The Church of Lost Causes
First Lesson: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Second Lesson: Mark 12:38-44
Rev. Scott Dickison
As I saw it put this week on this story of the widow giving all she had into the offering plate at the temple, “Everyone used to know what this story means.”
It’s the last week of Jesus’ earthy life and he and the disciples are at the temple watching folks bring their gifts to the treasury. Many wealthy people come through and put in large sums, and then a poor widow comes through and drops in two copper coins worth a penny. Jesus leans in to his disciples and tells them, “Her gift is the greatest given today. Everyone else has given from their abundance, but out of her poverty she’s given everything she had, everything she had to live on.”
This is about generous, proportional giving. To others this poor widow’s gift was just a penny, but Jesus knew this penny was all she had to give and everything she had to live on. She in her poverty and not the scribes in their opulence was the most faithful, generous giver Jesus saw at the temple that day—go and do likewise.
This is what this story use to mean.
And yet some have wondered if there’s more going on here.
Remember that this scene comes just after Jesus had taught the crowds there at the temple to “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets”—these religious leaders who relish not only in their piety but the esteem they’re granted by others. Beware the ones who hold the chief seats, as Augustine puts it, “Not because they hold them, but because they love them.”These scribes, Jesus continues, “Devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Devour widows’ houses?
What’s Jesus saying here?
Some have argued he’s referring to a practice that was common in the ancient world in which, in the event of the husband’s death, scribes (with their reputation for piety and trustworthiness) would become the executor of the widow’s estate, receiving a percentage of the assets for their service. Women, in those days and in days much closer to the present than we’d care to remember, were generally not allowed or even thought to be capable of such things. Now, this practice was thought to be a way to fulfill the obligation to look after “widows and orphans,” but was ripe for corruption and abuse.It could be that this practice is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of these scribes who devour widow’s houses. Or it could be something a little broader.
It’s immediately after accusing these scribes of “devouring” widows’ houses that Jesus sits down and looks out over the temple with his disciples and sees a widow, obviously poor—almost as if he was looking for someone like her so he could finish his point. And he watches as she puts in her money, not a great sum to most people but clearly a great sum for her, in fact, maybe too great a sum. He calls his disciples over and says, “All those scribes have given from the great wealth they’ve stolen on the backs of these poor people like her, while she’s over here giving everything she has—everything she has to live on.” Not only that, but in the very next passage Jesus tells the disciple this temple will be destroyed.
So, in other words, this whole system is rotten and won’t be around for long. This poor widow’s gift is generous, and given in earnest with the best and purest of intentions. But she’s being exploited, encouraged by those in power to give to support a corrupt system. Suddenly—this alternative reading tells us—Jesus isn’t simply celebratingthis woman’s gift, he’s lamentingit. Not casting judgment on her for giving such a gift, but on the religious system that would receive it, and encourage her to give it. The religious system who doesn’t value her.
And this isn’t quite the heartstring-tugging message we usually get from this widow and her “mite.” But can be a good reality check for the church.
To begin with, Lord knows, anyone who’s allowed to wear a robe in public needs to be aware of the temptation to enjoy it just a little too much. Self-righteousness is found most often among those expected to be righteous, and is something we pastors and good church folk need to take special care to be aware of. And of course, corruption within religious institutions and the tendency to pray on the most vulnerable among us didn’t end with the scribes 2,000 years ago. It’s still alive and well today—the ongoing scandal in the Catholic Church around clergy abuse is maybe the most egregious and gut-wrenching example. But there are surely others.
But on a different and not quite as intense a level, churches—maybe more than most organizations— often have spotty records in valuing their members. For instance, the church is not typically very good at saying, “Thank you.” We expect folks to give of their time, talents, and gifts, and serve and then serve again, and again and join this committee and run this ministry and maybe volunteer for this Saturday, and gee, we really need someone to help out on Wednesday nights and then there are collections being taken up for this cause and that cause and…
The church asks a lot and if we see that you’ll say, “Yes,” then we have a tendency to ask even more!
The church doesn’t say thank you enough. We don’t always show each other that we value the gifts that are given—most of all the gifts that on the outside may look small but when you squint you realize actually make us the church.
I think there’s a lot about this alternative reading of this poor widow and her generous gift that’s challenging and important for us in the church to hear: we need to be aware of unjust systems that prey on the poor and vulnerable. We need to be vigilant in making sure we’re a church the poor widow can feel good about supporting—and even more, a church who supports her and a church who supports other organizations in our community who would support her!
But there’s something else about this alternative reading of the poor widow and Jesus lamenting her costly gift that leaves me unsatisfied—and I’m indebted here to William Placher’s wonderful commentary. It’s one thing to point out an unjust, exploitative system, but should that keep us from celebrating the noble, generous, and sacrificial gives that are given within it? In widening on lens to see the “big picture,” do we risk missing the smaller, individual stories that embody faithfulness here on the ground?
“Early martyrs died for their faith rather than putting a pinch of incense on the altar of the emperor. Some inspired others to become Christians, but some died with their heroism unknown or soon forgotten. Some Christians today put long efforts into trying to turn around the life of a child who has been subject to years of abuse and neglect—and largely fail.”Should the church of Jesus Christ—who by the world’s standards failed miserably in being arrested, condemned and crucified—lament these acts of faithfulness that by conventional standards may not amount to much, or should we celebrate them for the generous gifts they are?
