Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Out of Her Poverty

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Mark 12:38-44; I Kings 17:8-16


The widow of Zarephath is done, done with the struggle, done with pretending for her son that everything will be OK, done with hope, done with life.  She is like the woman in Kenya whose husband had died of AIDS and who was herself growing sicker and sicker.  One of the last things she did before she lost her strength was to teach her own daughter how to bury her.[1]  The widow of Zarephath is gathering sticks to make a fire for a final meal for her son and herself.  What she has left in the cupboard may make a small round of pita bread for them to share.


That’s where she is when Elijah the prophet finds her.  Without any fanfare or introduction, he says “bring me some water.”  She has dealt with demanding men before and it is just easier to get the water, so she goes to do it.  But then he says, “bring me some bread too”.  And for a moment, we see a spark of her spirit, we glimpse the woman she was in better times, when she tells this stranger, “I swear to God, I only have a little bit of flour and oil left.  My son and I are going to eat it and die.”


But Elijah the prophet, the identified messenger from God, tells her, “Don’t be afraid. Make me some bread first and bring it to me.  And then make some for your son and yourself.  God says you won’t run out of food until the drought is over.”   


For some reason the widow of Zarephath believes him and does what he says.


* * *


 On Jesus’ last day in the temple in Jerusalem, he sees a widow.  Like the widow of Zarephath, she is not identified by name.  Unlike the widow of Zarephath, she never speaks.  Which is perhaps appropriate, because the Hebrew word for widow suggests someone who is silent, someone without a voice.[2] 


She does not speak; she does nothing to call attention to herself. She simply contributes an offering to the Temple treasury.  An offering of two coins – the smallest coins in circulation.  Jesus says that out of her poverty, she has just given all she had to live on.  She has just given her whole life.  If we take that literally, she will leave the temple and go home to die of starvation.


She has two coins.  Why not keep one?    Why not keep both of them?


The Rev. Gordon Cosby, the founder of Church of the Savior in Washington, DC told this story: “A deacon sent for me one day. He said that we have in our congregation a widow with six children, and I looked at the records and discovered that she is putting $4.00 a week, a tithe of her true income, into the collection plate. Now, she’s not able to do that, and preacher, we want you to talk to her and tell her that she shouldn’t feel any obligation or responsibility about that.”


Gordon said “I am not wise now and I was even less wise then. I went and I told her as graciously and as supportively as I could that she was relieved of the responsibility of giving.”


“As I was speaking with her, tears began to stream down her face. She said, “I want to tell you that you are taking away the last thing that gives my life dignity and meaning.”


I don’t know why the widow of Zarephath believed Elijah and fed him before feeding her son and herself.  I don’t know why this widow in Jerusalem gave her all to the Temple.  But maybe it has something to do with their sense of dignity and meaning and faith. 


For generations, this widow has been held up as an example of faithful sacrifice.  She probably deserves to be appreciated like that.  But focusing on that aspect of the story obscures the rest of it.  If we read carefully, we see that Jesus does not praise her.  He simply observes what is happening:   this widow has given all that she has to live on.  This comes just after he has condemned the clergy for enjoying their status.  It comes just before he tells his disciples that the Temple building is going to be destroyed.   Mark’s intent is not to show us one more instance of faith in action; his intent is to record Jesus’ condemnation of religion that has become corrupt. 


The covenant laws regularly provide protection for widows and orphans and foreigners; the prophets consistently describe God as one who seeks justice for those who might otherwise have no voice.  And yet, the institution which was created to worship that God, to enact the covenant with that God, that institution is devouring them.


Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover.  Scholars suggest that Jerusalem’s population was about 40,000 people, but when pilgrims came in for the festival, it swelled to 200,000 people.  At some time or another, all of those people would make their way to the Temple. 


Jesus has stationed himself in the Court of Women.  Gentiles are not allowed in this area.  Jewish men and women are allowed here.  Women are not allowed to go any further into the temple, but men pass through this area.  Imagine how busy, how crowded, how noisy this place must be.  People are coming and going, talking to each other.  They are excited about the holidays, worried about the Roman soldiers.  Some are making sure to be seen in their best clothes.   Some are making sure to be seen and heard giving their offerings.  It would surely have been easy to overlook one woman, dropping in two small coins. 


