“Everyone used to know what this story means, but then everything changed.” I’ve borrowed that line from the late William Placher, from his writings on this story, the story of the widow’s mite. I have to say, though, that sentiment, that idea, that we used to know what things meant, but then everything changed—it feels like that could be said about much more of life than just this one story.
I have joked before that the longer I am alive, the less I know; but like the very best humor, we laugh in part because we recognize at least a kernel of the truth in what’s just been said.
What we recognize, what we see and what Jesus sees—that’s what is at the very heart of this story. We’ll come back to that.
This past summer, I was able to spend some time visiting my family in northern Michigan, where my parents now live on Burt Lake. Usually, when I’m able to make my way there, my brother and his family will come for a few days as well. My brother has three kids—Lily is the oldest, Annabelle is the youngest, and Logan, the only boy, is in the middle. (You should pray for him. He needs it!)
Anyway, because I wake early, I was in the habit of taking my coffee and a book and making my way to the end of the dock, where I would soak in the quiet until, inevitably, there would be the sound of little feet running toward me. Annabelle was always the next one to wake up, and when you are six years old, apparently you only need six minutes between getting out of bed and getting into the lake. So, she would come find me, and we developed a game where I would give her a letter and she would think of a word that started with that letter and then she would call it out as she cannonballed into the water. We usually played about 400 rounds of this before she tired of it.
One morning, I was almost finished with my book, and so every time Annabelle jumped in the water, I would try to sneak in a few more sentences before she came back out again. I guess at one point, another jump number,…oh, I don’t know,…350 or so, I was a little too distracted by my book.
“Jenny…Aunt Jenny…hey, Aunt Jenny.”
It seems I was still reading, because the next thing I knew, two little hands were on either side of my face, lifting my head up. “Aunt Jenny,” Annabelle demanded, “Pay. Attention. To me. Watch me!”
I adore my niece. But I think the scribes Jesus is talking about are a little bit like that.
Scribes were hybrid sorts, part lawyer and part theologian. They were proficient in reading and writing contracts, which meant they were well-suited to interpret Jewish law. Scribes were considered the intellectual elite—and some of them liked the “elite” part of that very much. Some of them wore their long robes every day, robes that were supposed to be just for special occasions. And they liked the best seats in the synagogue. If there were Presbyterians, that would have meant the back pews, but in their case, they preferred to sit in the front. After all, everyone can see you when you sit in the front seats.
But, back to Jesus. This is one of only a very few moments in Jesus’ ministry, at least the way Mark tells it, when he isn’t doing anything. Mark seems to deliberately slow down his very rushed rendition of the gospel, to tell us that after teaching for a good while, Jesus sits down, opposite the treasury, and watches. He just watches.
He’s watching people give money to the temple system. This does not mean he’s watching ushers quietly pass plates from one person to the next. The temple was surrounded by a number of offering boxes that were large and trumpet-shaped. The shape—wide at the top and then increasingly narrow—made it easy for money to be deposited, but also made it difficult for wayward hands to reach in and help themselves as they passed by. The presence of these offering boxes outside of the temple, rather than within, made them available to everyone, and made it possible for everyone to contribute, even those who chose not to attend services. Even those who were not welcome to attend services.
And, of course, it also made it possible for everyone to notice when contributions were made.
Jesus watches as all sorts of rich people come and put in large sums of money. But this is another time when our English translations don’t quite capture all the nuance Mark intended. The Greek word doesn’t actually describe the amount of money. It describes what the money was made of: metal. Heavy, substantial metal. And when you throw in a large sum, as it says the rich do, those heavy, metal coins make a loud, clanging noise as they clatter their way down into the trumpet boxes.
The bigger the offering, the more noise. The more noise, the more people notice. Beware, Jesus teaches, of those who like all sorts of attention.
Jesus is still watching as the poor widow comes by and quietly gives her two coins, worth a penny. We know she did it quietly, because just like Mark makes clear that the coins from the wealthy were heavy, Mark also makes clear that the coins from this widow are not just small, but light. They would make hardly any noise at all; in fact, with the volume of everyday life going on all around, had Jesus not been watching, no one would have noticed her or her contribution at all.
So, this is when he stops watching and returns to teaching. He gathers his disciples around and says, “Look!” Look at her, he says. The rest of them, they have given out of their abundance. This woman, she has given everything she has.
And so, for quite some time, preachers would read this story every Stewardship season, just like I am today, and they would encourage their congregations to give like the widow, to give everything they possibly could. We used to know that’s exactly what this story meant.
