believe she left as quietly as she came – careful not to disturb the important men and Temple leaders around her. And yet, Jesus is not done ‘seeing her,’ calling his disciples to him and says “”Amen, I say to you, this poor widow herself cast in more than all of those casting into the treasury. For all of them cast in from their surplus, but she from her need cast in all of whatever she had, her whole life.” Jesus is teaching, yes, but the lesson is not simply one of sacrificial giving. Even this noteworthy recognition by Jesus of someone Dr. Vitalis Hoffman might call “one of the least and the lost” does not begin to give us the whole picture. Jesus saw a widow put in two small copper coins.

The Markan text makes clear by setting this vignette in a conflict narrative between Jesus and the scribes that the widow serves in stark contrast to members of the Temple establishment. For Mark’s 1st century hearers this text points to the growing tensions within the Jewish community between the followers of Jesus and other Jewish groups – both the scribes and the widow are stereotyped and caricatured. In fact there is also a part of the Markan critique of those in authority in the temple and synagogue that I was not aware of. It is this that provides the critical all-important corrective to the usual stewardship use of the ‘widow mite.’ The text for the day begins with “Beware” of those religious authorities who “devouring widow’s houses.’ This framing of the widow’s giving may actually provide a lens on this text that nuances Jesus’ apparent holding up of the widow as the paradigmatic example of Christian giving. Most biblical scholars suggest that Jesus is actually revealing to his followers that the widow is being exploited and while she ‘out of her poverty has given everything she had’ this is NOT the kind of piety and religious community Jesus wants his followers to emulate, this is not the beloved community. In fact, not only do we have the “Beware the scribes . . . who devour widow’s household’ at the beginning of today’s reading, but if you look at the beginning of the next chapter – next week’s reading we have Jesus standing outside the Temple and saying “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” So the very temple treasury into which the widow gives is to be for nought – because the temple will be destroyed. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was clear interpreted by Mark’s community as a judgment on the Jewish tradition of their day and a vindication that they ‘as the followers of Christ’ in house churches were on the right path. Yet, Jesus saw a widow put in two small copper coins.

Given the complexity of this situation what is a lesson we can and should take from the ‘widow’s mite?’ In seeking an answer to this question let’s look at the two other ‘widow’ texts assigned for today:
Psalm 146, selected verses:
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them. . .
7 The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
8 The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
God, the God of Israel is the one who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow. And, not only is God one who cares for widows, orphans and strangers, but, God judges Israel’s behavior by how it cares for these same “least and lost,” those who are marginalized and powerless by society’s rules. Consider now the text from I Kings about the widow of Zarephath, who sustains Elijah during the drought -- the drought that has been sent on Israel because of the idolatrous and unjust rule of Ahab and Jezebel. The prophet is not only sent to a widow, but a gentile – a foreigner, a poor and starving widow with a young child. God insists that she will sustain him. And, the widow, when asked to do this stranger’s bidding and ‘feed him her last morsel of food’ she has the ‘chutzpah’ to answer back “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah reassures her that she and her household will be sustained as well; and then she (in an act of uncommon faith it seems to me) does as is requested of her. And she and her son and Elijah ARE sustained – the meal and oil become a never empty supply.

HOWEVER, there is more ‘framing’ in this story as well. Not only is the drought brought on by the unjust rule of Ahab and the idolatrous worship of Baal, but in the very next section the widow’s son sickens and dies. The widow confronts Elijah, “What have you against me O man of God?” Elijah is compelled to pray to God for her son’s life – and the child is resurrected a ‘given back to his mother.’ The voiceless-one has confronted the prophet – perhaps even the God of Israel – and demands justice and has her family restored – her only child – returned to her from death to life.

