Let us pray:
O God Almighty, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Grant us, we pray, to be grounded and settled in your truth by the coming down of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. That which we know not, reveal; that which is wanting in us, fill up; that which we know, confirm; and keep us blameless in your service; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Clement of Rome)
I suspect we have all heard sermons on this text before, sermons that lift up the poor widow as what we should be: sacrificing and faithful. I know I have. And this is fascinating, because Jesus says nothing of the kind. He does not praise the widow, only points her out to His disciples. He says, “Look at her, look how much she has given,” but He never calls her blessed, never promises her a place in the kingdom, never even praises her faithfulness.
We assume Jesus is praising her: because that’s how we’ve learned it, that’s how we’ve heard it preached. It’s one way to read the passage, sure: Jesus begins by preaching against those who do good works and pray only so others will see them and praise them: who wear signs that proclaim their good works and their goodness, maybe not actual placards but clothing that reminds people of their place as those who know God’s law best. They walk around only to be greeted as someone good and worth knowing–they want to be visible and well-liked, instead of focusing on what God actually calls us to do. Instead of humility and worship, they want only to be seen as good.
And so the widow is their direct opposite: she is not seen as good and holy. As a widow, she would have been on the edge of society, barely scraping by without a husband or son or other family to speak for her and protect her and support her. She may even have been viewed as cursed by God, for why else would she have suffered such a great tragedy?
No one was watching her when she came into the temple. Certainly no one was applauding her. Her gift was given, not because others were watching, not because she wanted to be seen as good and generous, but because she felt it was the proper gift. She gave an honest gift, one that reflected her beliefs about God rather than her beliefs about what would make others like and respect her.
But there’s another way to tie those two paragraphs together.
Jesus starts with the scribes, with those who go about appearing as virtuous as possible: they wear robes that remind everyone of who they are, and they pray in public as often as possible. They want everyone to know that they are holy. But it’s just a show. When there’s no opportunity to seem religious and wonderful, they’re defrauding the poor. They’re taking the houses of widows, those women who have no man to speak for them or protect them, who have no one to turn to and no cushion of money. They may be able to recite Scripture from memory, but these scribes haven’t learned the heart of Scripture: as Micah said, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). There is nothing just about focusing on helpless widows, nothing merciful about demanding so much that the poor spiral further into poverty.
And so the widow: is she faithful, or is she only giving what is demanded of her by the scribes? Is this the example of their hypocrisy, that they take all that this poor widow has to live on?
No one wants to talk about money, right? It’s uncomfortable; it’s skirting the edge of rudeness, of difficult questions. It defies our attempts at simplification. Money is complicated. How we think about money, how we spend it, in our own lives is complicated. We have all these stories about money that we tell ourselves, often without realizing it.
The scribes seem to have viewed money as power, as a status symbol. It makes sense: if becoming a widow is a sign of God’s disfavor, surely having more than enough favor is a sign of God’s blessing. Surely, then, it is better to have more money, no matter how you get it.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am not endorsing that view. But it’s a story about money. It’s an understanding of how money can or should be used.
We all have these stories, these beliefs about money. Like my grandfather: he grew up poor in the Great Depression. So even once he had a stable job and a house, he always wanted to save and save and save. Even once he was retired, he wanted to make sure there was more than enough.
What about you? What have you heard about money your whole life? Is it good or evil, the source of temptation or of security? A necessity, or a source of happiness?
Do you like what you think?
The problem with telling this story as a story of this poor woman’s wonderful sacrifice is that it puts her on a pedestal. It puts her above us. I don’t know about you, but I look at her putting in all that she has and I go, ‘That’s nice, but I’m not doing that. I couldn’t possibly do that. I’m not faithful enough to–take your pick, volunteer as often as I like, or go to church as much as I should, or pray every day, or check in with my friend who’s hurting–I’m not faithful enough even for those things, how could I ever do that and make such a huge pedestal?”
But Jesus doesn’t put her on a pedestal. Sure, He tells His disciples about her. But He’s not saying, ‘Look at the woman over there.’ He’s actually saying, ‘Look at this woman right next to me.’ The Greek suggests that He’s brought her over to join Him and His disciples; He’s bringing her into the family of disciples, into what God is doing through Him.
If we leave the widow on her pedestal, then we’ll never go anywhere, never do anything differently–we’ll be too intimidated. Let us, instead, move forward in small steps. Give a little bit more. Send someone a card. Volunteer an extra fifteen minutes. Let us give, not all we have, but a bit more.