Brief Synopsis of the readings: We begin in the Old Testament book of First Kings. Here we see Elijah traveling when he comes upon a poor widow. He asked her for some water and then a bit of bread. The widow responded by telling him that there was just enough for her and her son before they would starve to death. Elijah assured her that she would never run out of flour and oil, and for the next year she did not run out of anything. In Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus speaking to the crowds. He told them to beware of the scribes who “like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces,seats of honor in synagogues,and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers.” He then showed them in the Temple that many wealthy people donated large sums while a poor widow donated a few small coins. Jesus told those gathered that the widow was more generous because she gave from her need, not her surplus.
Longtime readers may remember that I’ve used this example before. Years ago I did some work for a church that was lower middle class. Most of the people gave what they could and were proud of their church. On Monday morning when the collection was counted they found something interesting. Without fail each week there was a plain white envelope with a nickle in it. This became known as the “widow’s mite” (mite was another word for coin). None of us knew who she was and the pastor asked us not to try and find out. He suspected that this donation was made by someone who was poor and he didn’t want to embarrass her. He feared that if she was found out she would be too ashamed to return.
Unfortunately the widow in the Gospel didn’t have that option, at least to Jesus. He knew who she was. But this reading causes me to wonder if the rich members of the Temple knew her. In most churches the pastor knows the wealthiest (or least the most generous) parishioners. I’ve found they often have a stronger voice in decisions on how the parish runs.
But does the pastor, and the wealthiest parishioners, know who the poorest are? Today many Christians adhere to the “Gospel of Wealth.” In 1889 the steel baron Andrew Carnegie proposed that our society works best with there are some among us who control the majority of the nation’s wealth. In the years since some Christian leaders have used this to claim that God blesses the wealthy for their good choices and punishes the poor for their bad choices. In that understanding the poor widow gets only what she deserves.
I keep coming back to this but I wish I knew more about this widow’s backstory. In the time of Jesus (and for much of world history, even to this day) a woman’s station in life depended first on her father, then on her husband, and finally on her son. A woman whose father died before she married, or whose husband died without a son, endured a hard life. Her society often viewed her as one cursed by God and deserving of little or no mercy.
I think Jesus pointed her out in part to shame his listeners to see her through the eyes of mercy, but I don’t think it stops there. When this widow gave from her poverty she showed us two things: empowerment and wisdom.
Her donation to the Temple shows us that she knew that any contribution, no matter how small, does good. Like me, if you listen to National Public Radio here in the United states, you have heard thousands of times that there is no such thing as a donation that is too small to make a difference. No generosity is worthless.
But it also speaks to wisdom. This widow navigated her life in a hostile environment and it must have often called her to an imagination, a creativity, and yes, a wisdom that allowed her to survive.
In other words, she could have been a better teacher than those who were born into wealth. To use an American baseball analogy, we sometimes look at those who have inherited great wealth and say they were born on third base and insist they hit a triple. They falsely claim that they worked hard, sacrificed, and earned their status. They create a false narrative that allows us to worship the wealthy and scorn the poor.
As for me, I’ll cheerfully admit I was born at least on second base. My parents were born to working class parents during the Great Depression and they worked hard. They didn’t have the chance to attend college but they made great strides with what they had. Most importantly they instilled in me the truth that I was born into a family that allowed me, and indeed expected me, to go father. They also taught me that my position required me to look on those who didn’t have my opportunities with love. The church where I grew up collected donations every week and my parents received envelopes in the mail where they could place checks or cash for the collection. From the time I was young I received “childrens’ envelops” that I could also drop in the collection basket. When I started receiving an allowance it was clear to me that each week I was expected to put a quarter in the envelope (that was matched by my parents for a fifty cent donation).
They taught me an important lesson. They taught me that even my quarter made an impact and that this donation made me a better person. Today I give more than a quarter, but the lesson remains the same.
As I write this, the United States will make important decisions on the future of our country on Tuesday. Some of you will read this before we know the results, and some will read it after. My question is this: will the widows in Elijah and Mark be pleased or hurt?
As for me, I now wish I knew the identity of the widow who placed the nickle in the plain envelope. I think I could have learned from her.