Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson: Mark 12:38-44
Our text this morning includes the story we call the widow’s mite, the woman who gave her last two coins as an offering. I’m curious. Would you please raise your hand if this is a familiar story to you? Thank you. Now, would you please raise your hand if you have heard this story preached as a stewardship sermon, where the preacher encouraged you to be like the widow and give sacrificially?
In the lectionary, this story gets read in November, about the time when churches are doing stewardship campaigns and I’ve heard a lot of stewardship sermons on it. Truthfully, I’ve even preached a stewardship sermon on it. I think those sermons can be faithful to the text, if they’re carefully done, but today I want us to consider the wider context.
In our Lenten walk through Holy Week, we have made it to Tuesday. That Tuesday must have been a busy day for Jesus because Mark takes more than two chapters to describe it. What he describes is a day in the Temple, in which Jesus has a series of encounters with various religious authorities. These conversations are attempts to challenge his authority, but he manages to turn them against his opponents and the watching crowd is entertained and increasingly supportive of Jesus.
One group of opponents is identified as the scribes. Now the word scribe refers generally to someone who could read and write, which would mean people who have more education than average. Some scribes were legal and biblical experts. These scribes seemed to be wealthy and powerful. Jesus describes them as liking to dress in fine clothing and to be seen and greeted when they went out and about. They also liked the best seats at church and banquets. Jesus issues a warning about the scribes, saying that scribes “devour widow’s houses.” And then a widow appears to make her offering – all that she had, which was two lepta, the smallest coins in circulation.
In those stewardship sermons that we’ve heard, the focus is usually on the widow and her offering. I don’t remember hearing much about the scribes. But I think it’s fair to say that Mark wants us to see a link between Jesus’ observations about the widow and the activity of the scribes. The word “widow” connects the two sections.
The Hebrew word for widow connotes someone who is silent, someone unable to speak. Becoming a widow was the fate most feared by a woman. They were people with no means of support. They didn't own property. They usually didn't have any way to earn money. They were people on welfare -- living off handouts from society or family.
When a woman's husband died, she could go back to her own family -- if they would pay for her. Otherwise she would have to stay with her husband's family, and was usually given very low and humiliating jobs. She was an extra burden on them. Because widows were voiceless and vulnerable, they were special objects of God’s affection. The prophets consistently described God as one who seeks justice and protection for orphans, widows and foreigners.
So when Jesus says that the scribes devour widow’s houses, it is a serious charge. It could be interpreted in a couple different ways. It may be that the scribes, with their reputations for as prominent godly citizens, would be appointed as trustees for the estates of women when their husbands died. Women wouldn’t have been trusted to manage their own affairs, after all. The scribes would charge a fee for this service and if they took more than their share, the widows would not have much power to protest. Another interpretation would be that this is simply further evidence of a corrupt religious system which maintained the power of those at the top by getting more and more from the people below them. Whatever the specifics were, it seems that the Temple no longer protects widows, but exploits them.
So was Jesus singling this woman out as a model for our financial giving? I don’t think so. She is like Jesus, in that she is willing to everything to God. The Greek says that she put into the offering all she had to live on, literally “her whole life.” I don’t think Jesus’ words are really directed toward her. I think they are a lament for a system that would require such a sacrifice from one it was supposed to protect and care for.
It is easy to point fingers at the scribes or a system from long ago. But all of us have the potential for this sort of thing. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus’ own disciples had been vying for the seats of honor and the highest position.
Rev Bill Loader says “Human nature has a way of corrupting the most sacred and turning it to the ends of greed and self aggrandizement. The vehicle of grace which rescues us from the need to assert our importance and establish our worth becomes the instrument by which we seek to manipulate the same from others. People acting out of their inadequacy seek power, seek to impress, and it is little surprise that the abuse becomes concrete. The gospel is in part about finding a new adequacy given by the gift of love, which saves us and so saves others from such mechanisms.”
When we talk about human sin, we often mean the ways that we as individuals hurt each other or hurt ourselves. We think of things like lying or stealing or addictions or abuse. We are right to categorize those things as sin. But Jesus seemed just as concerned about corporate sin, things that human beings do together, sometimes completely without awareness, because they are bound up a system or a worldview. Racism, sexism, ageism and other “isms” fall into this category.
Jesus was sad and angry at the ways that voiceless and vulnerable people were being treated in his time. As I read about Biblical widows this week, I was struck by the parallels between their vulnerability and powerlessness and that of another group of people – immigrants. In our conversations about immigration this season, we have heard many stories of injustice suffered by immigrants or people perceived to be immigrants. A young woman who was born in Miami and lived her entire life in Florida provided a birth certificate, a Florida high school diploma and proof of continuous residency and was still forced to pay out-of-state tuition at her Florida state school because of her Latino last name. Two people were hired and worked hard for 3 days to clear land and plant trees. The first day their boss told them how pleased he was with their work, but at the end of the third day, he said their work was terrible and refused to pay them. He threatened them with a gun and said that they could not do anything to him because of their immigration status. An immigrant was sexually harassed by her boss for months. When she reported it, she was the one suspended. Then one day he assaulted her, and she left her factory in an ambulance. We have heard stories about children who have been separated from their parents by immigration enforcement. One boy was placed in foster care for 4 years, beginning in infancy. He never learned Spanish and now cannot communicate with his biological mother. Right now there are over 5,000 children separated from their parents who have been detained or deported. If nothing changes, that number may increase to 15,000 children in the next five years.  The stories like this go on and on.
Immigrants have often been mistreated in this country, but in the past year, several states passed much harsher anti-immigration legislation. Many people feel that the existence of those laws has created a system where even documented immigrants are being threatened. They are not the only voiceless and vulnerable people in the world, but that certainly describes the situation for many of them.
I remember that the prophets consistently describe God as one who seeks justice for widows, orphans and foreigners. Jesus has harsh words for those who fail to protect the vulnerable. And I realize I was wrong. This is a stewardship text after all. It is all about stewardship, not the care of money given to God, but of protecting and sustaining the lives of those who are precious in God’s sight. Amen.
 Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 204
 Bill Loader, First Thoughts, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost23.htm
 Southern Poverty Law Center Report, Special Edition 2012