You’ve preached this text before – usually as a part of your stewardship campaign. It’s a great text for that, don’t you think? An inherent invitation to give more than you can afford. Wait, what? Is that really a message we want to proclaim? Sure, we’ve heard those stories of unscrupulous TV “evangelists” bankrupting poor widows and others who tune in hoping for some sort of connection. We’re pretty clear that isn’t the kind of ministry we ought to be supporting.
But then, a chapter back, Jesus is casting folks out of the very temple this widow is supporting with her pittance. The beginning of this week’s gospel text isn’t all that supportive of the religious status quo. Perhaps, on second thought, this isn’t the best stewardship sermon after all.
So, what is it? Is it a diatribe against the institution that is crumbling around us as we speak? The one that preys on widows such as the one in this text, or at best neglects them in favor of buildings and systems and structures? Do we claim Jesus’ righteous anger and denounce the institution, biting the hand that feeds us?
There are those who would take that route. And perhaps there are places where such a word needs to be proclaimed. But is that place your pulpit at this time? And in fact, read the text again and look for that burning anger in Jesus as he makes his declaration. Maybe it burned out during his long and no doubt tiring wrestling match with the scribes earlier in chapter 12. Maybe now he’s just weary of all the strife and instead wants to say something kind about someone, so he finds this poor woman and wants to bless her somehow.
Except that there seems to be something more profound going on here, or at least there is from Mark’s point of view. Maybe it didn’t happen exactly like this; maybe Jesus didn’t go from warning about the scribal way of life to plopping himself down next to the offering plates to see who was giving what. Maybe Mark selected these two events and put them there side by side for a reason. Maybe he wanted us to consider what a life that mattered really means.
On the one hand, we have “beware the scribes . . . devouring the widows’ houses,” and on the other, we have “she has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” There is something of a contrast here, some redefining of the kind of life we are called to live. One group lived for self, wanting and hoarding, grabbing hold of everything they could get their hands on, regardless of the collateral damage such taking caused. The other gave away, lived for others and not self, regardless of damage to the self that would be caused by this level of generosity.
While we cannot recommend behavior that is self-destructive, we could also recognize that the widow trusted in the care that was being offered by the very institution she was giving her whole living to. Perhaps it was gratitude for what she had received that caused her to give so prodigally. The widow’s action was a sign of faith in the community. She didn’t worry about herself in the context of a caring system that knew how to look after those in need. She trusted in the temple and the people who administered its grace.
Some of us would call this naïve. Perhaps, given the statements he made last chapter and previously in this one, even Jesus might wonder if her trust is misplaced. Yet, he presents her as having a more effective witness than all the others who came to make offerings that day.
There is a background to this moment, of which you might be aware. These offering boxes were not hidden away and brought out in the act of worship to be passed discretely around the assembled worshipers. No, these sat out in the public courts as a way for all to have access to giving, even if they were not worthy of entering into the inner courts. Nor were they simple plates with padded insides to mute the sound of coins landing on the metal. Nor were they boxes with narrow slits where you could slide your envelope into the darkness inside. These were large metal trumpet-like receptacles into which you could pour your temple money, causing a clinking and a clanking that would ring across the open court, drawing attention to any who were in the area. No doubt some would aim their largess in such a way as to make the loudest sound possible, hoping to wow the bystanders with their wealth and supposed generosity.
Yet, Jesus ignores the noisemakers and draws attention to the faint plink of tiny copper coins dropping into the box. And he says “this poor widow has put in more” than all the clinkers and clankers in the courtyard. Now you know that Matthew would have whipped out his calculator at that point and shown Jesus the math here. I mean, even at a rough estimate, which we former tax collectors are loath to do, she contributed something on the scale of .00002 percent of what some of those guys dumped in. Come on, Jesus. You could say she was a higher risk, disposing of assets that she could ill-afford to part with, but you can’t say she put in more than they did. Can you?
Jesus looked him in the eye and said, she put in more than all of them combined. More, Matthew, more. Because they put what they weren’t going to use anyway; they put in their excess, their leftovers, the interest on the interest. Whereas she put in her whole life.
I know our translation says, “her whole living”; and that is an appropriate translation for the word used here. But it is “bios” (ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς (Mk. 12:44 GNT), or “holon ton bion autos” – the whole of her life) that elsewhere means life. We get the word “biology” from it, the study of life. She put in her whole life.
There is something here about the life we are called to live as followers of Jesus, as disciples. And that is that we are to hold our own life lightly. Yes, our stuff too, our livelihood as well. We are to hold all our stuff lightly. But even our own lives. They aren’t our possessions to hoard, but to give away, to give as a blessing, to give as an act of gratitude, to give in service. We are called, invited, set free from the bondage to our stuff and ourselves, to live free and unencumbered by our own lives and able to embrace the constant hope of eternity.
Matthew’s eyes were spinning too when he heard this. He grabbed a kid running through the courtyard and handed off his calculator. The kid gave him a puzzled look as he beheld this treasure. Matthew shrugged and said, “I’m living by a different scale now, a different kind of math.” The kid ran off and gathered with his friends as they admired the new toy, and the kid told them all about the crazy guy he met in the temple court today.