Are you familiar with the story of the “Widow’s Mite,” the one we heard in the gospel proclamation this morning? It is possible to miss the point of the story, if you merely see it as just another stewardship reading. You may totally miss what Jesus is trying to say, if you were to somehow read the widow’s story, without the backdrop of the cultural system in which, she made her sacrificial offering. We could miss the overarching narrative, if we overlook the fact that her story is inseparably connected to that of the scribes. Let’s explore what was really happening in the temple that day.
The temple system that existed in first century Palestine was one, which in some cases, propped up and sustained the wealthy and influential, while at the same time, exploited and manipulated the poor, outcast, and people on the fringe of society. In a recent article written by Theologian Otis Moss, he asserts, “The scribes did not seek this position (of power and influence), with the goal of becoming elite and ethically suspect clergy.”(1) It took time for their behaviors and attitudes to became transformed by Roman power and wealth.
Moss explains in his article what happened to those who were once deeply committed to the Law of Moses. He wrote, “A life committed to the community, culture and a creative encounter with God was quietly replaced by patronage.” (1) Moss tells us that the scribes’ “need for respect and the desire for special attention was a common activity demonstrated by politicians and military personal connected to the empire.” (1) The scribes’ principles had transformed from God’s principles, and the scribes lost sight of their purpose, their mission, and their obligation to God and their neighbor.
Now let’s examine how the widow fits into the story. Women in this society rarely owned land or were involved in commerce and thus, they had to rely on benefactors for support (husbands, elder sons, etc.) For a widow to be without a benefactor meant she was left homeless, without support, and had to rely on charity for the basics of life. Even so, in order to be a part of temple worship, everyone had to pay a temple tax. So, we have this poor widow trying to survive and yet, she must pay to participate in the temple system.
Theologian Scott Hoezee explains, “When Jesus saw a widow giving away the last two coins she had to rub together, he saw … a glaring example of how far off the beam the whole temple enterprise had gotten. This woman felt obligated to give away what little she had and although that revealed how earnest she was, it was an earnestness that had been manipulated. So when Jesus says, “That’s all she had to live on,” he said it with exasperation in his voice. She should not have done that. She should not have been told to do that.” (2)
In today’s gospel reading, the events Jesus observed inside the temple that day, the actions of the scribes and the widow, was not merely a lesson for us about how we should respond to stewardship drives, or even about how we should give to support the church. It is a lesson from the Master about how the values of the establishment, the culture, and possibly even the values of the church, often clash with the values of God. Sometimes even the church forgets that we are all in need of grace, those we seem to think are worthy, and those we may not. Let me give you an example.
In a small church in a location far from Southwest Florida, a disgruntled parishioner came to see the rector one day and the conversation went something like this, “Mother Johnson, I have been asked by several parishioners in the church to come tell you about this terrible problem in our parish that must be addressed, or several of us will leave the church.” “What can possibly be that wrong,” the priest asked. “It is that new family’s rowdy children who keep talking, crying, or moving around and disrupting our sacred worship time,” the parishioner exclaimed. Sadly the priest asked, “What would you have me do?” The disgruntled parishioner exclaimed, “Tell the parents that they must either quiet their children or leave the church.”
This may sound like an outrageous story, but would it surprise you, if I told you it is a true one? When we hear this story, although it is not reflective of this community, we can still learn something from it. We really need to ask the question, what value does our community of faith place on all of God’s people, people who just so happen not to fit our idea of good church folk?
I wonder, would the story be different if the same parishioner came to the priest to tell her that the mayor of the city or a council member was in worship that day, and the same parishioner was making it her personal ministry, to invite the mayor to join the church. “In Jesus’ time as today, worshipers were assigned worth according to what they could do for the temple.” (2) We see this type of human value assignment in our culture today. We often evaluate someone’s worth by the way the dress, the car they drive, or by the home in which, they live.
One of the questions with which, we in the church today must wrestle is, “Do we value the contribution of all of God’s people based on our mutual life in Christ, by virtue of our baptism, or do we value people differently because of a system that assigns worth based on other’s contributions (financial or otherwise). That is not God’s way. In the Kingdom of God, there are no divisions, no class distinctions, no levels of importance based on what we do, or give. We are all children of grace.
The story about the scribes and the widow is a story about how we perceive someone else’s usefulness, which can get in the way of others’ ability to experience God’s abundant grace. Grace is the gift from God that is unmerited, it cannot be earned, and it cannot be manipulated, but we often act as if that is how it works. We are somehow misguided in a belief that grace is really about something we do, but in reality God’s love for us is really all about what God does, with no exceptions and no distinctions. What we do is to respond to grace, not try and earn it.
“Everything we do in the Christian life—including giving to the offering plate—is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”(2) Grace makes no distinctions between who we think is worthy of it and who we sometimes assume is not. All of God’s people, those who look nothing like those gathered here, the outcast, the poor, young folk, old folk, all of God’s folks are “given the freedom to be who we have become (as) new creatures in Christ.” (2) How we see one another, and how we see folks on the fringe of the community, will determine our faithfulness to God’s mission. We all are recipients of grace, inheritors who are called to share that grace with everyone, with whom we encounter.
The Book of Common Prayer describes the mission of the church as, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” The BCP further states, “The ministry of lay persons is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” I would like to encourage you to take notice of two things about our mission and ministry in the church: (1) Our mission is to ALL people (with no differences) and (2) We are called to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. In other words, the church is to GO into the world, and serve as a reconciling community to ALL people.
I want to share with you one last story. “It was a beautiful Sunday morning. People were filling the church to its fullest capacity. At the end of the line stood an older man. His clothes were filthy and you could tell that he had not bathed in days. When he reached the door, the usher glared at the old man and said, “Uh, I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid we can’t let you in. You will distract the congregation and we don’t allow anyone to disrupt our service. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.” The old man hung down his head and walked back down the steps of the big brick church. He sat down near the edge of the churchyard and strained to listen through closed doors and windows.
A few minutes had passed by when all of a sudden a younger man came up and sat down near him. He asked the old man what he was doing. He answered, “I was going to go to church today, but they thought I was filthy and my clothes are old and worn, and they were afraid I would disrupt their service.
The old man noticed that the younger man had on dirty old clothes like his, a ragged beard, unkempt hair, dust on his hands and his feet, on which the old man noticed, were these really unusual scars. The older man looked into the younger man’s eyes and was captivated by his smile, which was unmistakably filled with a love so divine. The young man looked at the older man, and said with a sad look on his face, “don’t feel bad because they won’t let you in. I think you know who I am, and I’ve been trying to get into that same church for years, and they won’t let me in either.”
As the church continues her mission in the 21st century, it is so important for us to break down the walls of distinction that would separate us from those children of God, whom God has called us to love; those same sisters and brothers God loves. So, when we encounter in our daily lives, either people on the fringe of society, the outcast, the poor, the broken-hearted, the widow, the orphan; or likewise, when we encounter the privileged, socially astute, the scribes of 21st century America, our job is to love them, as Christ loved us (and all of creation), and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.
(1) Moss, Otis III. “Living By The Word: Reflections On The Lectionary [N 8, 2009].” The Christian Century 126.22 (2009): 20. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.