The Widow's Mite

Preaching the opposite of what the Bible teaches

On Sunday most preaching on the Widow’s Mite will preach the opposite of what Jesus in the Bible is actually teaching.

On Sunday many men (and women) in long robes (and even those who deprecate robes and instead wear expensive suits or hip-pastor jeans with designs and crosses on the back pockets) will get up and preach on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:38-44), and preach the exact opposite of what the text intends. Some will quote Mother Teresa of Calcutta, others, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, using smooth words that it’s not the amount you give but the cost to you, or about the value of doing little things with big love. Let’s put money on it (2 mites? λεπτόν lepton) that this is the majority interpretation of the Widow’s Mite text.

And wrong!

These preachers, who like to walk around in long robes (and those who disparage robe-wearers), and to be greeted with respect, and to have the best seats, and places of honour at banquets, and for the sake of appearance say long prayers, will stand up and praise the widow and encourage the giving even out of your poverty to give everything you have, all you have to live on. And mostly to keep the building pretty, and to pay the preacher….

When you actually examine the text, Jesus is saying the opposite! Look at it – Jesus says:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

And then Jesus observes an example where this is clearly happening:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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.”

He doesn’t praise the widow’s action. He observes what the preaching has done to her. And then, conveniently for the story-distorters, the lectionary editors sever the other bookend of this story, leaving it (in RCL) to the following Sunday (and for RCs that is removed altogether). But the story continues with the disciples shocked and spluttering in protest that surely this amazing, beautiful building is worth collecting for – even at the cost to the widow’s livelihood:

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

Jesus won’t be taken in. He says:

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The First Testament story, 1 Kings 17:8-24, provides a much better frame – sharing resources. Even the Hebrews text (Hebrews 9:24-28) synchronously subverts the majority preaching, if only we pay attention:

Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands

Let’s not invert it and turn Jesus’ teaching into an attack on robes or buildings. The God “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Psalm 146, Sunday’s psalm) is not averse to buildings (or robes) per se. But God “executes justice for the oppressed; and gives food to the hungry…The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”

Often quoted is William Temple’s “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” But too often, rather than being missional (the meaning of this quote) we see church-as-club, and church building as pretty club-house, and evangelism (especially of youth) as trying to make sure we have sufficient people to maintain the club and clubhouse.

As so often, Jesus is challenging veneer and pointing to reality. We so easily confuse holiness with vainglory, donating ostentatiously with self-sacrifice, how the temple looked with our inner temple…

What do you think?

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image source: JESUS MAFA. The Widow’s Mite, from Art in the Christian Tradition

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