Sunday, November 11, 2018
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
As he taught, he said, “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 honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
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.”
Sometimes I look at my life, all the places I’ve traveled; the decades spent living in Manhattan; that I’ve landed in such a wonderful congregation in this incredible building, in this charming New England town - and I think: it’s is a long, long way from where you started. For the truth is, I come from pretty humble beginnings. One doesn’t have to travel very far back in my family’s history before you find extreme poverty and hardship. My people, on both sides, come from hardscrabble Appalachia. So I look at my life and I think: it’s a long, long way from where your people started.
One of my people was my paternal great-grandmother, whose name was Lennie Igo. She died when I was 11, but I have clear memories of her smile, of her simple shotgun house, and of her faith. My great grandmother was illiterate, but she had memorized large portions of Scripture that she could quote at length. She believed in the power of prayer and spent hours a day in that practice on her knees. She was poor and lived on a widow’s pension, but 10% of everything she had, she gave to her church. My great grandmother staked her life on the Gospel. I thought of her this week as I began to ponder this passage of Scripture, in which the hero of the story is another poor widow who staked her life on the Gospel.
Jesus was in the Temple on the Tuesday before he was executed by the Empire. For some weeks now, he had been wowing the crowds by taking on the establishment and its systematic abuse of the poor – people just like that widow. Almost all of the folks who listened to Jesus were likewise poor, and so they listened to him with delight. And they were especially thrilled to hear him take on the clergy, who sometimes abused the poor. “Beware of them,” Jesus said. “They love to parade around in their holy outfits and pray elaborate prayers while at the same time devouring the poor widows’ houses.”
And this was not hyperbole. The scribes were literally devouring the widows’ houses. A widow in that patriarchal society was completely dependent upon living male relatives who would decide how much money to give her. And if she had no relatives, then she was, quite literally, dependent upon the kindness of strangers. And we all know that not all strangers are kind. So, it was not unheard of for widows to be forced to choose between prostitution and death by starvation.
Sometimes, if a woman had no male relatives to handle her affairs, then the religious authorities would swoop in to help manage the dead man’s estate. And of course, they would charge a fee for this service. Historian Chad Myers notes that this practice was rife with embezzlement and abuse. Sometimes the scribes literally took the widow’s house as payment for services rendered.
So, on this Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus and his disciples were in the Temple, sitting in the Court of the Women – a designated place because women were not allowed to go any further. That’s also where the Treasury was. I guess a woman’s money was holy enough, even if she wasn’t. At the Treasury, the worshippers would pour their coins into 13 large metal containers. Imagine the noise – metal against metal, crashing and clanging. If you gave a lot, you made a lot of noise. And everyone paid attention to that. In addition, it was customary for the donors to announce how much they were giving before they dropped the money into the containers. Can you imagine such a practice here, before you dropped your envelope in the plate?
A widow appeared, walked up to the Treasury and announced: “Two Leptas!” It was a measly amount. It took 4 to 8 Leptas to make one penny. What she gave was quite literally a drop in the bucket. But she got Jesus’s attention. “Truly I tell you,”he said, “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."
I suppose that over my lifetime, I have heard at least two-dozen sermons on this text. And inevitably they lead to a plea for more generous stewardship. And make no mistake: being faithful and generous with what you have been given is a mark of discipleship. But there is also another lesson here. And I wonder if it’s a lesson the widow preached without ever knowing it.
So remember the scene: a busy place with plenty of rich folks pouring in their treasures and announcing how generous they were. And then think of this widow, who with chin raised marched to the Treasury and announced her own participation in the Reign of God. By her boldness to claim her place among the people of God, she preached the vital importance of every act of faithfulness, kindness, and justice.
The widow certainly could have been more penny-wise and simply used that money to buy herself some bread. But that was not how she understood her role in the world. She wasn’t just some poor widow. She was an agent of change, a worker for tikkun olam – a Hebrew phrase translating as “the repair of the world.” She could not do it all. She could not repair the world on her own. Be she could do her best and trust the Almighty to do the rest. And because she was faithful, her singular act of obedience is enshrined in the pages of Holy Scripture, while all those holy men in flowing robes are long forgotten.
Now, you might read this story and think she was foolish. And maybe she was according to the standards of this materialistic and selfish world. But sometimes foolishness is actually faithfulness. Sometimes it takes a fool to believe the word of God. There is a Franciscan prayer that ends like this: “May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.”
We cannot fix the world all by ourselves. We cannot lift up the poor all by ourselves. We cannot even fix ourselves by ourselves. But that is not now and never will be an excuse for despondency. That is no excuse for inaction. That is no excuse for fear or paralysis or cynicism.
Taped to my office door I have this quote, inspired by the Talmud, that collection of ancient Jewish wisdom and interpretation: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
And that is the Gospel of this powerful woman - that every act of goodness, no matter how small, moves the whole world in the right direction. And if you can believe that, or at least pretend to believe that, then that belief and practice will change your life. It will change your faith. It will heal your cynicism. It will melt your bitterness. It will save your soul - because it’s the Gospel, as proclaimed by this blessed woman who showed us the way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.