The poor widow put in everything she had, all she had to live on, and we don’t even know her name. No one suggested that one of the pillars in the women’s court of the temple be named after her. The only reason we know about her is that Jesus was paying attention and called the disciples so we would pay attention to the scene. “She has put in everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on, her whole life.”
Imagine you’re directing a movie based on the gospel of Mark, and you’re getting ready to shoot this very scene, and the young man who’s playing Jesus asks you, “How do you want me to deliver this line? What emotions are giving energy to these words? Is it surprise? Praise? Does he want the disciples to admire or imitate her? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Or is he sad, perhaps even angry because this poor just dropped her last two pennies in the offering plate? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Tell me, how do you want me to say this line, with a smile or with a broken heart or with righteous anger?”
You’re the director, but you don’t have an answer ready. “I hadn’t thought of that one,” you say, “everybody, take five.” Now, while you’re thinking about what to tell that actor, did you hear the story about the college in upstate New York? Back in July, Joan Weill, the wife of Citigroup billionaire Sandy Weill, announced that they would donate $20 million to Paul Smith’s College, a small, cash-strapped school in the Adirondack Mountains. The big bundle of money came with one string attached: She insisted that the school would have to be renamed in her honor, to be known forever as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Weill is a former trustee of the school, which sits miles from the nearest town and specializes in forestry and hospitality programs. She’s given big gifts in the past, and the library and the student center both are already named after her. Mrs. Weill argued that with her name given top billing, more donors around the country would open their wallets.
Paul Smith’s was named for a pioneer of this rugged region just south of the U.S.-Canada border who opened a wilderness lodge in the 1850s that hosted guests such as Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Smith’s family donated land for the college in the 1940s. So when alumni learned that his name would now be given second billing, it infuriated many. “It makes me sick, to be honest with you,” said Jason Endries, who graduated 15 years ago. “I don’t consider it to be much of a gift if you require something. Usually a gift is given out of generosity and not requiring something in return.” Well, what Jason calls ‘usually’ is in fact becoming the rare exception. Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University, says asking that entire institutions be rebranded in exchange for a gift reflects a new attitude, a new trend among the megarich. “There are very few anonymous donors anymore, and there are few that are satisfied to give a big donation and not have that object of the donation named after them,” he says. Eisenberg says a lot of institutions now think of naming rights as an asset, something they can offer as an enticement, but he worries that colleges and arts institutions could wind up swapping names the way sports stadiums do. “If somebody gives $20 million and someone else comes up and says, ‘I’m going to give you $50 million,’ does that mean they’re going to change their name again?” he says. “It’s a crazy system.”
In the case of Paul Smith’s College, a state court judge ruled in October that the name change would violate terms of the original will and the original gift that established the school. Facing growing pressure from alumni and fearing a long court fight, the college decided not to appeal. With naming rights no longer on the table, the Weill family withdrew the $20 million gift.
Sitting in the temple, opposite the treasury, Jesus noticed many rich people putting in large sums. Large gifts draw attention, and the givers of large sums enjoy being known for their generosity; some enjoy it so much they don’t wait for somebody to suggest that a bridge, building, school, or chapel be named in their memory and honor – they turn their gift into a purchase of memory and honor.
Both scenes in today’s gospel reading are about attention. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus taught the crowd that was listening to him with delight. Not the scribes in general, but the ones who like to walk around in long robes. They like to be seen; they like to be noticed. They want to be greeted with respect in the markets. They like having seats of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They strut about, peacocks of piety spreading their tails, but you know they devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers for the sake of appearance.
Jesus was teaching in the temple, surrounded by magnificent buildings, at the heart of an institution established to the glory and honor of God, but used and abused for the worst of very human ends: vanity, self-promotion, exploitation. Nobody was paying attention to the poor widow who put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny, which is like nothing compared to the gifts of the rich, but it was everything to her. Nobody was paying attention to her which is why Jesus is pointing her out to us. Not a word of praise comes from his lips, though, and nothing indicates that he is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing.
So much attention for those who gave much, so little for her who gave everything. You’re the director of this movie; what do you tell the actor playing Jesus? His tone of voice is critical in this scene. Do you tell him to tap into the joy that floods the heart when you witness this woman’s act of complete devotion to God? Or do you tell him to give voice to the anger that ties your innards into knots when you observe how an institution that is supposed to glorify God takes a poor woman’s last two pennies?
You can’t decide, and so you sit there a little longer with Jesus, opposite the treasury. Do you remember when he entered the temple the day after they came to Jerusalem? Do you remember how he threw out those who were selling and buying there? How he overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those who sold doves? He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He practically shut down the entire operation, at least for a moment. “Is it not written,” he said, and you don’t have any trouble imagining in what tone of voice he was yelling across the courtyard, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
God’s holy temple had become a house of corruption, and Jesus was working on a new way of being God’s holy temple. The new temple would not be run by pompous men in long robes or fine suits, quick to identify the best seats in the house and eager to sit in them. The new temple would not be a place for pride and greed barely concealed behind facades of ostentatious piety. The new temple would be a community of people, gathering in houses of prayer for all the nations, practicing forgiveness, and bearing fruit through love of God and neighbor.
The new temple is both humble and grand. It is humble because it is a community of people who love God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind, and with all their strength, and who love their neighbor as themselves, nothing more. And the new temple is grand because it is a community of people who make their whole life a gift to the glory of God in daily acts of faithfulness, no strings attached. The whole structure is raised to honor God’s holy name, and the names of God’s people are written in the book of life and remembered when the community gathers around the Lord’s table.
So, what do you tell the actor who’s waiting for you to tell him how to deliver that line? The poor widow gave everything she had, she gave her whole life, entrusting herself completely in God’s hands, and in Jesus’ eyes her gift became a testimony against the institutional leadership who had turned God’s house into a den of robbers. Do you tell the actor to say the line with both joy and severe judgment? Or do you go to your producer and tell her that it can’t be done; that these words aren’t meant to be the script for a movie; that they are to be pondered so they shape and transform our life?
This is the final scene in the temple, and the poor widow’s gift foreshadows the gift Jesus is about to complete: his own life, given in love, entrusted into God’s hands, but also taken by the sin that corrupts our life together. The gift is both a judgment of our sin and a testimony to God’s power to redeem us. And it is the foundation on which the new temple is being built.
 Mark 11:15-17
 See Mark 11:24-25; 12:1-12; 12:28-34