All We Have to Live On (11/11/12)

“All we have to live on”
Rev. Stacy Swain
Mark 12:38-44; 1King 17: 8-16

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, AMEN.

The passage from Mark this morning is so visually rich. Enter the scene with me will you?

The temple court yard is teaming with people. The scribes in their long robes swish by. The crowd parts out of respect and admiration to let them through. Others who are milling about stop for a moment when they see Jesus and the disciples. They lean in to hear what it is he may be saying to them. And above the din of voices is the echoing sound of coins tumbling into the treasury box. This treasury box is believed to have actually been not a box at all but a kind of trumpet shaped metal container where people tossed in coins as a free will offering to support the worship life of the temple.

And making her way through all the hustle and bustle of it all is the widow. She is poor. She is alone. She had not the care and protection of her husband’s family or anyone’s household in which she could find shelter. She is on the edge — not only economically but also in terms of relevance. She is invisible. She is unimportant.

And carrying all this, she makes her way now across the courtyard haltingly, pausing to let others pass by, apologizing profusely when she is jostled in someone next to her. And when she finally makes it over to the treasury, she quickly drops in her two coins and turns to go, hoping to God that no one saw how little it was she had to offer.

But someone did see, right? Someone did hear the sound of those two tiny coins rolling down the mouth of the horn.

Jesus saw her. Jesus heard her tiny coins as they tumbled into the treasury. And he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Now, many a sermon has been spoken and many a commentary has been written about this widow. And many have heard nothing but praise in the words that Jesus speaks of her. Many have heard this passage speak to a call to give not because we must but because we can. Because giving is the way that we live into our relationship with the God who before all else gives.

One commentator puts it this way:

“The distinguishing mark of the widow’s gift was not merely its proportion to her means; there was something in her heart that lifted the gift out of routine into the realm of sacrifice.”

The widow is to be a model for all of us, so the teaching goes.

Now it cannot be denied that giving is good, and giving as a spiritual practice is even better. And it may very well be true that the widow’s generosity ought to be a model for us all, but the true power of this passage I believe lies in a different realm all together. It’s power lies not in what it say about giving but what it speaks as an indictment of social injustice.

For when Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to the widow and says “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on,” I hear Jesus critiquing the social, political and economic constructs that privilege a few and whose privilege comes at the expense others. He is critiquing the abuses that have resulted in this widow being so desperately poor that all that she has is two coins.
After all a central teaching in Hebrew scripture, echoing in the great cry of the prophets is that right relationship with God, the walk of righteous living is directly tied to care of the widow, the orphan and the alien. Shorthand for all of those who have no one else but God to look after them. It is a central teaching in the Hebrew scripture that that it is not possible to love God while neglecting those in need.

Jesus’ harsh critique of the Scribes is directly linked to the plight of the widow before him now. Jesus criticizes the Scribes for they are the very people who should know about the central teaching of “caring for the least of these” and yet they are the ones who “devour widows’ houses.”

It is provocative that Jesus uses the word “Devour” here for it is the same word he used in the parable of the sower. When the seeds that the sower tosses fall on the path, birds swoop down and devour the seed before it can take root and grow and thrive.

As an aside the parable of the sower was the central theme for Camp Renewal at the start of last summer. And I have this image of five or six of our kids playing the role of the birds swooping down on five or six of our other campers who were seeds and devouring them. Not a pretty sight, I assure you.

But that is the image of the scribes, swooping down in their fine billowing long robes and devouring the house of the widow. Leaving her with nothing but two almost worthless coins.

“These scribes were preying, greedily upon others for personal gain even as they were praying ostentatiously before others to “prove” their righteousness before God.” It is this hypocrisy, this exploitation and this injustice that Jesus excises with a razor sharp critique in this passage.

You know over these many months we have watched our leaders on both sides of the aisle on parade as they talk a lot about who they are and are not, about what government should or should not be and about who we must or must not be as a nation. They have been the focus of lots of money, time and attention. Many crowds have parted out of respect and admiration to let them pass through.

And yet making her way quietly through the hustle and bustle of it all is the widow with her last two coins. She silently moves among us still. And behind her come the kids from poor families in poor neighborhoods who look to under resourced and overwhelmed schools to help them find their way. And just behind them come so many in our communities and across the nation who are waking up this day hungry, who are on their last handful of meal in a jar and dram of oil in a jug. Silently they make their way. Haltingly, pausing to let others pass by, apologizing profusely when jostled into someone next to them. They are the invisible ones. The unworthy ones.


And then with the words of God in his ears, Elijah traverses the great divide, crosses boundaries of race and religion and gender and goes up to that unnamed, sidelined widow and talks to her. Not only does he talk to her but he asks something of her. To understand the impact let me back up a moment and give you a bit of the back story behind this remarkable passage from 1 Kings.

Elijah is a prophet of God. He is a Hebrew called to speak God’s word to the Hebrew people. But remarkably, in that aisle crossing way of God, God tells Elijah to go to this non Hebrew, who is a woman, who is a widow, who is poor and talk to her. And he does. He crosses the great expanse between them and when he sees her at the gate he speaks to her but acknowledges that here is something that she has that he could benefit from. Something she has that could save his life and nourish him.

And then in this beautifully poignant verse, the widow opens her heart to him. She breaks her silence and speaks her cry. She speaks of her fear and her pain. She says: “ As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

And then in the language of angelic visitors, Elijah says to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail.”

She went and did as Elijah said, in that intimate moment of trust and hospitality God rushes in. From that moment on “she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.”

Hospitality. Welcoming another in and tending to their needs is all about healing. That is why hospitality is at the root of our word hospital. Hospitals in their conception where places that welcomed anyone and everyone and that tended to their needs much like the inn that received the wounded one that the Samaritan found lying beside the road on the way to Jericho.

Hospitality, healing, welcoming in the one that is used to being unwelcomed. I hope that sounds a bit to you also of what it means to be a church, this church. We are all about hospitality, a place of healing, welcoming in those who have been sidelined, margined, silenced.

And we have an opportunity for that this very Saturday. To sit down with someone who is a stranger to us, to share a meal. To hear the voice of god in our ears telling us not to be afraid but that in the warmth of hospitality God’s grace abounds. People who were strangers to us last year and the year before now have reached out asking if they can come again to our Thanksgiving meal.
I don’t know about you but I want to work for the day when the widow does not need to put her last two coins into the treasurey box hoping to God that somehow things will be better for her. I want to walk across that court yard and ask that woman to come to dinner with us this Saturday. I want to sit down at the table with her and hear her story aobut how it is that she came to his hard place and listen to the whisper of angels as together we envision a way back into full inclusion of life for her.

I don’t know about you but I want to get on the bus with those kids from Dorchester and think about what it will take to make their school the Russell school a vibrant simulating education center where the jar of meal is not emptied, and neither does the jug of oil fail.

And I want to cross the distance between me and all those who wake up every morning with not with the sound of the alarm clock but with the pangs of hunger giving not just out of my abundance but out of commitment to God’s justice that insists that Love of God cannot be uncoupled from the care of the “the widow, the orphan and the alien.

For not only is it the right thing to do but if we follow a God of Righteousness it is the only thing to do. Amen.