Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Proper 27B

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

The temple in Jerusalem was always crowded. But with the Passover so near, its courtyards were overflowing with many thousands of exhausted, excited pilgrims making preparations for the Korban Pesach, the Passover sacrifice. Merchants in the outer courtyards descended upon all the new arrivals, selling souvenirs, sacrificial animals, and lunch. Money-changers shouted their offers to convert Roman coins to the ritually pure Jewish coins necessary for making purchases within the Temple walls. There were animals and people everywhere.

Passing through the gates into the Temple’s main courtyard, pilgrims saw the charnel houses where the animals were prepared for sacrifice. Those sights and sounds mingled with sights and sounds of the courtyard itself, where there was constant singing and dancing and music. Along one wall of the courtyard was the treasury, where thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles collected people’s offerings of coins for the purposes of maintaining the Temple and its staff. As each person tossed in their offering, they said aloud the amount and purpose of the gift to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.

On that day, Jesus and his disciples were sitting nearby, perhaps in the cool shadows cast by the treasury wall, taking in the swirling sights and sounds of the courtyard. Jesus himself was watching and listening as the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums, Mark writes, and for all we know these sums were carefully calculated gifts, like our own, guided by the law of the tithe. The crowd was full of women and men in fine long robes dropping into the treasury bags filled with coins that clinked and clattered all the way down.

But it was someone else who caught Jesus’ attention, a woman, a poor widow, Mark explains. She was nearly invisible in that crowd, her offering was nearly inaudible. When a woman’s husband died, she was dependent on grown sons to provide for her. If she had none, she might return to her family. If they could not take her back, she had no one. She was no one.

Jesus’ scathing criticism of the scribes, just a moment before, suggests that the poor widow was even invisible even to her community of faith. The scribes, experts in the law, should have known the commandment to care for aliens, widows and orphans – for invisible, inaudible people. They should have been the first to call attention to the widow’s desperate situation. Instead, their attention was focused on the people with fine long robes, and when bags full of coins weren’t full enough, Jesus said, the scribes devoured widows’ houses.

Jesus watched and listened as the poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Her meager offering wouldn’t make any measurable difference in the sum total of the day’s collection at such a busy time of year. Perhaps the priest overseeing the collection never even looked up from his ledger. One artist has imagined the scene at the moment the widow is walking away, and in his painting Jesus and the disciples are watching her go, and Jesus is gesturing toward her so that one can almost hear him beginning to explain that she has given more than all the others in their fine long robes. They have given out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, has given everything, all that she had to live on.

And so it is that the invisible, inaudible, un-named woman has become an illustration of giving generously. We nod our heads, understanding full well that those who gave bags full of clinking coins held back far more than they gave out of all that they had. The poor widow had scarcely anything, but held none of it back. Only she, not the others in their fine long robes, gave abundantly. It’s a charming story, conveniently coming round in stewardship season, encouraging us to consider our own giving to the Temple treasury. What do we hold back, and why? Perhaps the story loses some of its charm when we realize that the poor widow is not tithing. It’s not a 10% gift that Jesus praises. The poor widow gives 100%, all that she had to live on.

I don’t think this story is about money. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, let us consider what this story is about. A stewardship lesson might be far easier than the lesson this woman teaches. As beautiful and charming and inspiring and challenging as this story is, the model of giving it teaches is much harder than calculating percentages, drawing up budget, and signing a pledge card.

Most translations tell us that the two copper coins were all that the poor widow had to live on, but the Greek Mark uses is far more stark. The woman puts in her bios, Mark writes. Bios, the word from which we get biology, the study of life. Jesus is telling his disciples, telling us, that the woman put her life into the Temple treasury that day. All that she had to live. She gave her life.

The disciples still don’t understand what it means to give your life. Jesus has been trying to explain for weeks now – take up your cross, be like a child, be last of all and servant of all – and now, in the great teaching moment captured by that artist, with Jesus gesturing at the widow and looking at his disciples, he says See, this woman has put in everything, she that she has to live. She has given her life.

They still won’t get it, I’m afraid. They’ll gesture right back at the magnificent buildings surrounding the Temple courtyard, as if to say, yes, Jesus, and see what can be built with all those offerings! They’ll all be torn down, Jesus will say, exasperated. How many more ways can he tell them that only one thing will endure, and that is the abundance of love and life given by God. An abundance we can’t receive if our bags are already full. An abundance that is invisible until we look at the world’s need. An abundance that is inaudible until we listen for those crying out at the world’s margins.

The poor widow’s story is not about giving money generously. It is about giving life generously. She does not challenge us to fill out a pledge card. She challenges us to be like Christ. Her offering foreshadows the offering that Christ will make – the offering of his bios, his life.

A stewardship lesson about giving and holding back money would be much easier. But the poor widow’s stakes are much higher, as are the stakes Jesus demands of his disciples. How willing are we to give up everything, to give our lives entirely and without reservation to Jesus? What parts of our lives do we hold back from him, and why?

The lesson is all the more difficult because we don’t know what happened next in the widow’s story. In the painting they’re just watching her go as Jesus clearly is speaking about her. Did he go to her, put his arm around her, and bless her? Did he ask Judas to take something from their community purse and give it to her? Did anyone else see her or hear her and offer her charity? Or did she just fade into the crowd, unnoticed, unheard, on her way back home to no one, to nothing?

Giving ourselves to Jesus Christ, holding nothing back, is not a guarantee that we will live lives of ease, no matter what the televangelists us to think. But we are guaranteed this: for love, Jesus has offered himself to us, holding nothing back, so that all people might have abundant life, and not just in an age to come. When we toss in our last two copper pennies, when we give all that we have to live on, when we give up our lives to take on the life of Jesus Christ, situations like that of the widow will begin to disappear as we begin to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart in the world. As ministers in God’s church, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to put all of who we are into the treasury of the kingdom.

Our gifts belong there, the ways in which God has made each of unique, whether we’re priests or prophets, theologians or teachers, knitters, or cooks, or parents, or gardeners, pilots, dancers, contractors, farmers, students, or caregivers. Our gifts belong in God’s treasury. What do we hold back, and why?

Our attention belongs there, whether we engage the world through sight or sound or touch. We are called to notice one another, to notice strangers, to notice where there is need. Our attention belongs in God’s treasury. What do we hold back, and why?

Our resources belong in God’s treasury, whether we have fine long robes or no more than two pennies to our name. Our resources belong in God’s treasury. What do we hold back, and why?

When we are able to give all of who we are to Jesus, and so to take all of who he is into ourselves, then we are able to give out of an abundance of love to which no one is invisible, no one is inaudible. Then we, and all to whom we minister, can live rich lives. Let us give generously. Let us hold nothing back. In the words of writer Molly Wolf, “Whatever you’ve got, give it. You don’t know what price tag God puts on it, after all. It’s probably safe to assume that God’s values are not very much like ours, and what seems unworthy to us may please God greatly. But don’t worry about it. Just give whatever you have most of. It will do.” Amen.

Artwork: "La denier de la veuve," by James Tissot.

1 comment:

Knitnanabana said...

You displayed a wonderful artistic representation, but while reading your thoughts, I had such a vivid picture of the scene in my mind. Indeed, her quiet, simple act was a mighty one! May we all be so bold!!!