Three Widows

It was in the fall of 2003. I was in my study reading the story of the widow of Zarephath and the story from Mark about a widow who gave her last two coins to the temple treasury, when National Public Radio announced that some rich widow in California who had died in October had left NPR $200 Million. $200 Million is about twice the annual operating budget for National Public Radio.

The moment stuck with me because I found myself sitting in my study with three widows when the Holy Spirit showed up and said, “Thomas, which of the three would you like to have as a member of the church?”

It was one of those fairy god-mother moments where you can’t just say, “How about all three?” and get away with it.

“Honest now, preacher, which one? You’ll even get to choose the pew she’ll sit in every Sunday morning.”

There’s the widow of Zarephath. She and her son are only one meal away from certain starvation. She’s gathering sticks for the last fire, when a stranger shows up and asks her for a little water and a morsel of bread. With tears in her eyes she tells him that times are hard, recalls what little meal is left in the jar, and what little oil in the jug.

And the stranger says, “Do not be afraid. Make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.”

Why would she be afraid, I wonder. Embarassed perhaps, ashamed that she can’t show proper hospitality to the stranger at the gate. Heart-broken, yes, knowing that there would be no food the next day, that all there is for her son and herself to anticipate is death.

“Do not be afraid,” says the stranger. “I have a word from the Lord God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

What he is saying is, “Do not be afraid to trust the promise of God.”

And she goes and prepares three little cakes – and for as long as the drought continued in Israel, the story goes, the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.

Would I like to see her sit in one of our pews on Sunday? O yes, I would ask her her name and then I would ask her to talk to my friends who are heart-broken because there is an abundance of food in the world, and yet, every day, over one billion women, men, and children go hungry and thousands die. “Stay with us, for God’s sake,” I would say to her, “and teach us how to find abundance in sharing.”

Then there is the widow in the temple. Jesus had just warned those who were listening to him to beware of religious leaders who devour widows’ houses while displaying their piety like peacocks spreading their tails. Now Jesus sits down opposite the treasury, and he watches what people put in the plate. Many rich people put in large sums. Then this poor widow comes and she puts in two small copper coins, worth a penny, less than 1% of the minimum wage for a day’s work. And Jesus points out that she has put in more than anyone else, and I wonder if he is praising her or condemning a religious institution that takes a widow’s last penny without blushing instead of helping her with her rent.

Would I like to see her sit in one of our pews on Sunday? O yes, I would ask her, “What is your name? What is it that compels you to give? And what are your thoughts about what Jesus said?”
“Stay with us,” I would say to her, “and teach us how to maintain our trust in God when our institutions are crumbling around us. For God’s sake, stay with us.”

Finally there’s Joan B. Kroc, the billionaire widow of Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s. She had become known as a major donor to organizations working to promote world peace. She founded and endowed the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego. She was a major benefactor of the Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta, and she gave more than $1 billion to the Salvation Army.

“So,” the Holy Spirit said to me, “which of the three widows would you rather see at church on Sunday morning?”

With a gift of twice our annual operating budget, we could hire additional staff, renovate the fellowship hall, and tell the architect to begin sketching out plans for our Ministry CoOp. We’d be happy to name it the Joan B. Kroc Center for Urban Mission, and we wouldn’t have to worry about giving for a while.

All the Holy Spirit had to do was echo my words, “…wouldn’t have to worry about giving for a while.”

All the Holy Spirit had to do was echo my words, and I knew that such a large gift wasn’t necessarily a good gift. A gift so large might actually keep you and me from becoming more giving ourselves, and becoming better stewards of God’s manifold gifts is one of the great transformative tasks all disciples face, possibly the greatest.

The widow of Zarephath, in a time of famine, opened her home to the man of God, and in a beautiful act of hospitality she broke bread with him. All she and her child had to live on, one last meal – and then the miracle of abundance, affirming the trustworthiness of God’s promise and presence.

“The church needs her,” I said to myself, “we need her simple courage in the face of economic hardship, we need her to teach us hospitality and trust in God’s faithfulness.”

The Holy Spirit said to me, “Take your time, there’s no reason to rush to an answer.”

And so I sat a little longer with Jesus in the temple, opposite the treasury. Sitting there I remembered how angry Jesus had been when he first entered the temple. He drove out those who were selling and buying, overturned the tables of the money changers, and yelled across the courtyard, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

The temple, God’s holy temple, had become a place of commerce and corruption. But Jesus taught about a new way of being God’s holy temple. He talked about a community of people, faithful to one another, strong in prayer and forgiveness, a fruitful vineyard . A community where love of God and neighbor was practiced, taught and honored.

The new temple would not be a place for 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 pious showmanship expressed in long prayers, carefully crafted to impress those who happen to overhear them. The new temple would not be a place for stuffed shirts with no concern for matters of justice or compassion; not a place for pride and greed barely concealed behind facades of ostentatious piety.

Beware of the scribes, Jesus taught, beware of the preachers and televangelists who’ll gladly take every widow’s last penny to line the pockets of their long robes. Be attentive to the widow, the orphan, the stranger; be attentive to the most vulnerable among you who are always the first to suffer when your financial institutions crumble and your market mechanisms fail.

Jesus didn’t draw our attention to the poor widow because she gave all she had to live on to a den of robbers. He didn’t praise her for supporting with her last penny a corrupt religious institution that was destined to fall.

Putting in everything she had to live on, she entrusted her life in God’s hands, and her complete gift became a testimony against all who turn the whole world into a robber’s den, even the places that are to bring healing and reconciliation to our divided communities.

This was the final scene in the temple, and the poor widow’s gift foreshadowed the gift Jesus was about to make: his own life, given as a testimony against our sin and for God’s power to redeem.
The old temple leadership stood condemned, but the poor widow already belonged to the new temple, the one built on the foundation of Christ.

“So,” the Holy Spirit said to me, “which of the three widows is the one?”

Each one is an example of holy love, each in her own way. One embodies holy love by welcoming a stranger and remaining open to the promise of God when her life seemed to have come to a dead end. The second embodies it by remaining faithful to God even when corruption had turned the house of prayer for all the nations into a palace of vanity and robbery. And the third one embodied holy love by using her considerable wealth to support generously the hard work of peace-making and community-building in this country and around the world.

The truth is, I don’t have to choose one from among the three. I don’t have to make that choice because all three already belong to the new temple.

The choice I must make, though, every day, is how to live with such trust, humility, and generosity myself. And that’s a choice you must make as well.

How will you live in response to God’s gift of abundant life?

How will you give yourself away for the coming of God’s reign?

How will you in your lifetime embody this holy love?

We do want to hire additional staff here at Vine Street to coordinate ministry in our community; we do want to renovate the fellowship hall to offer a place where groups large and small can gather to play and work and celebrate; we do want to help create a Ministry CoOp where new mission initiatives find a home and cooperation between faith communities and non-profit agencies in our city is strengthened.

We have a vision – will you be a part of making that vision reality?

Every single person counts.

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