How many of us could think of a time when we’ve given something costly of ourselves though we knew the end results were in doubt? I hope we could come up with at least a time or two of some reckless gift or act of loving kindness, because these are the things that keep us close to Jesus.
Heck, if we took a wide enough view it would be pretty easy to question whether or not the whole idea of the church is a little reckless. To those around us, the end result seems very much in doubt! Keep loving, keep forgiving, keep giving, keep fighting for justice while offering mercy, keep being peaceful amid the storm, keep being joyful though you’ve considered the facts (in the words of Wendell Berry), keep being hopeful though you read the news. Keep doing these things and being these things for each other and for your community—for the world—until Christ comes to us or we go to Christ.
From the cold, dispassionate view, there’s a lot to lament in this call we’ve accepted. But we in the church know there’s a lot to celebrate.
I think of these things too knowing today is Veterans Day. I was touched this week in learning more about the history of this holiday. You may know it was originally known as “Armistice Day,” dating back 100 years ago today—and in fact 100 years ago this hour—when on the eleventh hour of the eleventh Day of the eleventh month, the truce was declared that ended World War I, then known simply as “The Great War.” Armistice comes from the latin words for “arms” and “standing still.”
Numbers vary, but an estimated 18 million people died in The Great War. Another 41 million were injured—numbers that when you expand them out and think of the families touched almost too much to fathom. Humanity came face to face with modern warfare, handing these new weapons not to military professionals, but in most cases to men and boys pulled off of hand-plows and out of professional offices—sent from their civilian lives out to the killing fields of war. And the tragic question for World War I that historians still ask is, “for what purpose?” If any war is truly necessary, it would be especially hard to make a case for The Great War.All of the death and destruction for the redrawing of some boundaries, which sent ripple effects through history that in many ways we’re still accounting for. Even in the stories we tell of it, there’s no glory, no clear battle of good versus evil. There’s just horror and death and lament.
And yet to view the war from this wide angle is to risk losing the stories of the men and women who fought and lived within it, who had nothing to do with its creation. Mike and Mary Leonard forwarded me a beautiful article for this Wall Street Journal this week about the poetry of World War I. The author noted that, “Never before had war been documented to such a degree in poetry and it is unlikely that it ever will be again.”There’s an entire collection, maybe even a genre, of poetry written by men on the front lines, that’s haunting and gut-wrenching and beautiful. It dismisses the noise of politics and diplomatic maneuverings and focuses our lens intimately on the lives and hearts of those there, literally in the pit—the Bible’s word for hell.
Someone shared with me this week a recreation of what it would have sounded like for the soldiers at the front lines when they learned of the armistice. They were firing guns and tanks right up until the final minute. And then you hear a sudden silence. One lingering blast in the distance. And then…stillness. And after a brief silence, the chirping of birds.
In the aftermath of the war, Congress declared November 11 “should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” Of course, just a few decades later another “great war” would come and so Armistice Day was renamed “Veterans Day” to honor veterans from all the wars. “But,” as I saw it put this week so beautifully from my friends a The SALT Project, “the words of Congress still resonate,” and may help us focus our attention today on this 100th anniversary.
“A day of thanksgiving: for the service of veterans, living and dead; for the service of caregivers…and spouses and family members and friends - who walk with veterans through the ravages of war…and for the days of peace that come at long last.
A day of prayer: for people of all faiths (or no faith at all), a time of prayer, meditation, or reflection on the stillness of armistice…
A day of exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations: for all of us to find ways, large and small, to build bridges across lines of difference, suspicion, or hostility, in our neighborhoods, our country, and among the nations of the world.”
There is so much to lament about the history of violence and war. So much suffering, so much death—and so much that continues today, not simply on the field of battle but our neighborhoods, even our houses of worship.
Taken against the weight of it all, theseindividual sacrifices of men and women and families, these acts of service and even loving-kindness given within it can feel like a couple of coins. But even as we lament the cycles of violence and war that demand these sacrifices, the people of Christ must see these great gifts and name them, and celebrate them. We must pray for a time when wars will cease. But as we do, we must—with Jesus—see these things.
I’m indebted, again, to William C. Placher’s wonderful commentary in the Belief series, 179-183
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. p. 320-321
The SALT Project’s blog on “The Theology of Veterans Day” was immensely helpful in gathering these thoughts. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/a-brief-theology-of-veterans-day
Burt Solomon, “The Tragic Futility of World War I.” The Atlantic, July 27, 2014, accessed November 10, 2018 https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/07/world-war-i-tragic-futility/375103/
Aaron Schooner, “The Great War Produced Some Great Poetry,” The Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2018, accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-great-war-produced-some-great-poetry-1541806343?emailToken=306f806782b7765a7f0141da63bf6e48S4oieZXEmdkp1u0O1daMqciuu1T0xvtJNq5+4nuGL1xKbOBlfI8ANN78QKMEUlzXxeZBvaRFJOh1hry67Rnag48vi7rznjs8t+bbw+zjDAU
Marc Bain, “This is what it sounded like the moment the guns of World War I went silent,” Quartz, November 11, 2018. Accessed November 11, 2018. https://qz.com/1459586/armistice-day-how-it-sounded-when-world-war-is-guns-went-silent/
SALT Project blog