Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
This week, we continue through Mark’s story of Jesus. Jesus and co. now find themselves inside the Jerusalem temple. The beating heart of his people’s religious life. Think Mecca, think the Vatican.
They’re inside the temple, and they’re hanging out across the way from the Temple Treasury. Basically the place where the collection box is, where they take donations. Crowds gather here to make their offering, doing it quite publicly. “Many rich people” it says, are putting in large sums. I like to imagine, you know, a guy in a fancy toga holding up a novelty-sized cheque, snapping smiling photos with the temple priest before folding the giant cheque into a little square and shoving it into the hole in the box. You can imagine reporters, local dignitaries. For the wealthy this is an act of public generosity.
And while all of this is happening, a poor widow, it says. A poor widow comes up to make her offering. A widow, meaning she lives way below the poverty line. Gotta work to make a living. Gotta be a man to work. So she can’t, so has to scrape together a living for herself, and possibly children. All she has to give are a couple copper coins, and she drops the two of inside with a clink. The cameras were focussed elsewhere, and so they miss it. Besides, a couple coins, or a penny, is hardly news, let alone the front page news. It’s certainly not much.
Just a drop in the treasury compared to the buckets full the others bring. It’s not really worth noticing. But the thing is, Jesus does notice. In the midst of all the other pomp and circumstance he notices this nobody, and her puny gift. And after this whole scene plays out, Jesus tells his followers that this poor widow, “gave more to the collection than all the others put together” (MSG). Her gift means more, is worth more, Jesus says, because “all of them contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”
Now, most times this text is preached, the message is the perfect kind of message for stewardship month. The preacher Gary Charles calls this story “the preacher’s ploy,” a perfect way to hit the church’s budget goals through strategic manipulation. “The preacher swoops down for the kill,” he says. “Yes,” says the preacher, “the wealthy give it a lot, but they also have a lot left over. The widow gives it all. Dare you give anything less?”[i] Basically the message of this “preachers ploy” is that this widow managed to empty the ten bucks in her bank account… the least the rest of you selfish people can do is sign up for monthly automatic withdrawls.
Now, as much as I would like to go swimming one day in a pool full of gold in the church’s bank account, Scrooge McDuck-style, through the sheer power of guilt. And as much as I’d like to hold up generosity as a virtue (which it is). The truth is that this story isn’t just about money.
This story is about who and what Jesus sees that no one else can see. While everyone else is focused on the great, public displays of the wealthy, Jesus’ eyes are drawn to this poor widow. This nobody. Widows in the Bible, you’ll remember, are right at the lowest rung of society’s ladder. No husband means no income. Means no food which means empty stomachs for them or their children.
This widow’s comes in under the radar. Her gift is almost microscopic. It goes unnoticed, unseen, to the world her life is irrelevant and this act is virtually nothing in the big picture of things. But it’s a genuine act of giving. One that matters more, is worth more than all the rest combined.
Even though no one else sees, Jesus sees. Jesus sees it, and he not only calls it good. He pronounces it great.
Because in Jesus’ eyes, her small act of giving what little she had is more important than all the gala fundraisers in the world. The story isn’t just about money. It’s not just about generosity. The story is about the kind of people make a difference in God’s sight. And the kinds of things that God counts as significant.
The widow really does remind us of Jesus. Her life points towards Jesus. And the very nature of God.
Jesus, who was born to an unwed teenage mother in a feeding trough. Jesus, a homeless, wandering Rabbi, who simply reached out and touched those who were hurting, fed those who were hungry. Gave of himself in a thousand small ways. Never held office. Never had money. Never made much of himself. Jesus who was left by all of his friends when the going got tough. Jesus who gave away all power, influence, and prestige and was nailed on a cross between two nameless thieves as just another useless criminal. Jesus, unnoticed and unseen, whose life was so tiny and insignificant. Giving his life, something that looks like nothing, but means everything. Even his miracles were small.
Mark says this insignificant life is the most significant life in human history. And you know, as it turns out he’s right. The widow, in her insignificance and the power of her giving reminds us of Jesus. She points to Jesus. And in the light of Jesus’ life, this widow’s life—that seems to insignificance to the world—is of eternal significance to God.
Because the truth is that we’re always chasing the wrong things, and looking in the wrong places. We all want to live lives of importance, and significance. Respected, important, pockets full of cash. Or in jobs where people will finally respect us. In nice big houses filled with stuff where we can feel safe from all the bad stuff in the world. Standing with the wealthy placing great sums in the temple where. Where we can be seen. Where we can finally get the credit we deserve.
But according to this scripture passage, God, ultimate meaning, purpose, love, is to be found in the people and places we find the least significant.
God’s to be found in everyday movements and small mercies, among the people we’d least expect.
I don’t mean like “paying it forward” and buying the next person in line their coffee at Tim Horton’s. Though that’s a nice thing. But I’m talking about those moments where, like the widow, where we’re able give ourselves entirely over to eachother, in ways that go unnoticed.
When we not only feed someone who’s hungry, but when sacrifice the time to sit down to eat with them, get to know them. When we not only toss a few coins at someone on the street. But when we befriend someone who everyone else sees as unloveable. When we forgive somebody who’s caused us harm. Lay hands on and pray for them, and let them pray for us. When we take time out of our days, putting all the other important things aside to visit people who’re sick. When we don’t just post about social justice on social media, but get ourselves in the thick of things. When we sacrifice a sleep-in and sports to take a measly couple hours out each week to remind ourselves and our children that we are not our own. That our lives belong in totality to the one who created us, and that gratitude is our only option for truly living.
Everyone expects the work of God in the world to be huge signs. Public, easy to spot. Accompanied by fanfare, noticed by and participated in by all the important, powerful people. Like the wealthy givers. But God moves in a different way. I’m reminded of the days when I was involved in advocating for local, organic farming. There’s an organization called Slow Food International, and one of their tag lines at the time was “small is beautiful.” Small is beautiful, because according to the gospel, the beauty of God at work is less like a giant combine and more like a gentle gardener. Less like a tech mogul, and more like a broke widow. Quiet, hidden from public sight, giving everything she has. Like a couple coins in the collection box. Like Jesus, a homeless, wandering, Jew. Pouring out God’s love on a cross between two criminals.
Which means that our lives, too, have that same eternal significance, even if we don’t get re-tweeted like Kanye. You and your life that everyone else sees as a failure. The one you see as tiny and insignificant. It’s not how well you’ve achieved, how much you earn, or the cheques you present at the temple door. It’s how deeply your life echoes the self-giving love of Jesus. The one who was rich, but for our sake became poor. The one who had nothing but gave everything that we might have life in the full.
Because all these acts of self-giving love, no matter who we are or where life finds us. The things that nobody else notices, the things that seem so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Jesus says that these are things that truly matter in God’s sight. No matter how little we have to give. Because these are the very things that Jesus sees. These are the things God notices, and the very things God uses to build his kingdom. To re-shape the world into the way it was always intended to be.
May each of you see your life, no matter how well you’ve done, no matter how much you’ve failed. No matter how much you have. No matter how little you have. Know that your life matters. That small acts of sacrifice are the very thing God uses to make all things new. May you see your life as a vessel for God’s self-giving love. Like the widow who, out of her poverty, gave everything.
[i] Gary W. Charles, “Nothing Left Behind: Mark 12:38-44,” in Preaching Mark in Two Voices, with Brian Blount (Westminster: John Knox, 2002), 200.