The Widow and the Scribes
Proper 27: Mark 12: 38-44
The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery , AL
11 November 2018
The story of the widow’s offering is a familiar one to all of us. In this reading today, Jesus reverses the typical standard of judgment of what counts as giving “more.” He says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all the rich people have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This story of the widow’s offering has been used in many different ways. It is often used during stewardship season as a way to motivate people to be generous in their pledges. The widow is portrayed as a moral example about which true generosity consists. The story is sometimes used to stereotype rich people as selfish and poor people as more generous. The story is often used to say that we should follow the example of the widow and “give until it hurts.” I think reading the text this way is actually problematic.
In order to illustrate my point, I would like you to consider your reaction to the following imaginary letter from Robert to the Vestry.
Dear Members of the Vestry,
In order that St. John’s might be judged as a leading moral exemplar to the diocese in financial giving, I hereby direct that the entirety of St. John’s $1.5 million dollar operating budget be given to the diocese of Alabama. The diocese will also be the beneficiary of the sale of St. John’s buildings and all its property, which I estimate can be sold for at least $35 million dollars. All our checking accounts have been given over to the bishop as the sole signatory and he will also help manage the sale of the building and its contents. The funds will go to support the salary of the bishop, Dean and Canons, as well as the maintenance of the Cathedral building. I am also going to turn over the entirety of my pension to him as well. I encourage you all to do the same.
Now, I imagine we might want to know why Robert might make this extraordinary decision. The letter continues…
I have been urged to make this decision by the bishop himself. He offered the most extraordinary and lengthy prayer about the importance of alms-giving as our duty to God. His prayer moved me to tears. I was equally impressed with his newest vestments and in learning that he was able to procure box seats at the World Series. The bishop assured me that I would be rewarded by God for this generosity. I am sorry, of course, that you will all now need to find a church home, but I think the Ascension may have some pews available. Yours Faithfully, Robert.
Setting aside the fact that the organizational relationship between the rector and the vestry is such that Robert could not make this kind of decision without the Vestry’s consent, (thankfully!) and that our bishop is not like the one I depicted, or that Robert would be so impressed, I offer you this parody of the Gospel lessons this morning to illustrate what I think is an important point. The point of the story of the widow’s offering is not to hold her up as the exemplar of alms-giving to be celebrated and admired by everyone. In fact, she is more of a tragic figure in the story and perhaps someone to be pitied.
The verses about the widow’s offering have to be read in connection with the proceeding verses about the wholesale corruption of Israel’s religious leaders. They are both so corrupt and influential that the widow in our story somehow feels compelled to offer her entire living (everything she has) to the Temple treasury. This is especially remarkable because during Biblical times the poor were not required to make an offering to the Temple. Hence, it is doubtful that Jesus is celebrating her decision. His remark that she has given more than the rich people, I think, is a mere statement of fact and we might be cautious about reading any more into it than that. Especially if we look at the story of the widow’s offering in its wider context.
As I just mentioned, the first thing to notice is that the scribes are obsessed with ambition and avarice. Jesus is also condemning their hypocritical external piety. The long robes with fringes were the 1st century equivalent of “bling.” Further, the scribes wanted front row seats at all the major public events. Whatever box seat equivalents were to the World Series, that is what the scribes wanted for themselves. They offered long prayers in public, so to appear as holy and devout men. And, we are also told that they devour widow’s houses. But what does that mean exactly?
Being a widow during biblical times was a social and economic tragedy, since as a result of her husband’s death, the widow lost her principal protector and her source of income. A widow’s inheritance rights were minimal. The general rule was that the land was inalienably connected to the family of the male to whom it was apportioned. If a widow had male children, the land would pass to her sons when they reached maturity … if she was able to maintain the land and the sons survived until that time. If she had only female children, the land would be transferred to them provided they married within the tribe.
To provide for her children, to maintain the estate, and to continue payments on debts accrued by her husband was extremely burdensome. The widow’s crisis was aggravated if she had no able-bodied children to help her. This was most likely the position of the widow in our story, since Jesus described her specifically as a poor widow. Hence, as you might imagine, she was in an extremely vulnerable economic position and became the prime target of exploitation.
The scribes were the one’s who took the main advantage. They were able to do so because they occupied the position in Jewish society such that they often assumed legal authority over a widow’s estate and helped her with many of the legal issues surrounding the management of the land.
So if we step back and examine the Gospel lesson today from a wider angle, it doesn’t make sense to look at this section as two unrelated stories, i.e. one about the scribes and one about the widow. Quite they contrary, they go hand in hand, and we do not appreciate the circumstances of the widow without considering the previous verses. It is also helpful to know that these verses from chapter 12 fit into the much wider section of text in which Jesus is criticizing Temple practices and the failure of its leaders. All of this is pointing to chapter 13, which we will read next week, about Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple.
So, we have the widow, exploited by the scribes and giving all she has to the Temple and its leaders, which Jesus knows is wholly corrupt and will eventually be destroyed. She is ultimately giving to a lost cause managed by corrupt leaders. This is why she is more of a tragic figure than a moral hero. Why he didn’t stop her, we don’t know. What ultimately happened to her, we do not know. But the odds are that she probably came to an unfortunate end.
So where does this leave us? This does not mean that you should all retract your pledge cards. I hope that giving to St. John’s is not investing in a lost cause managed by corrupt leaders.
The central theme of the Gospel is about the consequences to people when a religion and religious leaders become so corrupt that the very people they are supposed to protect and serve, are exploited and harmed. In the Jewish tradition the orphan, the widow and the landless worker, were people who had a specially protected status in Jewish law. It was the duty of the religious leaders, because of the position they occupied, to look after them. And, they didn’t.
If one is ever going to look for an indicator of when a religious community is falling into corruption, perhaps we might first look at its attitudes and practices toward the most vulnerable members of the population. For us, we must ask ourselves how we treat and care for our children, the mentally ill, the uneducated, the poor, elderly, the physically disabled, and the homeless. And, since today is Veteran’s Day, we might also ask ourselves, how we might better take care of our Veterans, since they are committing suicide at 1.5x times the national average at a rate of 22 people per day. Parades are nice, but they need more than that. And, as a veteran myself and a professor of military ethics, I worry that we are exploiting our service members by continuing to ask them to fight a war none of us understand, which has gone on for 18 years, and has no projected end or clearly achievable military or political goal in sight.
We cannot simply rely on secular non-profits to look after our vulnerable populations. It is part of our duties as a community to help encourage and protect them, not only as we are able individually, but through our various outreach programs and ministries.
So here are some practical things you can do: Sign up to provide meals or serve as an overnight host for our homeless ministry, Family Promise, here at St. John’s the first week December. Donate food for our backpack program for the poor and homeless students at Carver high school. Come participate in the Rise Against Hunger event in two weeks. Find a worthwhile cause and prepare an outreach grant proposal for the church to consider. Call or visit a widow or a widower. Sit with them and offer them some company in their solitude. Talk to a wounded veteran. And, in addition to thanking them for their service, perhaps ask them how me might do better as a country in helping them heal from both the physical and invisible wounds of war.
Remember that the point of the story of the widow’s offering is not to “give until it hurts” or give everything so you might die. Rather, the story reminds us that as a religious community we are to live and give so that people are protected from getting hurt. A religion and those who serve as its leaders should never be the cause of intentional harm. The temple which we support is the Body of Christ and we give so that people may be healed and find hope through him.