A Tale of Two Widows (1 Kings 17.8-16; Mark 12.38-44) [Sermon 11-8-2015]

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November 7, 2015 by jmar198013

The manuscript of my sermon for November 8, 2015. Central Church of Christ. Stockton, CA. Scriptures for the sermon:

1 Kings 17.8-16

Psalm 127

Mark 12.38-44

Hebrews 9.24-28

For more background on my reading of the Mark passage, see my Rich Scribes and Poor Widows.


Two widows, two stories

In today’s Scriptures, we heard two stories about widows who made major sacrifices.

It would be tempting for a slacker preacher to tie these two stories together with a cute bow. Tell you to go be like these widows. Put more money in the collection plate. Give everything when you serve God. It doesn’t matter whether your gift is impressive or not, God can use it. Go and do likewise.

Truth is, the Bible won’t let me do that. These texts will not let me tie them together into one mondo proof-text. These two widows have very different stories to tell. I don’t get to hijack their stories to make my job easier. Or yours.

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Here’s the thing: We met two widows in our readings today. And they were both obscenely poor. And both made incredible sacrifices. But that’s where the similarities between the two stories end.

A widow feeds a prophet

The first widow is foreign. She isn’t an Israelite. Not one of God’s people. She highlights this when she tells the prophet Elijah: As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any food.

This widow has a dependent. A son. And they are in a brutal, desperate situation. She tells the prophet Elijah: Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die. One last meal before they die of starvation, this widow and her child.

God has put Elijah in an awkward position here, hasn’t he? Remember from our lesson, God told the prophet: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. This woman can’t even feed herself and her child. How is she supposed to take care of Elijah?

This widow wasn’t even an Israelite. She doesn’t know the Lord. Doesn’t it seem like a cruel way for God to introduce himself to her? By sending her a prophet to feed, when she’s about to starve? What kind of God steals food from hungry widows and children?

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Elijah realizes what he has to do. God has put him on the spot. And so he puts God on the spot. He makes an audacious promise in God’s name. He’s banking on what he knows about the God of Israel. His God has a real soft spot for the poor—especially widows and children. Even foreign women and children. God understands that the powerful are often faithless, but the powerless are often faithful. So Elijah tells her: Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.

I’m telling you, church. Elijah said this utterly, fully, completely on faith. He said this trusting God to be consistent with God’s own character. He said it trusting God to be true to himself.

Notice, too, what he didn’t tell this widow. He didn’t say, “Go bake a loaf of bread, and give it to me. When you’ve given me everything, then God will bless you.” No. He told her to bake a little cake for him, too. To share. And they’d eat the bread together—the prophet, the widow, and her son. Elijah put his own skin in the game here. The unspoken agreement between the prophet and the widow is: We’ll all eat this bread together. And if we starve, well—we’ll starve together, too.

Elijah cast in his lot, bound his own fate, with this foreign widow and her son.

And God came through. God honored the promise his man made to this widow. The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.

She shared out of the little she had. And God made it enough for everyone.

A widow feeds the system

The second widow we met today is probably more familiar to most of us. She’s a flannel graph staple in Sunday School. (I miss flannel graphs. We adults could use them sometimes, too. I dunno, maybe PowerPoint is our flannel graph.) She’s the inspiration behind hundreds of thousands of sermons and studies and devotional lessons. Pretty much whenever we are challenged to give money to some cause or ministry of the church, our second widow is held up as our standard.

Jesus noticed this widow as he sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. That’s interesting. Here’s Jesus just sitting here, studying these people who are coming to pitch their money into the temple till. Why is he doing that? Jesus seems to be keeping his eyes peeled for something.

One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. That’s when Jesus called his disciples. He’s apparently found what he was looking for.

And he tells his disciples: I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.

We have been trained to respond, Three cheers for the widow!

I don’t actually think that’s what Jesus meant, though.

This is obviously a teaching moment of some sort. But there’s no blowoff line where Jesus says, Go and do likewise. He just points out that she’s given everything she had to live on. And that no one else’s offerings are causing them any pain.

