A sermon preached by the Rev. Traci Blackmon at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, October 28, 2012
Is poverty what it used to be?
Is poverty what it used to be?
Or has poverty grown so shameful that we dare not speak its name?
The widow we encounter in Mark 12:38-44 provides a case study in poverty and oppression. Yet, unable to confront poverty, we have turned her into something safer – an example of generosity.
The story of the widow's mite is generally idealized as an example of Christian behavior for those who are poor.
Those who are poor are expected, if they wish to be considered faithful… to give to the church – even if it means they go without.
Those of us who cling to our middle-class status are more likely to go to church than are the truly poor… so we allow ourselves to imagine poor people as being somehow different from ourselves…or we dress in the garb of the widow and feign generosity.
To read the Bible from a position of power and privilege runs the risk of romanticizing the plight of the poor, even to the point of making the condition of those oppressed… models for the victims of racism, classism and sexism.
As a result… we need help recognizing poverty’s presence.
The election has just passed. And regardless of who you and I voted for…one factor we can all celebrate… is that it is over – OVER! (smile)
Thank God for that.
Regardless of which candidate we chose to support, it should be disturbing to us…as thinking people of faith … that in spite of poverty figures which show that more than one in seven Americans – 46.2 million people – live in poverty… more than 16 million children… neither presidential candidate could work up the courage to address poverty as a serious issue, at least not directly.
And neither seemed in the least bit apologetic that the presidential election of 2012 cost a reported $2.5 billion … perhaps the costliest in our history!
The topic of money – who has it, who doesn’t, and what people do to acquire it – is central to Jesus’ thinking in this morning’s text.
When we read this story from economic privilege, we ignore how the normative interpretation maintains societal power relationships detrimental to the poor.
But missing from this interpretation is how the widow's self-sacrifice is related to the self-indulgence of the religious leaders who profit from her religious commitment.
Mark’s Gospel goes out of its way to make clear that she is just as much a victim as a hero.
I do not wish to dismiss either interpretation or application of this text, but I do want to offer a different starting point which will move in a vastly different direction.
Reading the story of the widow's mite from the perspective of the poor… we discover that in Mark's account… the story of the widow's offering is immediately preceded by Jesus' outrage toward the religious leaders who devour the possessions of widows.
The key to this text is to keep it as a whole, instead of separating out verses 41-44 from 38-40. The widow’s contribution is contextualized – she is participating in a system that routinely oppresses her and does so alongside of the guise of piety (v.40).
In a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and she is contributing toward an unjust system.
She is giving all that she has and she is abetting a system that will take away all that she has.
It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will… in turn… exploit her.
The option not to separate vv. 38-40 from vv.41-44 means that this text allows for a profound interpretation of living tragically within systems that are oppressive and dehumanizing… yet are still places where one can make self-denying contributions toward the common good.
The homiletical directions this text can take are many – addressing those who try to work conscientiously within a capitalistic system; those who live heroically within a militaristic system that often overreaches and destroys; those who vote for a candidate that is imperfect, but perhaps the least imperfect in one’s judgment.
Once the option of not participating is ruled out … the tragedy of participating is unavoidable.
If we read Mark and Luke (followed by the declaration that the temple will be destroyed) together… we discover that Jesus is not praising the widow's offering as a paragon to be emulated by the poor. Instead, Jesus is denouncing a religious social structure that cons the widow out of what little she has.
The widow’s generosity places the reality of poverty before our eyes.
It reminds us that the poor do not represent parasites who drain society of its resources.
This story reminds us that we live in an economy that siphons its resources upward and leaves the vulnerable to face destitution on their own – and many of us inhabit churches that ignore the process.
However, perhaps this widow is not the only vulnerable character in the story.
Jesus also introduces us to a certain kind of scribe.
Scribes had the dual role of religious leader and lawyer.
They read and wrote contracts based on their intimate knowledge of Jewish law.
Scribes were often appointed as trustees over the estates of widows. And they would abuse this power, in order to gain a share in the estate, “devouring” the houses of widows as our text describes.
The type of scribe that Jesus warns about, loves to dress up in flowing robes and walk around the marketplace. He is greeted by the most important people and invited to the most prestigious events.
At these events he is seated as the guest of honor and he says long prayers to bless the meal.
On the surface our scribe friend is “living the life.” He is financially secure. He knows the right people. He parties at the best banquets.
But Jesus suggests that this is all a “show,” it’s an “act.”
Our scribe is hiding something behind his robes. He enjoys financial security at the expense of the hope and future of his community’s most fragile ones, the widows.
He says lengthy prayers only to impress and gain respect.
He uses those around him to secure his power and social status.
And so underneath this impressive exterior, we find a man who is covering something up.
Perhaps he is just as vulnerable as the widow. His greatest nightmare is losing his status and becoming socially cast-out and financially fragile.
He looks at women like the widow and he oppresses them because subconsciously they represent his greatest fear.
And so we meet a vulnerable widow, who is at the bottom of society, and we also meet vulnerable scribes who cover up their insecurity and fear… with power and fame.
The interesting thing is that the vulnerability of both of these two characters is intimately tied to their financial situation.
Because of the social systems of her day, the widow constantly struggles to find some sort of financial stability.
And because of these same social structures, the scribe has an abundant financial cushion. And yet his vulnerability lies in the fear of losing his position and the perks that go along with it.