And yet Jesus noticed her.  He saw that the system intended to protect her was exploiting her.  He saw what no one else seemed to see.  I wonder what I fail to notice? 


Do you remember Toya Graham?  She and her son Michael live in Baltimore.  You remember the protests and riots after Freddie Gray died in police custody in April.  Toya found her son in the midst of the riots.  Someone filmed her pulling him out of the rioting, ripping the mask off his face, beating him and yelling at him.  The film went viral.  Almost immediately, some people said she was “mother of the year.”  They held her up as example that more parents should emulate – taking charge of their kids like that.  But other people said that they saw not a mother in charge, but a mother desperately afraid, afraid that she would not be able to prevent her son from dying at the hands of the police.  I wonder what Jesus would have seen.  


On Friday night, the world was horrified at the acts of terror in Paris.  Many people appropriately claimed that these were crimes not just against France, but against humanity.  Landmarks in major cities on every continent were lit up with the colors of France and the peace sign was redrawn to include the Eiffel tower. 


A woman from Somalia who now lives in London wrote some lines that were shared across the world


Later than night

I held an atlas in my lap

Ran my fingers across the whole world

And whispered

Where does it hurt?


It answered





It is surely part of God’s intent for shalom that we share each other’s pain, that we stand together against evil.  And yet, people wiser than me have pointed out that Beirut was bombed by terrorists a day before Paris.  It was the deadliest attack there since the end of their civil war 15 years ago and no city landmarks put up the colors of Lebanon.  A suicide bomber killed 19 people at a funeral in Baghdad, but how many people noticed?  Perhaps you did.  Perhaps you were aware and you were praying for Beirut and Baghdad and months ago for Kenya when 140 students were slaughtered in Garissa.  I am just aware that I notice what I choose to notice, and I wonder what Jesus would notice that I don’t.


Jesus noticed the widow.  And he acted.  He spoke up about what he saw.  This isn’t the first time he has spoken.  His consistent critique has been the political and religious leaders’ exploitation of the poor.  And let us not fool ourselves into thinking that he just talked about it.  After this incident he left the Temple for the last time, because in a few days he would be dead.  In a few days, his resistance to that corruption and exploitation would cost him his life. 


Jesus noticed things.  Jesus acted.  He did what was in his power to do.  His power was the power to listen, to heal, to speak, to persuade and to confront.  You and I have some of that power.  I know many of us feel that we have little power.  Maybe we have been deceived.  Maybe we even deceive ourselves into thinking this.  Maybe it is a way to shirk responsibility. 


On Tuesday, several of us from Emmanuel and FOCUS were at the capitol as part of the Fight for Fifteen actions.  At one point, we stood in the million dollar staircase and listened to speakers.  One speaker looked up at those of us on the staircase and said, “I see a lot of power here.”  And I looked around and thought “what is he talking about?”  There were no recognized powerbrokers in the group, no politicians, no economic movers and shakers.  We didn’t even fill the staircase at the noon rally.   The crowd was mostly minimum wage workers and clergy.  There were some students and some children.  Nothing that I would have called a “lot of power.”  


Then our own Joanna stood up.  She described the courage that she had witnessed that morning.  She had seen minimum wage workers put their livelihoods at risk by going on strike.  She has been noticing the needs of these people for a while and she has standing with them, encouraging others to stand for justice with them.  The first speaker was right.  There was a lot of power there. 


In the words of covenant law, in the words of the prophets, in the words and actions of Jesus, God’s people are told to care for the poor, the widows, the foreigners, to plead for justice for those without a voice.  Jesus laments for this widow. He condemns the religious and political system which betrays her.  So I have to ask myself – to what extent am I part of a system which exploits or ignores the poor and suffering?  And to what extent am I noticing and acting as Jesus would?


I appreciate the mission statement of the Presbyterian Church USA.  It says “The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ. . . . By healing and reconciling and binding up wounds . . . ministering to the needs of the poor, the sickly, the lonely and the powerless . . . engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice . . . sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable and loving rule in the world.  The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life.[4]


Even at the risk of losing its life.  Amen.



[1] http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-1-kings-178-16-17-24-maryann-mckibben-dana/

[2] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), p. 204

[3] https://www.facebook.com/sogand.zakerhaghighi

[4] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II,Book of Order, G-3.0200–3.0400