Jesus isn’t saying, Three cheers for the widow!

See, here’s the thing. Elijah’s widow didn’t give everything she had to live on. She shared out of it. Major difference.

When Elijah’s widow shared, it became an occasion for God’s abundance to feed her, her child, and the prophet. That’s not what we see here. This widow came to the temple in hopeless poverty. And she left in even more hopeless poverty.

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Elijah’s widow fed a prophet. This widow just fed the system. A system that was not in any way taking care of her.

That’s what Jesus was looking for when he sat opposite the temple scrutinizing the peoples’ offerings. That’s what he saw.

And he wasn’t pleased. It wasn’t a heartwarming moment for him. He didn’t get any warm fuzzies seeing this poor widow giving her last two coins. He was heartbroken. He was outraged. He was cynical. He was furious.

When Jesus said, she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on, he wasn’t praising the widow. He was protesting a system that stole from widows.

Those were words of lament.

The ones who cheat widows out of their homes

I suspect the reason we have read the story of the widow and her coins as one of an example that is praised is that we have failed to hear it in context.

What I love about today’s Gospel lesson is that it gives us the story in context.

Just a few verses before this poor widow showed up and put all her money in the temple treasury, Jesus was telling his disciples that the Jewish leadership was corrupt and ruthless. He said: Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.

Did you catch that? Jesus said they act holy and religious in public, but that they cheat widows out of their homes. The Greek back of this is even stronger. They eat up widows’ houses. They devour widows’ houses.

Notice Jesus says the legal experts—as a group—cheat widows out of their homes. Jesus is protesting, indicting the entire system. Not just a few bad apple scribes. The scribes were part of a larger system that also involved the temple and the Sanhedrin, and that was gamed to exploit poor widows.

If we read the story of this poor widow’s offering in light of Jesus’ protest that the authorities are cheating widows out of their homes—eating up their livelihoods—it’s a very different story, isn’t it?

It’s more like: Jesus says the system is cheating widows. And then he looks over at the temple treasury, and says: See! There’s one right now! There’s a widow throwing everything she had to live on into the coffers!

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And Jesus had every reason to be heartbroken and furious about this. Because the system was supposed to be supporting widows, not taking money from them.

That’s right. Widows were supposed to be exempt from tithes and taxes. For instance, look at what Deut. 26.12 says is to be done with tithes: you will give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so they can eat in your cities until they are full. Widows were not expected to tithe. They were supposed to be cared for from the offerings of their neighbors.

The offerings being made at the temple should have been going to poor widows. When Jesus says that the rich people were all giving out of their spare change, he wasn’t just making a statement about proportionality. There’s a protest, a lament, and indictment hidden in there.

Why is there a widow among God’s people who only has two coins to live on, when there are all these rich people dumping money into the temple treasury?

Why don’t they just give her some of that money?

Do they believe in trickle-down economics? Well, obviously there’s no trickling down going on here. The chief priests are being showered in money. And then they take hers, too.

Jesus had just finished saying that the people who rig the system to exploit poor widows will be judged most harshly. There’s going to be hell to pay for this. Literally.

After seeing the poor widow putting her last two coins in the temple treasury, a disgusted Jesus walks away. As they’re leaving, he tells his disciples: Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.

History tells us that about 30 years later, Jesus’ prediction came true. The fiery hell of God’s judgment broke out in the temple during the Jewish Civil War of A.D. 66. Angry peasants stormed the temple treasury—the place where widows’ houses were devoured—and burned it to the ground.

God wasn’t going to put up with this behavior among his people—and certainly not in his temple!—for very long.

Which widow’s tale will we live by?

The poor widow we meet in Mark 12 is not there to teach us a lesson about giving. Except maybe that we work and share and offer and give to make sure that kind of thing isn’t happening among us. To make sure that we don’t have any poor widows in our neighborhoods who have nothing to live on.

