The widow's gift

Again and again in Israel’s scriptures, our attention is drawn to three groups of people: orphans, widows, and strangers. Our attention is drawn to them because in their vulnerability they enjoy God’s particular attention and concern. In Deuteronomy 10 we read,

The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.[1]

A stranger, a widow, and an orphan are the characters in the story we heard this morning. During a great drought, Elijah, the man of God, went north to Sidon, a Phoenician city on the coast, and when he came to the gate of Zarephath, he asked a woman — she was gathering firewood — to bring him something to drink. And as she turns to fetch some water for the stranger with the foreign accent, he asks her if she would also bring him a little bread to eat.

Bread? she says. I have no bread. All I have is a handful of meal and a little oil, and I’m out here gathering sticks for a fire, so I can bake something for me and my son, so we can eat and die.

And Elijah says to her, Don’t be afraid. Go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.

He asks her to share their last bite with him, to divide by three what isn’t enough for two, assuring her — the word of 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.” And the miracle unfolds, inviting us to let our trust in God overcome our fear: she went and did as Elijah said, and the stranger, the widow, and the orphan ate for many days.

Side by side with this wondrous story we heard another one from the gospel of Mark. A poor widow put everything she had, all she had to live on, into the collection box at the temple. Nobody was paying attention, except for Jesus. He was sitting across from the treasury and watching, and he called the disciples because he wants us to pay attention to this moment.

“She has put in everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on, her whole life.”

Pretend, if you will, that you’re a director, and you’re working on a movie based on the gospel of Mark. And now the young man who is playing Jesus turns to you — you’re getting ready to shoot this very scene at the Temple treasury — the young man turns to you and asks,

How do you want me to deliver this line? Is Jesus surprised by her action? Does he praise her? Does he want the disciples to admire her, maybe see her as a role model? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Or is Jesus sad, perhaps a little angry because this poor woman 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, asks the actor, how do you want me to say this line? With a smile or with a broken heart?

The words alone don’t tell you if Jesus commends the widow, applauds her self-sacrifice, or invites the disciples to follow in her footsteps. You’re the director. What’s his tone of voice? Is he heartbroken? Outraged? Resigned?

While you’re thinking about that, let’s take a look at large-gift donors. In 2015, 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 a string attached: the school would have to be renamed in her honor, to be known forever as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Weill was a former trustee of the school, and she had made large donations in the past. Both the library and the student center already were and still are named after her. Mrs. Weill argued that with her name given top billing, more donors around the country would open their wallets.

The president and the board of trustees loved the idea. But many alumni didn’t. “It makes me sick, to be honest with you,” one of them said. “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, ‘usually’ isn’t what it used to be. According to Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University, asking that entire institutions be rebranded in exchange for a gift reflects 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.” 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. He says, “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? It’s a crazy system.”

In the case of Paul Smith’s College, a state court judge ruled 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. And with naming rights no longer on the table, the Weill family withdrew the $20 million gift.[2]

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. They love the attention. Jesus had just been teaching about attention. “Beware of the scribes,” he had told them. Beware of the ones who like to walk around in long robes. They like to be noticed; they like to be seen. They want to be greeted with respect in the markets. They love being offered to sit in the teacher’s chair in the synagogues, and they expect it. They hunger for the seats of honor at banquets. They strut about, peacocks of piety, spreading their fans, men who devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers.

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, except Jesus, and he wants us to pay attention to her. He doesn’t praise her, though, nor does he lift her up as an example. He only states what she just did.

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 notice how an institution takes a widow’s last pennies? An institution that claims to glorify God whom the Psalmist calls Father of orphans and protector of widows?[3]

You don’t know what to tell the actor. Does Jesus point to the poor widow as a model for giving? Or does Jesus point to her because she is a tragic example of how religious institutions suck the life out of people?[4]

So you just sit there a little longer with Jesus, opposite the treasury. You remember how he entered the temple the day after they came to Jerusalem. You remember how he threw out those who were selling and buying there. How he overturned the tables of the money changers. How he practically shut down the entire operation, at least for a moment. “Is it not written,” he said, and you won’t have any trouble imagining in what tone of voice he was yelling 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.”[5] The whole religious apparatus had become perverted. It no longer protected widows, orphans, the poor, the vulnerable… It lived off them instead.[6] So, what do you say to 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 joy and with severe judgment? Is that even possible?

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, freely given in love, entrusted into God’s hands, but also taken by sin that corrupts our life together. The gift of his life is the judgment of our sin, of all the ways in which we fail one another, fail our God, and ultimately fail ourselves because of lovelessness. But the gift of his life is also a testimony to God’s power to redeem us from sin’s oppressive reign and renew us in love, make us fully human in love. The widow, the orphan, and the stranger invite us to the feast where love is host.

[1] Deuteronomy 10:17-19


[3] Ps 68:5

[4] See Peery, Feasting, 285.

[5] Mark 11:15-17

[6] See Peery, Feasting, 287.

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