“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.”
The Widow’s Mite. That’s the title that has been given to this particular parable of Jesus’, and it is a story that has a long history of being used as the final proclamation in stewardship sermons. The gift of the widow, all that she had to live on, is more than the gifts of those that contribute to the treasury out of their abundance. It is an interesting way of describing the story that we find in Mark’s text, primarily because of the many definitions of the word “mite” in the English dictionary.
The traditional definition of the word in this usage is to define the word as a small contribution or a very small sum of money or a coin of little value. Though that definition certainly fits the usage of the word, it is not the oldest way that the term is defined in the English language. The oldest usage of the word mite is to describe small, arachnid like creatures that feed on other plants and animals. Many of these creatures are parasitic, which is to say that they feed on their hosts at the expense of the plant or animal.
Now, what if we connect this last definition to the description of the parable – do we get a new understanding of what is actually happening in the text, or would we continue to uphold the widow as the paradigm of stewardship because she gave faithfully despite her lack of resources? Would our understanding of the full text of today’s gospel reading take a new meaning because we took the time to read the text again and again until something new leapt out at us thanks to that one last rereading of the text?
In the tradition of the church, the portion of the text that has been paid the most attention is the section that includes the gift of the widow to the temple treasury. It is extolled by preachers as the paradigm for giving to the church – “Be like the widow in the gospel reading! Follow the faithfulness of the widow by giving generously to the Church to enable the ministry of the Church to continue!” It is an age-old sermon that has been preached time and again by priests and preachers looking for a good text to end the fall stewardship campaign and get those last few pledge cards in the plate so the budget for the next year can be finalized.
And yet, those sermons ignore the first half of the reading from today’s gospel. You know – the part that is highly critical of the temple structure, the scribes that like to parade around and take advantage of their position and…yes – devour widow’s houses.
Chapter 12 of Mark is almost exclusively a critique of the Temple complex by Jesus. The chapter begins with a parable intended to scorn the chief priests and is followed by the Pharisees trying to catch Jesus in a trap when they ask if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. The chapter continues in this vein with the one exception of the scribe that is very near to the kingdom of God because the scribe understands the two highest commands – to love the Lord with all our heart, all our mind, and with all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The entire chapter is focused on re-centering the focus of worship and putting love God and love of neighbor at the very heart of our being as a people of God.
This past week I stumbled across a collection of articles and blog posts talking about the reasons that people are leaving the church behind and deciding to go without the hassle of institutionalized religion. in the current climate, people are increasingly counting themselves among two different categories – the Nones and the Dones. The Nones are those that have never really been affiliated with a faith tradition of any stripe in their lives. The second group, the Dones, are those that have for a period of time been affiliated with a faith tradition and are now at the point of saying, “Forget it.” In a few of the articles that I happened to read over the week, I noticed that many of the reasons that people were getting to the point of being done with organized religion are similar to the reasons that Jesus was critical of the Temple complex in chapter 12 of Mark. The Dones are looking for something more, something deeper, something that connects the grace of God with responding to the suffering out in the world.
The “Dones” of today are tired of a church that is not paying attention to the people that are on the doorstep of the church asking for the care of the church. They are finished with the scribes in their long robes, expecting respect in the marketplace and saying long prayers for the sake of appearance. They are hungry for a church that is less concerned about growing the numbers of people attending and more concerned about helping those that do attend to deepen their faith lives. They are hungry for a church that yearns to take action out in the community in such a way that the community is transformed because the church is busy listening first and responding second. They yearn for a church that is less interested in doctrine and more interested in the gritty, rubber-meets-the-road questions of the people.
Perhaps, the widow’s mite is a parasite that is slowly taking the life out of the community. The widow’s mite is not a mite because of the meagreness of her contribution to the treasury; the mite is the unjust temple complex that continues to take the money of the poorest and weakest persons – the very persons that the Temple should to support; in Deuteronomy 10, we are told that God executes justice for the orphan and widow and loves the stranger by providing them with food and clothing. The widow’s mite is the lack of justice for the very people who need it most.
So, perhaps, the gospel passage for today is a great lesson for a stewardship sermon – just not in the way that stewardship is typically thought of as it relates to stewardship campaigns that focus on getting people to pledge some amount of money to the church. Instead, it is perfect for stewardship because it is a reminder to the church not to forget that it is to be a house of worship that is paying attention to the real needs of real people on its doorsteps. The stewardship of the church is to use the resources that God gifts to the church in a way that is responsible to God – in a way that emulates the goodness of God. The widow’s mite is a tale of warning for the church. It is a story that predicts what happens to a church that forgets that its primary responsibility is to love God and to love neighbor.
The stewardship of the church is the act of taking all of the resources of the church and giving those resources away just as freely as God gifts into creation. As the church moves into this new landscape of people who are actively leaving organized religion behind, the church has to remember the call to discipleship and the call to love God and to love neighbor. It is a call to look out on the front steps of the church, of this very church, and to learn where it is that people are hurting and need the healing love of Christ. The stewardship of the church is to recognize that all things that we have in this parish are gifts from God that are to be given away in such a way that the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the weak, and the poor in wealth and in heart are nourished and protected by the institution made up of followers of Jesus.
I’m glad to read this interpretation of “The Widow’s Mite,” especially when given to such a large and largely privileged congregation. More than just millenials and Dones feel this way about the church. Is it a cry, from the Spirit, to go out into the wilderness?
The difference between your “given” sermon and the written one is interesting, too.
I’m curious, too, to know when the title was given to these passages; at least by the 17th or 18th century, if I remember dates of art with that title.