But then, like William Placher says, everything changed. In 1982, Addison Wright published an article that upended the traditional interpretation. Wright contended that this was not a sentimental story about sacrificial giving, but rather a lament and condemnation of a corrupt, hypocritical, religious institution. Jesus, Father Wright contends, speaks not with gratitude or admiration in his voice. He speaks with pity and sadness and even indignation. Wright says this because of what Jesus says in verse 40. Right after Jesus cautions his followers to beware the scribes who like all the attention, he goes on to say more. “They devour widows’ houses,” he says.
And just moments later, we encounter a widow who gives everything she has. Now, the scribes, more than anyone else, should have known how to treat widows. They were, after all, the ones who read the law and interpreted it to others. So, they knew that scripture commands us to look out for the widow and the exile and the child—in short, to look out for everyone who is particularly vulnerable. And rather than support the widow’s house, it seems, they devour it, by creating a culture where she is either required or exhorted to give more than she really has to give.
The temple, some say, was abusing the poor, sort of like a modern-day televangelist who promises that if you just send him your Social Security check, he’ll put in a good word with God, and blessings will soon start reigning down upon you. It’s taking advantage of those who have the least to give.
It’s a legitimate interpretation, given that everywhere else, Jesus advocates for the widows and the vulnerable, telling everyone who can hear that faithfulness looks like lifting up the lowly. And, it’s a legitimate interpretation, because while it was going on then, it’s also going on now. We have way too many examples in our recent history of people using religion to take advantage of their neighbor or their enemy. So, this interpretation goes, Jesus wants his disciples to see this woman, to really see her and what has been asked of her, so that they too, will get angry, and by God, never let someone be manipulated into giving away their every last cent ever again.
So, which is it? Does Jesus speak with admiration in his voice, or condemnation? Is the widow to be celebrated or rescued?
I don’t know. I don’t know, and I’m not sure it’s ours to determine. Because while it comes from a place of well-intended justice to declare that the widow is being taken advantage of, and to be outraged on her behalf, the truth of the matter is, scripture simply doesn’t tell us. And, for us to assume we know the widows intentions, for us to put words in her mouth, well, that’s as problematic as anything else about this story.
But, here’s what scripture does tell us. And, once again, we have to look past the English to really see it. We read Jesus’ words as, “She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” All she had to live on. It makes sense; it’s just, well, not entirely right.
The Greek there is bios. Life. She didn’t put in everything she had to live on. She put in her entire life. That’s what the scripture actually says. And, I think, Jesus sees her like no one else can. Because if you turn the page in Mark’s Gospel, we come to chapter 13, and in chapter 13, we hear definitively that the temple is about to be destroyed, because it has become corrupt. Jesus says that not one stone of it will be left upon another. All of it will be torn down.
And yet, he watches as the widow gives her life to this broken institution. And, I wonder if as he watches, if perhaps he thinks, “She looks so much like me.”
Scholar Gary Charles, who is now a pastor in Virginia, says, “The widow gives to an institution that no longer notices those who are in the greatest need and has forgotten why it exists. For Mark, the widow is not unlike Jesus, who will also soon give his last red cent not to inflate the corrupt Temple treasury but to redeem God’s beloved world. The widow gives her entire life outside in the street. Jesus will give his entire life somewhere near the trash dump on the outskirts of town. He, like her, will leave nothing behind. He, like her, will have given everything.”
Friends, it is indeed Stewardship season here at MAPC. And, we do indeed need your financial contributions. But, more than that, Jesus needs your life. Your whole life. Because, here’s the thing. One thing this story and all its complex layers tells us is that I can’t tell you how much money to give. Because only you know what you have and what you need. We’ll talk more about that next week. For now, all I can tell you is this: give Jesus your life, your whole life, and everything else will follow.
Pointing to the widow is Jesus’ last act of public ministry. Four days after this, Jesus will be crucified and dead, having uncurled his fingers from around his offering.
The widow gives her living to a corrupt church. Jesus is about to give his life to a corrupt world. She withholds nothing from God, and neither does he. So, of course he sees her. It takes one to know one, and Jesus always knows the one to watch.
It is my hope, and my prayer, for us all, that Jesus will look at us, each of us and all of us, and say, “Look! Look at them. They look so much like me.”
 The end of this sermon, especially, is influenced by Rev. Tom Are, who was influenced by Rev. John Walton at First Presbyterian Church in New York City.