Ten days ago I was at our annual Synod with Ron. During a coffee break, near the snacks, a bunch of chairs had been put out. Good idea, but it seemed odd to me that they were all arranged in rows facing the same direction. I mentioned it to Ron, and he told me it reminded him of a sidewalk café in Paris. All the chairs are set up in the same direction, with their backs to the café, facing out onto the street. The idea is that you’re supposed to watch the people as they walk by.
That’s what Jesus is doing in the second half of today’s gospel. He’s watching people as they walk by, as they walk around the courtyard of the temple. He’s also teaching his disciples how to watch. And as he sits opposite the Temple treasury, watching the crowd putting money into the treasury, he sees many rich people putting in large sums, and then he sees a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He called his disciples and said to them,
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Our gospel writer, Mark, is a man of few words. Sometimes he doesn’t give us much to go on. He writes here, “Jesus said.”
How did Jesus say these words? When you hear them in your imagination, what tone do you hear? Is Jesus joyful or dismayed as he talks about the widow? Is he lamenting or praising? Is his tone enthusiastic or angry? If you had been our gospel reader this morning how would you have read Jesus’ words?
It is so tempting for us to pull out this little vignette, and to hear Jesus praising the widow, holding her up as a model of generosity for us, an example of someone who is willing to give her all for God. And that’s not wrong. But this story has layers to it, and sadly, when we put it back into context, we discover that it is much darker than we thought.
Because this little story about the poor widow is situated right in the middle of Jesus’ judgement and condemnation of the Temple, of the religious system and of the religious authorities, and of hypocrisy, oppression and injustice. It’s set in the middle of a life and death conflict which will end with Jesus’ death.
We’re in Jerusalem, just two days after Jesus had entered the city and stormed the Temple, driving out those who were buying and selling, overturning the tables of the money changers and condemning the religious authorities who had turned God’s house into a den of thieves. His conflict with the religious authorities is escalating. In the first part of what we heard today he condemns the hypocrisy of the scribes and accuses them of devouring widow’s houses.
Then Jesus sees the poor widow coming to the Temple treasury. This is what you might call a teachable moment. He calls his disciples over and draws their attention to the widow who put in the two small coins.
It’s all she has to live on. Why is it all she has to live on? Because widows lived in a precarious and vulnerable social situation. They were often isolated. They had no incomes. Sometimes they had an estate, the land of their late husbands. But women were not allowed to sell land. Instead they had to engage trustees to sell it for them. Guess who they had to use as trustees? These same scribes that Jesus is talking about, the lawyers of the day, acted as trustees for widows’ estates. The way a scribe was chosen for a transaction like this was by having a good reputation. By wearing a long robe, sitting in the best seat in the synagogue, putting large sums in the treasury and saying long prayers. But once they were appointed a widow’s trustee, they would often charge exhorbitant fees and end up with a big slice of the estate. In other words, in Jesus’ words, they devoured widows’ houses, leaving the widow with very little to live on.
So why would this poor widow put the small amount she had left, all she had to live on, into the Temple treasury, money that was used to finance the construction of grand buildings and pay the salaries of scribes and other religious leaders, with a cut going to the Roman Empire? Why would she do it? Because these same scribes had taught her that this is what she must do to honour God.
So I have to think that Jesus would have been dismayed and angered to see this poor widow giving everything she has to finance a corrupt and oppressive temple system. This is injustice, and we know that God hates injustice. God has told us so, speaking through the prophets, speaking through Jesus. There is great injustice and oppression in this world. The very reason Jesus came was to liberate those who are oppressed. Injustice and oppression make Jesus angry. But if there is one thing that makes Jesus even angrier, it is when that injustice and oppression masquerade as religious piety and take advantage of vulnerable people like this poor widow.
So often, whether it’s in our churches or our economic structures or our political institutions or our legal system, the injustice and oppression which exists gets masked and normalized. And because of that we get sucked into oppressive systems. This week I watched a news piece about Canadian banks offering credit balance protection to those who are financially vulnerable. According to the news article at least, this is a product which is hugely profitable to banks, often sold by providing misleading information, and provides little benefit to those who purchase it. And that makes me uneasy because I know that those bank profits are part of what funds my pension.
Or have a look at our prison system. We know that in Canada over 26% of federal prison inmates are indigenous, even though indigenous people make up only 4% of our population. Is that oppression being normalized and masked by our legal system?
We’re all familiar with the stories of televangelists who convince thousands of people to send them money under the guise of religious piety. That’s an easy target. But what of our own religious practices and piety? Where is that we’re being hypocritical? What sort of oppression and injustice might we be masking under our interpretations of what it means to be faithful? Both our scriptures and history tell us that we are at risk and that the temptation of religious hypocrisy is great. Watch out!
We need to be watchful. Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. He wanted to teach his disciples to be watchful. To learn to see oppression, injustice and hypocrisy. To resist being seduced by unjust systems, structures and practices. To confront our own religious hypocrisy. To stop profiting from injustice. To be watchful, to see those who are oppressed and to be on God’s side in liberating people from oppression.
I think when Jesus sees the poor widow, he sees all of that. I suspect that when he speaks, there is a tone of lament and maybe even anger in his voice.
But there is more. There is also praise.
Because even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of oppression and injustice, hypocrisy and manipulation, this poor widow is a shining light. Because as Jesus watches, he sees not only oppression. He also sees faithfulness, generosity, her willingness to give all that she has because of her love of God. She has hope. She gives us hope.
We live in a beautiful and broken world. We need to be able to see both, beauty and brokenness, beauty in the midst of brokenness, the beautiful act of a poor widow in the midst of the brokenness of the Temple.
And so we have to take the time to sit and watch, to learn to be watchful so that we can see oppression and injustice and hypocrisy, even when it is masked. But watchful also so that we can see beautiful examples of faithfulness, generosity and self-giving, even in the midst of a broken world.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1. With the benefit of history and hindsight, we realize now that World War 1 was, for the most part, a pointless and barbaric war. Sixteen million people died. At the time, we convinced ourselves that it would be the war to end all wars. Now, we know that it only set the stage for even more deadly conflict. Perhaps there is no greater illustration of the brokenness of our world than wars which masquerade as noble causes. And yet none of that should obscure the generous, self-giving, sacrificial, beautiful lives of those who served, those whom we remember today, beacons of light and hope in times of darkness. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.
Homily: Yr B P32, November 11 2018, St. Albans Church
Readings: Ruth 3.1-9, 4.13-17; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44
Image by Benedic Belen, Creative Commons