As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘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.’
Who has heard this story before? What do you hear in it? For most churches, this passage serves as an entry into Stewardship Season where pledges are pledged and congregations hear about money in Scripture, usually for the first time all year. Greed is examined as an un-Christian thing, and we are told that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil. The pursuit of wealth is frowned upon yet we are told to be generous in our giving. Money, charity, and injustice are somehow tied together.
André Resner calls the widow in today’s passage ‘the patron saint of stewardship Sunday,’ which happens to be today in the United Church of Christ. She is raised up as the model example of sacrificial giving. I have heard sermons that have basically asked, "Why can’t we all be more like her? If we all just took the money from our favorite Dunkin’ Donuts Iced Latte Frappachino Surprise one time every week, we could raise our pledge dollars by so much and that would bump the budget up to here and look at all the good stuff we could do as a result – the widow, after all, gave everything so why can’t we?"
Do you see how that has nothing to do with what Jesus wants us to see?
Beware of the scribes, Jesus said; they devour widows’ houses. We are called to care for widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27); God said we are not to abuse any widow or orphan (Exodus 22:22); the Lord upholds the orphan and the widow but the way of the wicked is brought to ruin (Psalm 146:9). Widows and orphans have a special place in God’s heart and therefore, their wellbeing ought to inform our sense of justice.
Unlike the scribes in today’s reading, our giving ought to sustain those who can ill afford to give all that they have. We would preach against poverty, not encourage it.
Justice and charity need each other. Charity, though, often falls short of providing essential needs. Arthur Simon, founder of Bread for the World, once pointed out that the two wealthiest districts in Manhattan have had more soup kitchens than the two poorest districts simply because of where the donors, not the hungry people, were located. Food banks can fill a hole but are unable on their own to solve the persistent problem of hunger unless we also make changes to public policy.
Jesus is not here to praise the widow’s extreme giving; he is here to lament it. He is calling us to be better stewards of both our financial resources and of our faith community. The good news is that God sees what is really going on even when no one else does. God is present for the widow and God will be present for us as we begin the work of fulfilling our responsibilities to the least among us. This, I think, is the primary purpose of the church.