Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Widow’s Might: a sermon for Pentecost 24

Ah, bless – the story of the Widow’s Mite. Isn’t it sweet? Don’t we just love it? Don’t we just love her – this dear little old lady, poor as a church mouse, who yet gives what she has for the upkeep of the church? Isn’t that how the traditional homilies go? Or – taking out the pensioner and generalising – it’s not how much you give, it’s the spirit in which you give it – isn’t that the moral of the story? It’s just the passage to preach on a Gift Day, or, even better, when you’re trying to whip up enthusiasm for the Building Fund when your church is undergoing some serious renovation because of the crumbling fabric or those blasted new “health and safety” regulations. And the subtext, of course, is, “Hey, mate, you’ve got more than a mite, give generously.”

And now you’re thinking, “Uh oh, Fabricius is going tell us that that’s not what the story is about at all.” Who, moi? …

First – as always! – context, context, context! According to Mark, this is the last episode in the Holy Week teaching ministry of Jesus in the Temple, where he has been going daily to stir up trouble with his good news – telling challenging stories, deftly sidestepping awkward questions, astonishing everyone with his charismatic authority, and, above all, infuriating the religious elite with his anti-establishment rhetoric. In the passage immediately preceding the story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus warns the crowds about the teachers of the law – the biblical scholars and theologians. He mocks the way they walk around in fancy clerical dress, bask in the obsequious public greetings and flattery of the hoi polloi, reserve high-table seats at civic and religious functions, and – a separate sentence – how they “take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” under a pretence of piety (12:40).

Widows getting ripped off by the managers of religion – that’s the set-up for the story that follows. And to emphasise the importance of what Jesus is about to say, Mark not only has Jesus sit facing the Temple treasury (12:41), the customary position from which to make definitive declarations (i.e., ex cathedra), he also reintroduces the disciples to the narrative, as Jesus calls them from the wings where they’ve been waiting since the end of chapter 11 to stage front and centre (12:43).

Now: lights, camera, action! Picture thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in the Court of Women, just inside the Court of Gentiles – it’s Israelites only here. And no elders taking the collection in the Temple, rather people throwing their offerings into these huge ornate coffers. Or even more likely, Jesus is facing the treasury itself, where sits a priest to whom the worshippers declare the amount of their offerings – no discreet little envelopes, everything visible and audible – before tossing them into the chests.

Remember, the Temple wasn’t only the house of God, the central sanctuary for worship, it was an economy in itself. There were literally thousands of people employed there, from priests at the top to builders, repairmen, cleaners, moneychangers, and the numerous other functionaries required to keep this micro-economy in the business of sacrifice ticking over. And the Temple treasury – it served as the central bank of Jerusalem, and it held enormous assets, funded by the regular collection of taxes.

So there Jesus sits – and watches the scene like a hawk, noting every detail. First, there are the rich folk who drop in loads of money. And then along comes a “poor widow”. That dear little old lady? Probably not. People just did not live that long in first-century Palestine. Women married in their early teens and were lucky to reach fifty. And widows – they were part of Israel’s underclass, stereotypes of the powerless and oppressed, and in a patriarchal society, a man’s world, they had to be tough just to survive. The younger they were, the more they were considered a danger to the community, perennial temptations to the married family man, so social exclusion often compounded their personal vulnerability. And with no guaranteed inheritance, money was always a problem, not least because of their exploitation by unscrupulous scribes, the teachers of the Law whom Jesus has just condemned.

Just how dirt poor this woman was is suggested by her offering – the two copper coins are Greek lepta, the smallest currency in circulation. Nevertheless, measly as her offering is, Jesus says (in the words of a modern translation, The Message): “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford – she gave her all” (12:43-44).

Of course the traditional interpretation of this passage – that in this woman we have a model of costly, self-sacrificial faith – is not wrong. “Blessed are the poor” – indeed. But that’s not the point. Nor is it wrong to see here an attack on the affluent – Jesus was always having a go at the moneyed classes: “Woe to the rich!” – indeed. But that’s not the point either. It’s the institution, the system, that Jesus has in his sights, the way the Temple systemically fleeces the poor – the system and its suits, the professionals, the managers who ensure that the system runs smoothly; fleeces the poor, and worse, humiliates the poor, taking not only their money but also their dignity. For remember, the transactions occur in the harsh glare of public scrutiny.

The Director of our Windermere Centre Lawrence Moore imagines the scene as the widow reaches “the head of the queue. A public argument begins. ‘You’re winding me up, aren’t you? This won’t buy you anything! What? This is genuinely all you have? Well, for once, I’m going to make an exception. Seeing as you’ve nothing more to give, I’m going to accept your pitiful offering. I’m far too generous for my own good.’” The woman is shamed. Nothing could be worse, not even indigence, in a culture where honour is all. It was bad enough that the widow left an act of worship without any money, but that she left it without her pride …

And a final, terrible irony – context again! – what happens next? Jesus leaves the Temple for the last time, storms out, no doubt shaking the dust off his feet. All the disciples, as obtuse as ever, can say is, “Hey, Jesus, wow! What an awesome cathedral!” They haven’t learned a thing. Jesus replies, “Impressed, are you, lads? Take a good look then, because soon it will all be a heap of rubble” (13:1-2). All that money – and for what? A condemned building! Rather like buying stock in the Titanic. Lawrence draws the conclusion: “Beware the building fund” – that is, when we forget that the church is a people not a steeple, and that mission, not mortar, is the reason for our being, for then these bricks become a blot on the landscape rather than a blessing for the community.

Finally, this. John F. Kennedy famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Jesus, you might say, inverts this declaration: “Ask not what you can do for the Temple, ask what the Temple can do for you.” Which for Christians becomes: “Ask not what you can do for the church, ask what the church can do for you.” Not now the walls but what goes on within the walls. People like me – ministers – are always banging on about what you should be doing for the church. Of course! But perhaps we all need to stop and ask, “Just what kind of church are we being told to be doing it for?” More precisely, just what kind of church are we?

Is it a church that does what it been called by God, sent by Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit to do – to be a sign of the kingdom, a witness to truth and peace, a mediator of grace and mercy, a contributor to human well-being and flourishing – and an in-your-face protest to any power that would deny or thwart the loving-kindness of God for all people, for all creation?

Or is it a church that has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage: a therapeutic church that massages our self-esteem; an anti-intellectual church that stifles critical thinking; a managerial church that is obsessed with its own institutional survival; an otherworldly church in the business of hawking afterlife insurance; an I-vow-to-thee-my-country church, or a church resigned to its marginalisation by the state, a church that openly or silently colludes in government lies, injustice, and violence? Are we a church obsessed with saving our souls, let alone with saving our buildings, or are we a church dedicated to expending ourselves on those who are not with us, and may even be against us, prodigal with our love, imitating the self-expenditure we see in Christ, who, as Paul wrote, “rich as he was, spent it all on us, becoming poor so that we would be rich” (II Corinthians 8:9)?

Rich or poor, our true wealth is in God. Many or few, our true strength is in God. Old or young, our true vitality is in God. Is that what our being Christian, and being church, means to us and communicates to others? That is indeed a cause – the cause of Jesus – for which, like the widow, to give our all, such that mite becomes might, as the power of God is perfected in human weakness.

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