Jesus saw a widow put in two small copper coins.
Sitting opposite the treasury. . . he noticed a poor widow woman casting her ‘whole life’ in and he sees her. Jesus sees her. Does his teaching to his disciples say that her poverty is just? No. Does his teaching indicate the religious authorities understand that God is the one who seeks to sustain and bring justice for the widow, the orphan and the stranger? No, in fact they are to receive the greater judgment because they do not. Jesus recognizes her situation and the injustice of society and the church of his day. The Greek wording for her ‘giving her whole life’ prefigures the sacrifice Jesus is about to make – it serves as BOTH a judgment on the temple cult that demanded giving that so impoverished the widow AND as prelude to Christ ‘giving his whole life--’ the death the Son of Humanity must suffer – under the unjust authority of Rome and condemned by religious leaders – Christ gave his whole life as a sacrifice ‘once for all to remove sin’ [Hebrews] through suffering and death on the Cross.

These widows’ stories are anonymous – no doubt they stand for so many women who lived desperate, silent and virtually invisible lives in a society where power and access to basic resources came through the protection and support of a man – father, husband, brother or son. Some of the widows’ stories in scripture envision one who, perhaps from desperation, speaks out and demands justice or some response – like the widow of Zarephath, or the Lukan parabal of the “Persistent Widow.’ But my fairly quick review of the context of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek NT makes clear what is revealed in the linguistic roots of the word ‘widow.’ Her situation was extremely vulnerable to exploitation and oppression, and one to be feared and seen as a curse. The Hebrew word for widow, almanah, has its root in the word alem, meaning unable to speak. Thus the widow is the silent one – the legal status of the widow: one not spoken for. The Greek word for widow (chera) is from the root ghe, which means ‘forsaken’ or ‘left empty --’ a widow is thus, without or left without. Jesus saw a widow put in two small copper coins.
So. . . Jesus saw the widow in the temple – the silent one, the one who is left out, doing what she understands is necessary to continue to BE in her religious community. Mark’s passion narrative places women – some without any male descriptor, like Mary Magdalene – as widow or never married, watching from a distance at the crucifixion. These woman SAW Jesus and his sacrifice. They have not run away. These women encounter the Risen Christ in the garden on Easter morning. Perhaps as Elizabeth Malbon suggests in her articles on this text in the Feminist Companion to Mark one of the multiple contexts in which the story of the widow’s mite is situated is that
“the historical reality of women’s lower status and the historical reality of women’s discipleship together support in Mark’s Gospel the surprising narrative reality of women characters who exemplify the demands of followership, from bold faith in Jesus’ life-giving power to self-giving in parallel to, or in recognition of, his self-denying death. Perhaps women characters are especially appropriate for the role of illuminating followership, because in the Markan community women were in a position to bear most poignantly the message that among followers the ‘first will be last, and the last first (10:31).” (ed. Amy-Jill Levine, pg. 123, 2001).

Jesus saw a widow put in two small copper coins.
Jesus sees the widow and knows the character and spirit of her gift. Jesus sees us. Jesus stands before us as we gather at the table. The widow is here at this table too. Do you see her – the voiceless-one, the one silent in grief, loss, poverty? Who have I come to ignore, who is invisible and whose voice is lost on me? Who do you need to see, we need to see? OR, how have we been silenced or silenced another? This text is certainly not simply about stewardship – most certainly not simply about financial stewardship. But it IS about discipleship and followership. And stewardship – of one’s whole life and resources is about listening, hearing and being heard; it’s about responding to God’s daily gift of grace – responding to God’s call to participate in creating the beloved community of justice and inclusion.

We are to hear in these texts – as Lutheran’s are wont to say-- “as both Law and Gospel.” We, too, as the scribes are judged for our self- indulgence at the expense of others, we are also heard, we are seen, we are called. Called to emulate the widow by offering our whole lives, we are called to extravagant giving, we are called to be agents of justice, we are seen for who we are and who we are gifted to become. Come to Christ’s table of grace and be renewed for the sake of the world. Be renewed daily in God’s grace to BE grace in the world – to be a voice for the voiceless and seeking to be stewards of God’s reign.
AMEN

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