Page One: On the Widow’s Mite

Page One is a longhand stream of consciousness engagement of the text I’ve been studying this week.

So Jesus is watching the Treasury. Certainly his reputation has preceded him. He has cleansed the temple and has condemned it as a den of robbers. Yet the rich come in and make hefty donations. It’s what they do. In exchange they get to schmooze with the scribes, enjoy honor in the marketplaces and banquets. And they get to feel righteous and loved by God. The widow also comes along and gives her last copper coin, “all that she had to live on”. It’s what she does. She is expected to. It’s in the law to take care of the priests. They are the emblems of God’s presence, and the temple is the emblem of God’s reign in the holy city. And the poor always give to church. What do they get in return? The widow gets homelessness. Or at least the very real risk of it. Life’s tough enough for her anyhow. Widows were known to be on the edge of society. And the law, while not fully securing them, made special provisions for their protection. And so it is when Jesus watches her give her last coins–“all that she had to live on”–he can see the game. Is this how it works? Is this what God demands? Hasn’t she suffered enough? When will the benefits come to her? Must she suffer until death? But life is suffering, right?

What sticks out to me is that James (brother of Jesus) defines religion as “to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world”. James was the leader of the new religion. He is defining religion itself in a very tangible, service-oriented, almost ascetic term. He is not calling Judaism out on this. Presumably, he is as cynical as Jesus about the religious structure around him. He certainly can’t rely on the government: the Romans only care about power, control and money. James is making this distinction and owning it for himself and his new church. It makes me wonder what Jesus and James observed over their own mother’s widowhood. Did they did they see her down and out? Did they watch her struggle after Joseph passed? Did he pass early and they had to care for her? Did James have to pick up the slack when Jesus began his ministry? Does Jesus’ words from the cross “mother here is your son” to John carry even more poignancy given the suffering he understood his monther to have endured?

Jesus watches to Treasury. He knows the game. And he is damn sick of it. That widow did not have her arm twisted. But she certainly gave beyond her obligation and suffered dearly for it. The fact that Jesus called it just a few verses earlier suggests that he saw it all before. And he wants a change.

How ironic that Jesus’ observation is used thousands of times by pastors in the process of raising money for their churches. How many pastors have used her contribution on stewardship Sunday? If there are words that Jesus wishes he had back, I bet these would be near the top. Just yesterday I saw an article commending the widows “sacrificial offering” and encouraging others to do the same. In Jesus name!

I want people to give to church, obviously. I want a paycheck and insurance for my family and a nest egg when I retire. I’d like to buy some property eventually and put my kids through college the way my folks put me through college. But I do not want to devour anyone’s house, especially the most vulnerable around us. I want people to give because they benefit from church and they believe in our purpose. I want them to understand the full reach of their contribution, and I want our collective reach as a church to be significant. I want people’s faiths to grow. I want them to have meaningful relationships based on mutual trust and commitment. I want them to be equipped to engage their world with a useful faith that fills them with hope, courage, wisdom and joy. I want them to give cheerfully but only if cheerfulness is genuine. I do think we need to address giving as a spiritual discipline but the discipline is responsive and communal it’s never coercive or embittered.

The model for giving that I’m drawn to is Kickstarter. Kickstarter is based on hope, belief, enthusiasm and courage. It is forward thinking. Those asking for Kickstarter funds offer “kickbacks” due to appreciation for those who contribute. Kickbacks range from thank yous to first editions of the product or service being funded. The joy and appreciation a flow both ways. And Kickstarter is a common way to fund advances in technology. It’s far different from a group of men coercing the last penny from the most of vulnerable around us.

I’m certain Jesus wants those words back. The least we can do is reclaim them from an interpretation that continues the sins of the scribes 2000 years later.

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