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What we learned from our Gospel lesson today is that Jesus wasn’t afraid to call out the systems that make and keep people poor. Yes, we should feed and clothe and nurture the poor. But that’s not enough. We need to figure out the dynamics that perpetuate poverty and not only tell the truth about them, but live out a different way.

After all, Jesus was bold in calling out the problem: The legal experts who cheat widows out of their homes.

Have we seen “experts” use the law to their advantage, to exploit the poor—even widows—and take their homes? Do we ever see the system rigged in the favor of those who already have more than enough?

If so—no, not if so, because we have seen and do see those things—because we see these things, what the church is called to do is unrig the system. At least among us. In our neighborhood. In our community. In our city.

And I’ll be frank—I don’t have a lot of answers for what that looks like. We have to look around. Brainstorm. Storyboard. Partner with neighbors and agencies and other churches. Try something. If it doesn’t work, tweak it. Learn from it. Or try something else.

But that’s where I think we can learn from Elijah’s widow.

When God sent Elijah to Zarephath, he told him: I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. I think a lot of times when we go out to work with the poor or the broken down or needy—whatever their need happens to be—we try to do it from a place of authority or power. I’m here to fix you. What I love here is that God turned the tables on Elijah. He showed the prophet his own need. The prophet’s life suddenly depended on this poor, foreign widow. Maybe we need God to put us in a place where we see that our life as the church depends on the poor, the oppressed, the depressed, and the distressed. Maybe we’ll find out that they get God and Jesus and grace and mercy and justice better than we do. Maybe God wants us, like Elijah, to start doing ministry from a place of powerlessness. Maybe then we will see how the poor we have come to know have actually taken care of us.

Elijah’s widow told him the truth about her circumstances. I’m a widow. I have this son. We have this much flour, this much oil. We’re going to eat a final meal, and then starve. Sometimes we in the church, and in the broader culture, have not been good at letting the poor tell their own stories. We often rely our own politics, theories, assumptions, and prejudices to tell us why people are poor. So we don’t really hear what they are trying to tell us. Elijah took this widow’s story seriously. We should be like Elijah here.

Elijah didn’t demand all this widow had to live on. He asked her to share a little. He took her contributions seriously. He saw the potential in what she had. He also trusted that God would be the one to make her little offering enough for them all. I’d suggest that this is how we should approach ministry. To see people not just as objects of our ministry, but partners in our work. To honor the gifts they bring. To trust God to make perfect what we all have to offer.

Finally, God put Elijah in a position where he couldn’t do ministry at a distance. He couldn’t just make sure the widow and her child had bread to eat, and then take off. He made Elijah and that little family dependent on each other for survival. What would it look like if we were the church on those terms? What would it look like to cast our own personal lots with the people we have traditionally seen only as objects of our charity? Would our church look different? Would we think differently? Would we meet in a different location? Would some of us live in different neighborhoods? Those are questions we will need to continue to explore in the Spirit’s guidance.

But what we see in the story of Elijah and the widow is this: When God’s people honor the work God is already doing in the world; when we minister from a position of powerlessness rather than authority; when we listen to the poor and hurting; when we cast our lot with them; when we take their offerings seriously and treat them as equal partners in ministry—God has this crazy way of showing up and showing out. Miracles happen. God’s abundance rules where there has been scarcity. God’s peace rules where there has been anxiety. God’s comfort rules where there has been despair.

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3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Widows (1 Kings 17.8-16; Mark 12.38-44) [Sermon 11-8-2015]

  1. Xyhelm says:

    Fantastic lesson. I learned a lot!

    If Jesus wanted to make a point of that widow’s poverty and the lack of support that comes from the system, why doesn’t Mark’s gospel talk about Jesus helping the widow? Why didn’t Jesus respond like he did in Mark 3:1-5? Why didn’t Jesus invite this widow to join him in his ministry?

