The Widow’s Mite

Proper 32             November 11, 2018

Mark 12:38-44

It is two short and apparently simple vignettes that Mark offers us in today’s gospel: Jesus’s condemnation of the hypocrisy of many scribes, and his observations on the Temple treasury box. Just a couple of sentences each. But Mark has placed these two pericopes side by side, and by so doing has allowed them to speak to one another, to inform one another and bring one another into focus. They become two perspectives on the same issues, giving us a binocular vision that brings out the depths of the scene we are being shown. In this way we see and indeed share in Jesus’s remarkable fineness of observation.

He begins with a denunciation of the scribes. Not all scribes, mind you; just a few verses earlier he commends a scribe on the question of the greatest commandment. Jesus is not attacking the religious institution of the scribe itself, but the abuse of that responsibility: the scribes who are concerned with the respect and honour they receive from others, who “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!” These are the hypocrites, those who use their aura of piety for their own advantage and self-aggrandizement, while not living the principles of the faith they profess: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” It would seem that religion then, as now, was big business, an opportunity for the unscrupulous to profit, both in material and social capital, by wrapping themselves in the cloak of piety. The only question is whether, in modern parlance, this is a bug or a feature of our religious institutions.

These words of Jesus are spoken in a physical context: Jesus is teaching in the Temple, where he has been for the last chapter or so of Mark. As the scene shifts to the treasury, we are reminded of where he is. The Temple was of course the heart of Biblical Judaism, a symbol of God’s presence that connected the people with the ancient Old Testament story of exile and rebuilding. But it had also, in Jesus’s day, been coopted. It was in the midst of a major construction project that had gone on for decades, begun by none other than Jesus’s infant nemesis, Herod the Great. The massive new courtyards and walls and platforms were a public relations initiative of the Herodian dynasty, a blatant but perhaps successive attempt by that cynical, cruel, and vulgar ruler to portray himself as the defender of the faith. And so the very setting of our scene echoes Jesus’s denunciation of religious hypocrisy: it is all around him, writ large in stone.

Into this theatre of the piety of the powerful now step the wealthy, lining up to make their ostentatious contributions to the Temple project. Herod is generous, and does not reserve the mantle of piety for himself alone: there is plenty of opportunity for others to share in this aura of holiness, however ill-gotten their gains may have been. The Temple is big enough to launder the blood money of an entire kingdom. It is a grotesque parody of the true function of the Temple, referenced in our epistle reading, to reconcile sinners by sacrifice.

In the midst of this scene of so much wealth and power and ostentation, Jesus’s gaze is drawn to another figure: the poor widow, humble, inconspicuous, shuffling to the treasury with her two copper coins. A figure no doubt overlooked and invisible to the others there; a figure we would so easily overlook, as we probably often do in our daily journeys through life: just another shabby, sad figure we might pass by in the supermarket, clutching a loaf of bread and two tins of cat food. But she is the one Jesus makes the centre of the scene: she is for him the truly important and interesting figure in this great tableau of wealth and influence; she is the key to understanding what is going on.

Let us marvel for a moment at how miraculous Jesus’s perspective is. It is not unique to him, of course, it is the view that God takes throughout the Old Testament, the God who looks not on outward appearances but a person’s heart, the God who has always favoured the poor and the powerless, the widows and orphans. It is nonetheless a miraculous perspective within human culture, working so radically against the machinations of Herod, of the wealthy and powerful, who actually do a pretty effective job at teaching us all what we should be admiring and valuing. The icons and narratives and rituals of power have always been remarkably successful at teaching our hearts what to love (remember Jamie Smith’s argument about secular liturgies!): we learn to love the strong and beautiful and sophisticated and successful; and we learn not even to see the poor widow, so undeserving she is of our attention.

But God’s view is different. It echoes through the words of the psalm we just said together. God’s perspective turns the human way of looking on its head: “The LORD careth for the strangers; he upholdeth the fatherless and widow:
as for the way of the ungodly, he turneth it upside down.” We are not to look to the power of the successful: “O Put not your trust in princes nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them.” (Timely advice indeed the week of the American midterms!) God “helpeth them to right that suffer wrong; and feedeth the hungry. The LORD looseth men out of prison: the LORD giveth sight to the blind. The LORD raiseth up them that are fallen.”

When Jesus draws our attention to the inconspicuous widow at the treasury, he recentres our attention in a way that turns our values upside down. And he does it again and again. That, surely, is a key part of our life as disciples: to allow Jesus to draw our attention again and again to the marginalized, and in this refocussing, have our values turned upside down. He shows us God’s perspective; the one that God is closest to is not the one we have been taught to look to, but often the very opposite. God is with the marginalized and persecuted. God, as Eli Wiesel reminds us, is in the concentration camps, is in the child dying slowly on the gallows. But more uncomfortably, because it is closer to home: God is in the homeless person I pass by on the street corner, in the mentally ill woman who shows up at the church for a food voucher. And I am afraid of them, because I know that they will turn my neat sense of the world upside down if I open myself too much to their experience.

And so we domesticate them. We find a place for them in our world that will not disrupt us too much. We see them as recipients of charity, deserving or undeserving as the case may be; that keeps them at a distance, and it keeps us feeling good about ourselves and our church as benevolent and caring.

Look at the way the homiletic tradition has treated the widow in our story: she has become the poster child for countless stewardship campaigns, the model of selfless giving we are all to emulate. And indeed, this much is true about her: that her generosity shows a purity of heart that must put us to shame. But the story is more complicated than that: the Temple she was scraping to give her last cent to was the vanity project of a grotesque monster of a tyrannical ruler; the religious authorities she was supporting were largely comfortable hypocrites. We are seeing amazing selflessness; we are also witnessing a widow’s house being devoured before our very eyes. To look away from the complex discordances of the story and turn her into a simple hero of generosity is to be complicit in her victimization, to tame and silence her troubling presence into something that serves our institutional self-interest.

And it avoids the difficult questions that Jesus may be putting to us: how far do I, like the scribes, enjoy the prestige and honour of religious life, more than I am willing to serve selflessly. How far does our church have a part of Herod’s temple in it, a bastion of middle-class decency amidst the great unwashed of our Baptist neighbours? How far do we need to be unsettled, disturbed, convicted, decentred?

Jesus, my one true Lord, give me the grace to see with your eyes, to see the revolutionary presence of God in the marginalized, the despised, in those overlooked even by me. Give me the courage to let my world be overturned whenever I get too comfortable, to be shaken up to be more truly your disciple in this world.