And so I wonder what these two characters can teach us about our own vulnerability concerning money and financial stability in these unstable times.
First, one of the most ironic pieces of this story is that the widow is the one who is supposed to receive charity not give it out!
A widow usually survives off of the abundance of a person like the scribe.
But instead, we encounter a scribe who is stingy and oppressive.
And we find a widow who is offering her money to the institution that supports the scribe.
So, the widow gives… and the scribe receives… what an ironic twist!
Granted the widow only gives a tiny sum of money (only about 1/64 of a day’s labor). However, Jesus says that she has offered more than any other person in the temple that day because she has given out of her poverty. (all she had to live)
I like to imagine that the widow knows of others who are even worse off than she is. And instead of her financial vulnerability creating resentment and callousness towards others, the widow’s fragile state helps her empathize with others and respond in radical generosity.
How can our money be a conduit for generosity and not a catalyst for stinginess?
How can money lead us into relationship instead of creating boundaries between those who “have”… and those who “have not?”
The scribe’s money helps solidify the social categories between the ones who sit in the seats of honor… and the ones who are not even invited to the banquet.
Does our money draw us to others, to deep involvement in community, or does it push others away?
Does our money draw us to the most vulnerable in our society?
Do we spend money out of fear and social performance, like the scribe, or like the widow, do we spend money out of compassion and generosity?
Secondly, the widow has a prophetic voice in this passage. No one expects her to give money to the temple. In fact, she is giving to the very establishment that oppresses her!
Her money supports the scribe and endorses his activity, “devouring” the houses of widows.
What is this woman thinking? She must be crazy, right? Does she give money out of obligation or shame?
Does she give out of some sort of naïve devotion?
Candace Chewell-Hodge, wrote an article entitled “With All our Mite” in an online magazine for LGBT Christians. She makes this same observation, wondering why this widow would ever contribute to the very institution that marginalizes her.
She compares the commitment of the widow to the temple and to the commitment of the LGBT community to churches that oppress them.
She writes, “Even if others think we're crazy, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community, and its allies, must continue to give all its ‘mite’ to the church in the hope that one day we can reform it - from the inside out.”
She goes on, “I seek to emulate (the widow’s) faithfulness to an institution that marginalizes her.”
“I believe she understood that she is a powerful witness against…the scribes of her day…and we, as LGBT people, can follow her example and continue to be powerful witnesses as we seek to make the church more welcoming and inclusive of all outcasts, not just those in our community.”
And so while the scribe secures his financial future by “devouring” the lives of widows, this widow gives her tiny offering as an act of witness against the temple and a statement to convict those who oppress the most vulnerable.
How can our money, like the Widow’s Mite, stand up for justice and resist oppression?
Does our money call attention to our own flowing robes and our seat of honor or does our money call attention to the “least of these,” who are forgotten and cast out?
The widow’s meager offering teaches us to let our money lead us to moments of compassion and generosity.
She also inspires us to use our money to stand up against oppression instead of solidifying unjust social structures.
Lastly, the widow’s mite inspires us not to be defined by the conditions surrounding us.
In this story, the widow is not to be defined by how much she owns or how much she doesn’t own.
But the scribe, on the other hand, pretends and plays “dress up” in order to maintain his social standing. He doesn’t really mean it when he prays those long prayers, but the prayers gain him respect, and so he does it anyway in order to maintain power.
He lets the system define who he is, what he wears, and who he is friends with, in order to maintain his sense of status.
The widow’s vulnerable situation could have just as much power over her. She has every right to be bitter at the world.
I’m sure that she has moments of anger against those who oppress her.
And she has moments when poverty and loneliness overwhelm her. However, in this moment, she rises above her script.
She does not beg, instead, she graciously gives, perhaps in honor of others who are just as vulnerable as she is.
She does not let the social structure or fragile economic state define her. Instead, compassion and generosity empower her to rise above her vulnerability.
How do you shake your own vulnerability?
By allowing others to define you?
Or by using generosity and compassion to rise above the script that society has written?
Have you ever received hospitality from a poor person, or a person who is cast out, like the widow?
In 2009, I visited a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana, West Africa with several colleagues. People who had lived in this camp for several years with inadequate housing and resources combined their resources and served us a wonderful…not because we were in power or because we demanded it… but as a free gift of love and hospitality. This was a moment of radical generosity. And for me it was an experience of the Divine.
The widow’s mite teaches us to let our vulnerability lead to compassion and to rise above the categories that define us.
And the widow teaches us to let these stories of radical generosity convict all of us of the need for social change, and care for the “least of these” in our own society.
Jesus says, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” And so, how does our money care for “the least” in our community, in our country, in our world?
How does our money draw us out of a place of vulnerability and fear into a space of compassion and generosity?
How do we let our money lead to justice?
How do we direct our bank accounts to help us “see others in need” rather than making ourselves “seen” by others?
How can our money be a sacred gift that leads us into communion with each other, thereby leading us into communion with God?
As we turn our eyes to the Table… and we remember the life of Christ, who embodied radical generosity and loving service…who emptied himself taking the form of a servant not grasping at power or fame. We remember Christ, who cared for lepers, widows, and sinners. As we gather for communion today, let us contemplate the meager life of Christ and the widow’s mite. Amen.