what about the widow’s mite?

a sermon offered to solcum union church and first united methodist church of elkhart, texas. a different view of a text typically offered as a stewardship campaign–turned on its head.

mark 12: 38-44 as he was teaching, he said, “watch out for the legal experts. they like to walk around in long robes. they want to be greeted with honor in the markets. they long for places of honor in synagogues and at banquets. they are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. they will be judged most harshly.

jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. many rich people were throwing in lots of money. one poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. jesus called his disciples to him and said, “all of them are giving out of their spare change. but she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

when a story is narrated in the same way over and over again we begin to adopt that narrative as what is true–even if perhaps there were tweaks, stretching or editing of the truth and even pure untruths have made their way into the telling of the story. sometimes this is harmless–like a ghost story of an abandoned building children tell each other, tall fishing tales, or when a novel or movie is “based on a true story”. taking artistic license or sweetening of the story-telling plot can be a beneficial thing, for sure.

the story of the widow’s mite to many of us who have been attending church services for a lot of our lives, may be a familiar piece of scripture. we learn about her as children, this story being one of those stories deemed good for children (like noah’s ark, too) that confuses me as to why it is chosen for delicate ears. most often with the main point of the telling of this story to chide congregations and individuals into tithing more, or adding more to their “second-mile giving.”

in the prosperity gospel tradition (which i will name here as heresy and abuse of trust), this widow and her two coins equaling only one penny is used to narrate what that tradition refers to as “planting your seed.” that false notion of planting your over and beyond gift of money to a certain church, or more often than not, a certain “pastor” (and i’m using quotes there on purpose)and if you pray just right, and give just the right amount THEN god will bless you. let me name again, that is abuse, friends.

these tellings of the stories of the widow’s mite are helpful for making an emotional and guilt educing plea during a stewardship or building campaign, with the preacher saying “see, brothers and sisters, even this poor widow-woman gave her last two coins–only totaling one penny–and so much more can you do!”

i am here to tell you that that is not the whole story. we have lost the point.

to be a widow in any age is a difficult role in life. to lose your partner to sickness or accident is a burden that many have carried with broken hearts and empty hands throughout the ages. we hear of stories of one spouse passing away, and the other following not long after–their friends and family saying that they died of a broken heart–missing their partner’s presence and love in their lives so much that their own hearts cease to beat.

added to the pain of losing a partner, in the time of jesus’ ministry, to be a widow had many other life-threatening implications, too. women were not able to own property. even if this widow’s spouse had owned half of judea and successfully farmed figs for their entire lives–his passing meant that she no longer had anyone to take care of her financially. after his passing the land would have passed to a son, a brother, a cousin, a close male friend. almost never to a woman. even if the land had belonged to HER father, and together they farmed olives for thirty years would the land be passed to her–when her husband passed she lost all connection to that land unless whomever it was given to decided to take it upon themselves to help her.

no land, also means no home. again–it could be that the kindness of the new landowner (most likely family of some sort) would allow her to stay in her home–but it very well could be that she wasn’t welcome there any more. no land. no home. and no way to make money.

i wonder if jesus knew her name. surely he did. does.
i wonder if the disciples took the time to know her name.
what about the rich men who were putting their spare change in the box? did they even see her?

what i hope for this widow–and the reality of her story that has been over looked for so long–is that she died with dignity. these were her last two coins–equaling, i’ll say again, only one penny.
and the last thing that jesus says in this reading is “…she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” everything she had. everything she needed to live on.

jesus doesn’t tend to speak in hyperbolic statements–at least not by my best reading of the gospels. so if he says that this is all she has, it is a safe bet that this is a literal statement. she walked out of that temple with everything she most likely owned on her back–whatever clothes she had, and that was it.

this sort of gives me the heebie-jebies, friends.

i spent a few years living among some pretty abject poverty in east africa. i have seen and touched and smelled what it is to literally have nothing but the clothes on your back and to be starving to death, with no hope of coming back from that brink. i have known people whose entire worldly possessions consisted of a blanket, a hat and a cup. a cup they hoped to have filled by the kindness of strangers.