    But because Jesus said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those giving to the temple treasury,” it looks like Jesus did say: three cheers for the widow. Jesus is teaching two lessons: the injustice of the system as well as the widow’s giving. After all, her giving was voluntary if they were not allowed to tax them because she put her money in, not someone else.

    Your thoughts?

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Those are good questions.

    1) As far as the widow’s mites are concerned–whether given voluntarily or not–you really have to look at context. Like look at Mark 11-13–Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem around the temple–and there’s this pattern that emerges.

    Mark 11.15-19: Jesus storms the temple, says it’s been made into a house of crooks.
    Mark 12.13-17: Coalition of scribes, chief priests, and elders (all probably Sadducees and aristocrats) send a delegation of Pharisees and Herod-partisans (strange bedfellows) to trip Jesus up with a question about taxes.
    Mark 12.38-40: Jesus calls out scribes for “devouring widows’ houses.” But we saw above (see specifically Mark 11.27) that scribes were in cahoots with the temple establishment. Could their sanctioning of legal interpretations beneficial to their priestly donors–at the expense of the poor, like that widow–be why Jesus called the temple “a house of crooks”? Incidentally, these scribes who were profiting from widows’ misery were the same ones who just sent the Pharisees and Herod-partisans to gripe about taxes with Jesus.
    Mark 12.41-44: Widow’s mite story
    Mark 13.1-8: Jesus announces judgment against temple.

    So there’s this theme woven deep into the plot of these chapters that involves scribes / temple elite robbing widows; an incident where Jesus claims that the temple is full of crooks; Jesus seeing a widow having her livelihood devoured; Jesus proclaiming judgment against the temple.

    I don’t think you can escape that theme. Mark obviously deliberately highlighted it. I don’t have my Josephus in front of me, but I do remember him speaking of temple police actually going out and shaking down poor people for temple taxes. By right reading of Torah–and by right reading I mean any reading that’s not going to make you look like a jerk–widows should have been exempt. But the point is–obviously Herod, the priests, and the scribes were conspiring to fleece widows. And if Josephus is to be believed, she may have been acting under duress. I know that bit reads into the text a bit, but every once in a while you have to supply information that would have been common knowledge to the first readers.

    2) Sure, Jesus made a statement about the proportionality of her offering versus everyone else’s. But why would he praise her for feeding a system that was exploiting her? Given the overall context of Mark 11-13, and what we know from Josephus about the rapacity of the Jerusalem establishment, I’d wager my hunch as to what Jesus meant is closer. There’s an indictment of the others hidden in his notice of her.

    3) Jesus did do something for this poor widow. Long term. Within a few weeks of this event, a church was established right there is Jerusalem and one of their common practices was to . . . what? Take care of widows. Who knows? Maybe Peter or John remembered who that widow was and brought her into the church. Who knows? I mean, what was Jesus going to do for her right then? Invite her to join his ragtag group of not-very-stable disciples and be put in danger with them during his arrest and betrayal?

    Those are my thoughts, anyway.

  3. Xyhelm says:

    1) Yes, Jesus versus establishment is a them of that section of Mark. And I can see how there is connection between this widow and the previous verse about devouring their houses. But could this story about the widow be the oasis in the middle of all this opposition against Jesus? I cannot get around what Jesus said, focusing on her gift to the temple. She may be the greatest example of a diamond in the rough.

    2) Why would Jesus praise the widow for her giving? An idea is that Jesus was looking beyond the establishment/system. Maybe He sees a widow who does honestly have more faith in God than faith in survival. Perhaps she is too poor to offer even a bird-sacrifice at the temple, so she gives two mites because it’s all she had to offer to God. Her faith drives her to offer to God something for being such a great God, so instead of trusting in two mites, she devotes those mites to God and trusts in His goodness. Perhaps this is the connection to the previous verse about her house being devoured. Despite everything the system has done TO her, she still gives to God. Perhaps her story is much like Matt 5:40-41. The system made her poor, but because of her faith in God, she still will trust in Him. Anyway, just an idea.

    3) I really like the thought of that.

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