Here’s what I want to know: Is the widow a hero or a victim? Is she an example to emulate or a to be sufferer to be mourned?Are we to lament her naivete or marvel at her generosity? Traditionally we’ve been taught to view this widow’s offering as an occasion for praise. Held up in contrast to wealthy donors,she appears to be an example of humble faithfulness, giving-till-it-hurts from her impoverished state. Jesus seems to commend her willingness to give all she’s got.
However, close attention to the larger context of this story yields a different perspective. From the moment Jesus rides into Jerusalem, his deeds and words signal that he is God’s anointed, the true King of Israel, with authority over and against the Temple. He uses that authority in protest. He turns over money-changers’ tables, protesting the Temple’s economic injustice. He preaches the vineyard parable, accusing the religious leaders of callous disregard for God.
All told, Jesus points to hard truth. If love of God and love of neighbor is true worship, “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices,” than what is happening in the Temple falls far short. Human corruption and greed have displaced God’s welcome and compassion in the place intended as God’s dwelling a midst God’s people.
So it is that Jesus intentionally situates himself “opposite” the treasury, where he observes various people making offerings.The collection, presumably for Temple maintenance, was taken in metal, trumpet-like vessels,such that you could hear the size of the coinage rattling into them. The large sums of the rich ring out loudly enough for anyone nearby to notice their generosity. The tiny clink of the widow’s gift sounds feeble in comparison.
Not that anyone is paying much attention to her anyway. A widow in first century Palestine, she is on the margins and without safety nets. With no husband to identify her or protect her, she is painfully vulnerable and nigh invisible to her society.
But Jesus sees her, and he calls his disciples to notice her. I wonder what tone of voice he uses when he speaks of her. Is Jesus tender or outraged or resigned? “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.” Some scholars note that last phrase should be translated “her whole life.”
Only moments before, Jesus has warned about the self-promotion and special privilege assumed by legal scholars to misuse their position and “devour widows’ houses.” Here is just such a widow, giving to a system which cares nothing for her welfare. So is Jesus praising this woman’s selflessness, or is he lamenting that he’s just witnessed her willingly “participating in her own devouring?” What can it mean that this woman has given away her whole life in support of an institution which Jesus shortly predicts will be thrown down, stone from stone?
It’s tempting to try to simplify and resolve the hard questions of this story to distill a “timeless principle” to guide us in faithful living. Let’s say the widow is a hero; then, celebrating her wholehearted giving, we aspire to it ourselves.Or let’s say the widow is a victim; then we take up her cause and fight the injustice of unfair systems which create the conditions of her poverty.
Now, both of those interpretations are possible, and both options for response are valid. But the trouble is, like so many moments in our lives, it’s not an “either/or” situation. Good or bad, winner or loser, wise or foolish: we so often use such categories to tidy up situations that are uncomfortable in their ambiguity. Making up rules or parsing out numbers to control our generosity, we hedge our bets and guard our hearts, especially when it comes to giving the things we believe belong to us, our money, time, and presence. It’s a basic survival instinct, after all, to manage our resources and vulnerability in a world where scarcity seems to hold sway.
When I lived in Bangladesh, I was in constant inner conflict as to whether or not to give to beggars. In marketplaces and especially train stations, there were always large swaths of people whose destitution I could scarcely have imagined. Many of them were terrifyingly disfigured with conditions we keep hidden from view in our county. I was shocked and overwhelmed with a desire to help, yet I felt paralyzed in responding. What I could give them would scarcely improve their lot, and I had been warned that my money would likely end up in the hands of heartless thugs who exploited poor and suffering people. I wanted to be a wise steward, reserving my gifts for worthy recipients, but there was just no way to control where my money went. And frankly, there were just so many of them!
So I tried to maintain a rule of not giving. “If I give to one, I must give to all,” I chanted to myself, trying to numb away the grabbing hands and pleading eyes. Yet sometimes what I saw was impossible to ignore,and I spontaneously gave whatever I could muster. And as I did, despite my mixed feelings, there was a joy and a release in giving. I learned, bit by bit, to let go of insecurity and share when the Spirit moved me. I learned to trust that, however compromised the situation, God does not let sincere gifts go to waste. I learned to stop bowing to fears of scarcity, as I experienced God’s economy where loving and sharing with my neighbor means everyone has enough.
I know I am not alone in facing these uncertainties wherever and whenever I am asked to give. Many of us struggle to discern the best places to share our money, time, and talents in a world where there’s so much need. I am grateful for tools like Charity Navigator and the wise stewardship policies of our congregation here which seek to avoid supporting co-dependence or corruption. It is important to discern in any situation what sort of gift is most appropriate, whether to give money, time, or presence to charities, or to focus on fighting injustice that makes charity necessary. God calls us to all of these things at various times.
What comes to the fore in all of these questions is that we are people with hard choices. And that’s something I often forget when I read this story of the widow. She, too, is a human being with the dignity and responsibility of making a choice.
Now, I don’t want to downplay the societal injustice which gave rise to her precarious situation, or the way almost everyone around her averted their eyes from her plight. The powerful grace here is that Jesus did not avert his eyes; he noticed her, and he called others to see her, too. The clearest call for us to “go and do likewise” in this story is for us to look and see with Jesus what we so often deem too small or insignificant to notice in our busy and self-absorbed ways. Jesus sees, and Jesus cares, and so are we called to see and to care.
He sees that the widow is not simply a victim or a hero, but a little of both: a human being making hard choices from those available to her. And while we know so little else about her, we do know she chooses to give it all with no pretenses or fanfare. She doesn’t count the cost or try to control the gift. She holds nothing back. She gives out of her poverty, knowing she has nothing but what God has given her, trusting that God, defender of widows, will ultimately provide what she needs. To see her fully is to be invited
to enter into that kind of trust.
Seeing her give her whole life over in the broken and corrupted Temple, I think Jesus feels a kinship with her, for he is just days from the betrayal and arrest which will take him to the cross, where he will give his whole life,an outpouring of extravagant costly love for a corrupt and broken humanity.
17th Century mystic Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote, “… If you would live according to the Gospel, abandon yourself simply and entirely to the action of God.”
We have a choice, like the widow did, like Jesus did. It is not an easy choice—
no matter what our circumstances—the choice to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength, the choice to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
To choose to live wholeheartedly and give of ourselves generously is a risk in an ambiguous world, and sometimes we end up with nothing. But let us not forget that we worship a God who creates out of nothing, a Lord who gives up everything, dies, and then leaves behind a tomb full of nothing,a Holy Spirit who shows us it is in having nothing that we have everything, for nothing is impossible for God.
Whenever and whatever amount we choose to give, we give out of our poverty, because anything we give was first given to us by God.Our very lives belong to God, so let us hold nothing back,trusting in the community of the Triune God and the strange and wonderful economy of grace. Amen.