so i wonder what it means for preachers to laud this widow for giving away everything she had but the clothes on her back to the temple. do i hold that up and ask you to be like that? when it very well could be that she was distributing the last of her property so she could quietly slip away and starve? do we celebrate this? do we put our hand over our eyes and weep?

the first part of the reading for this passage tends to be ignored by those preaching stewardship sermons about this widow. but the gospel of mark has jesus, already in the temple and teaching, calling out the legal experts of the day. right before the narration of the widow jesus says to beware of the legal experts because “they are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. they will be judged most harshly.” they cheat widows out of their homes. hum.

the false piety of the legal experts and the religious institution that they lead is corrupt. the institution steals homes from widows rather than tending the least, last and lost–or as the psalm’s say serving a god who is the parent of orphans, and the protector of widows.

if you read backwards in mark you see that in the days preceding this time in the temple, jesus has spent a lot of time speaking against the political and economic injustice all around. he pokes fun at the overly fancy roman ways by processing into jerusalem on a humble donkey. he loses his mind, flips tables and clears the temple’s money changers out of the building with a whip and the most intense anger we see from him.

he keeps quiet when the chief priests, scribes and elders of the religious institution demand to know where his authority comes from–because they just cannot and will not believe that he has been sent by god. he offers scathing remarks on the religious leaders and taxes, and more!

so what is the deal with then turning around and saying that this widow is worthy of praise for giving the last of her possessions and shortening her life expectancy profoundly?

friends: he doesn’t. look at it again–we have heard this narrative so many times over so many years with false information tinting it the wrong color–jesus never celebrates this sacrifice. he does not tell the disciples that this is what true giving looks like. what he does is he sees her. he sees this widow, knows she is giving all she has, and asks his disciples to notice this and to see her, too.

i want to see jesus’ eyes as he watches her. i want to her his voice when he speaks to the disciples. he just preached about the leaders of the temple destroying widow’s houses and then a mostly-destroyed widow deposits the last of her earthly possessions (thereby participating in her own destruction!) literal moments later.

jesus has just drawn the attention of his disciples–and of us– to a trusting woman giving her all to an indefensible institution, one that refuses to protect the poor, refuses to protect her.

jesus saw her. and he asked his disciples and us to notice her. everyone else was “too busy, too grand, too spiritual, and too self-absorbed” to see her. it is nauseating to me that they didn’t see her. but the beauty is in the flip-side. jesus did. jesus saw her. he saw this “insignificant” and small, quiet and hidden woman.

he saw her courage. can you imagine moving through crowds of some of the richest of the rich to deposit the smallest currency in the land? that took courage. it took courage to give the very last pieces of security that she could have clutched in her palms until the very end.

jesus noticed her dignity.  surely she had to steel herself when widowhood rendered her worthless — a person marked “expendable” even in the temple she loved.   she had to trust — in the face of all the evidence piled up around her — that her tiny gift had value in god’s eyes.

and finally, jesus noticed her vocation. if she knew it or not, the widow’s action in the temple that day was a prophetic action.  she is a prophet– rejecting  injustice and corruption. without even saying a single word, she shouts wisdom in the ancient prohpetic tradition of isaiah, elijah, jeremiah…

this widow is also a messianic prophet, because her self-sacrifice comes before jesus’s sacrifice.  something that jesus noticed was his kinship with this prophetic woman,  her story a mirror of his.  she gave everything she had to serve a world so broken, it killed her–and just a few days later, jesus gave everything he had to redeem, restore, and renew that world, and it killed him, too.

and, if reading this time line right in the gospel correctly, jesus died just four days later.  i wonder if the widow did, too.

and, i wonder what it means that Jesus rose from death just three days after that. what does that mean for this prophetic widow and her death?
and, what does that mean for us, too?

thanks be to god, amen.

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2 thoughts on “what about the widow’s mite?

  1. thanks for posting this, thera. Our pastor also preached on this text on Sunday, focusing on the context just as you did, and apologizing to his hearers for the years of using this text as so many have done in stewardship sermons. I always enjoy reading your sermons and wish I could hear them as well! Love to you, Gann

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