November 15, 2020
Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:8-12
Some of you may have heard me tell this story before, but this gospel passage always reminds me of a little congregation in rural somewhere in the weeks before Christmas. The pastor invited the parishioners to give special donations toward a Christmas dinner and gift for a local family he had known was not well-off. Each week, he made his appeal. And each week, a few dollars came in here and there. With one exception.
There was one family in the congregation who saw this special gift as their calling for the season. The single mother and her three children didn’t have much to offer, but they knew what it felt like to live on the edge, and they wanted to help. The mother gathered up her ends of yarn and began knitting pot-holders and dishrags. The kids went around the community, selling the products so that they could place the proceeds in the plate each week. They were even more diligent than usual at saving money and were so excited, as Christmas neared, to have been able to offer over $70 over the course of the weeks toward a special gift for a poor family.
On Christmas Eve, the pastor announced that they had collected nearly $100 to purchase a Christmas dinner and some small gifts for the family in need. The mother and her children were amazed that their family was able to offer so much, even though they had so little. They went home to open gifts and celebrate the day when a knock came at their door. There stood the pastor with a box of food and some small bags of gifts. He told the mother that their congregation had raised money to offer this Christmas blessing for a family in need, and he hoped they would accept this generous gift.
Of course, she accepted it graciously. But she knew the truth of the matter—that they had been far more blessed than anyone knew. They gave what they could barely afford when everyone else thought the family had been the poorest among them.
Now, I say that the scripture reminds me of this story, but really, they’re nothing alike. This family still had a home. They had food. They had what they needed—perhaps barely—and they used their skills and creativity to offer something to someone they thought needed it more than they did.
In the gospel, the widow had nothing left. She had her two coins, and she gave it to the Temple. I wonder what she was thinking when she dropped those last links to life into the treasury. Did she do it out of obligation—a sense of necessity to be pure and holy? Did she do it out of desperation—a last opportunity to perhaps change the course of her life? Did she do it out of resignation—recognizing that she was on the brink of death, and perhaps someone else would benefit from those coins more than she could?
Because that what the treasury was supposed to be for—a way to help the poor and downtrodden. The widow was not expected to give anything. She was supposed to be one who received from it—from the wealthy who gave to it. But clearly, that wasn’t happening. Even when the wealthy gave out of their abundance, she had received nothing. She was destitute and had only her two coins left.
So often, people try to use this Scripture to compel parishioners to give even their very last. But that’s not why Jesus points her out. In fact, he doesn’t commend her giving as something to be emulated. Instead, he condemns those in charge who have apparently ‘devoured widows’ houses.’ They have made their living on the backs of those who couldn’t afford life for themselves. They have built their prestige and their power upon the foundation of oppression and fear.
So, Jesus points the woman out—probably because everyone else had learned to look past her. She was a nobody. They saw the scribes. They saw the wealthy creating great noise as their many coins hit the treasury. No one noticed the shriveled woman placing two little coins silently into the container. She didn’t seem to count. She had disappeared.
If you’ll remember, this lesson comes for us a week after we heard about the rich man who came asking Jesus what it took to have eternal life. Jesus told the man to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow him. So, perhaps you’re asking whether we’re supposed to give away everything or not? Don’t these passages contradict each other?
No. For the rich man, he used his wealth, power, and prestige as a talisman. He wanted to know how to get closer to God, and Jesus told him. He said, “I’m right here. Just let go of your life so that you can be closer to me.” Today, this woman has no question about eternal life because her current one is struggle enough. She doesn’t have the luxury of asking what more she can do to be closer to God. She’ll certainly be close enough in a few days, when her breath leaves her.
Those few days will also take another life—the life of Jesus. This story occurs just days before his arrest and crucifixion. As she gives her all in resignation, I wonder if Jesus points to her in part as a foreshadowing of his own life—that soon, he will give his all. But not in resignation. Not in desperation. Not in one final push to do something for someone else. He will give his all in hope—in love—in the knowledge that what he does will, indeed, change the whole world. That what he gives is exactly what the world needs for life—the only thing that will bring true life.
He mentions this just after the passage we read today. As he and the disciples get up to leave, they point out to him the size and power and grandeur of the Temple. “Look. What large stones and buildings have been built to honor God and give hope to the people.” Have they not been listening? Did the focus on the dying widow make them uncomfortable—pushing them to point out the glory of the Temple in the face of the injustice Jesus sees?
And, as we know, Jesus’ response to them is that soon, not one stone will be left on another. That grandeur is temporary. And yet, the Temple—the true Temple of Jesus’ presence—will be rebuilt in three days. True glory comes from God, not large and impressive buildings. True strength comes in weakness, not in getting ahead and doing more and being better than everyone else. True power comes in service, not in ignoring or exploiting the circumstances of others.
This is what the scribes—and the world—forget. That our purpose has never been to do more, be better, get ahead, and win the game of life. Our purpose is simply to love, to serve, to re-imagine what the world tells us about ourselves and about our systems and about the value of people. Value that comes not from what they can do for us but what God has done for them. What God continues to do—for all of us.
Redemption is re-imagining. Resurrection is re-imagining. How we give and who we are and what we expect is all about re-imagining the world through the lens of the cross. Because it is always and only the cross that changes our vision of the world. It’s the cross that allows us to see poor widows giving their all. It’s the cross that shows us corruption where there should be justice, and power where there should be peace. It’s the cross that reveals just how upside down our world is without God’s loving Word—the Word who willingly gave his all on that cross so that we might re-imagine who God is for us, and with us. So that we can re-imagine who we are—beloved, worthy, children of God, rich beyond compare.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church