Year B, Pentecost 24 November 8, 2015
Our Gospel reading is a deceivingly difficult text. At first glance, it seems like a gift from heaven. Here we are in the middle of our fall stewardship campaign and the Gospel reading is the widow’s mite. Everyone knows that story…the woman who has little gives all she has to her faith community. It’s almost like we purposefully picked this reading for this time of the year. But then you have that darn context again. Right before this lovely story about the widow is Jesus telling the crowd to beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes….who devour widow’s houses for the sake of appearances say long prayers. These scribes that Jesus is warning about are the same scribes who might benefit from the gift that this poor widow is making. Furthermore Jesus is accusing them of taking advantage of the plight of widows like her and here she is giving everything she has to them. It seems odd that Jesus would support such a action.
We hear a lot about widows in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. The Bible tells us again and again how important it is to care for widows. There were several reasons this group of people received special attention in the Bible. Now when we think of widows, we consider the emotional ramifications, the loss one experiences when he or she loses their spouse. While that was certainly a factor at this time, the primary social concern was related to caring for the physical needs of the widows.
At this time, women could not inherit money or property. If her husband died, she would be left with nothing. If she had a son, the property would all go to the son and the expectation would be that the son would care for his mother. However, if there was no son, then there was no safety net. If the woman was still young and able to have children, she might be able to marry again. If this was not possible, then her options were limited to: depending on the kindness of male relatives, begging on the streets, or becoming a prostitute. Working was not an option for women and there was no social security or Medicare. Widows epitomized what it was to be completely vulnerable and dependent on others for their own well-being. This is why the people of God were commanded again and again to care for widows.
In the Gospel for today, we are told that not only was this woman a widow, but she was a poor widow, which tells us that she had no one caring for her. She had nothing except for two coins. She gave both of those coins to the treasury of the temple. The traditional understanding of this text (and the one that is most convenient for stewardship sermons) is that she was a model of sacrificial giving. She gave everything she had to God. Jesus was holding her up as an example for all of us to follow. The more critical interpretation is that Jesus was using her to illustrate how unjust the system was, another example of how the poor and vulnerable were abused. Right after he pointed her out, he predicted the destruction of the temple. Why would he encourage her or anyone else to give to a temple that was about to be destroyed?
The more I wrestled with these two interpretations, the more frustrated I became. I realized that I could not with integrity preach the traditional interpretation of the text with the emphasis on sacrificial giving but I also felt that she had more to teach us than what was wrong with the world at that time.
We had a funeral recently and I was reading the liturgy and I came to a part that I have never given much consideration. “For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” We are the Lord’s possession. It seems strange to me that we find comfort in this statement after someone has died because I am pretty sure there is no other time when we refer to ourselves or others as the Lord’s possession. People would probably balk at that idea. Nobody wants to be someone else’s possession, even if that someone else is God. It is only when we lose someone to death that we can allow for the possibility that they are now God’s possession.
That reminded me of the widow in this story. All the commentators and scholars, when they talked about her being a widow, it was only to explain her plight, her financial circumstance. It was never about the fact that this woman had lost not only her financial stability, but her partner in life. I know that there are many people here who have suffered that loss, or the loss of a child, a parent, a sibling, a close friend. Most of us have lost someone who is precious to us. I can only imagine the pain that must come with losing a partner in life. In my limited experience with loss, what I have learned is that even in our grief when we acknowledge the person as the Lord’s possession, we still have to find the strength to let go, to truly accept that they are the Lord’s possession. We have to let go of something that was once ours to hold and give it to God. When you have experienced that kind of loss, then letting go of a few coins, even if they are the only coins you possess, isn’t that big a deal…not much of a sacrifice at all.
I wonder if this widow, in her intimacy with loss and grief, knew something that the great scholars of her day and ours cannot quite grasp. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession. If we can understand that while we are still living, then we become free from everything. When we declare that we are the possession of the Lord, then we no longer feel as possessive about what we have or think we have. This woman is held up as a model of sacrificial giving. Perhaps that is true, but not because she sacrificed a few coins, but because she learned to let go. She learned the hard way, but she learned. I imagine that is one of the hardest lessons in life, letting go of people, letting go of control, letting go of things, letting go of independence, letting go of prestige…. The way we find strength to let go is to trust that we are not letting go into some abyss. We are letting go so that God can take hold. In letting go, we are giving…we are giving to God.