If we think our gospel lesson is all about money, we didn’t hear it correctly. If we think it’s a story about a poor widow’s generosity, we didn’t hear it correctly. If we think the lesson we’re supposed to learn is our need to give everything we have to God, or to Abiding Savior, we didn’t hear it correctly.
Our gospel lesson is about more than money, generosity, and giving everything we have to the Church. Instead, it’s a story about power, corruption, vanity, and exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. It’s a story about a value system that is vastly different from the one Jesus embodied and envisioned for our world. Do I have your attention? Good. Because this gospel lesson is more like an episode of House of Cards than it is a nice story to tell our kids.
Let me set the scene for you. This story takes place after Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. It takes place after he enters the Temple and begins to overturn the tables of the money changers, shouting, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.”
It also takes place after one of the scribes in the Temple asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all. Jesus responds by giving him two: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
So make no mistake about it, the stage is set for a clash of powers. It’s a cash between the over-the-top imperial military parades of Rome verses Jesus’ humble donkey march. It’s a clash between a sacrificial system that favored the wealthy and took advantage of the poor verses God’s house being open to all nations and all people. It’s a clash between an occupying power who relies on fear and intimidation to remain in control verses the reign of Christ whose power resides in its citizens ability to love.
When we arrive at our gospel lesson, Jesus pokes the bear one more time: Using exaggerated speech to make his point, he says to those who would listen; “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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.”
Ouch! You know that had to hurt! But a word of caution is in order before we draw any conclusions about Jesus’ rebuke. Throughout history, the Church has often been guilty of anti-Semitism. Even Martin Luther wrote scathing things about Jews and Judaism. Fortunately, our denomination has formally condemned all of them. These writings do not reflect the beliefs and values of the ELCA.
Therefore, Jesus is NOT saying that all scribes and other Jewish religious leaders are bad. In fact, the gospels mention at least two who were open and supportive of what Jesus had to say: Nicodemus and Jospeh of Arimathea. I’m certain that there were also scribes who were passionate supporters of the poor and oppressed. So we need to look a little deeper at what Jesus is saying here.
My conclusion is that Jesus is critiquing a behavior rather than a group of people. The behavior he is critiquing is people who use their power and influence to remain powerful and influential; people who are willing to move up the corporate and social ladder no matter what it cost others. It’s a failure to recognize your privilege and the many subtle ways all of us do very little to help the poor and oppressed.
When it comes to our gospel lesson the biggest temptation is to identify with the widow. But when we do this, we let ourselves off the hook. We pat ourselves on the back and say, “Thank God, we aren’t one of those “bad” scribes. We’re good, decent Christian folk. Therefore, Jesus words do not apply to us.”
Well I have some bad news for us, decent Christian folk. Jesus never lets us off the hook. The challenge in our gospel lesson is to ponder the ways we are like the scribes Jesus is talking about. What attitudes and behaviors do we exhibit that constantly draw attention to ourselves? What privileges and advantages do we have because we are white or male or straight that we fail to recognize? What prejudicial attitudes do we carry in our hearts that make us feel superior to other groups of people? I think you get my point. So we need to be careful and not let ourselves off the hook too easily. Jesus’ rebuke is meant for us as much as it is for the people in our story.
Just in case we don’t understand what Jesus is trying to tell us, he uses an illustration to drive the point home. After giving his harsh rebuke, Jesus sits down opposite the treasury, and watches the crowd putting money into the treasury.
To give you a visual for this scene, the “treasury” is located in the Court of Women, which is one of the outer courts in the temple complex. The Court of the Women obtained its name, because only men were permitted to go into the inner areas of the Temple. Hmmm. Around the perimeter of this court were thirteen chests where charitable contributions were placed. Each chest was set aside for a specific purpose. They were called “trumpets” because they were narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom like a trumpet.
This is an important detail because people did not have a nice sealed envelope to drop into an offering plate. Their contribution was very visual and everyone around them could see how much money they were placing in the trumpet chests.
Needless to say, this was the perfect opportunity to exhibit some of the narcissistic behavior Jesus had criticized earlier. It was a chance for people to say, “Look at me. Look how generous I am.” In other words, they had an opportunity to “trumpet” their own cause. They could put on a show and be seen by everyone. “Look at me! Look how religious and devout I am!”
After watching rich people put large sums into the trumpet boxes, Jesus saw a widow place two small copper coins into the treasury. I’m fairly certain that Jesus was the only one who noticed her with everything else that was going on in the Court of Women. Jesus, then, pointed her out to the disciples, saying, “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.”
This is where I think we misunderstand the story. We assume this woman is being generous, making the ultimate sacrifice to honor God. But I’d like us to consider another possibility. It’s one I never thought of before until this week. This poor widow put in all she had because this is what was required by the religious authorities for her to be considered forgiven by God. She was not generous. She was a victim of an oppressive system. She was one of those widows whose house was devoured by the system.
In trying to meet the oppressive taxes of the Roman occupiers, along with the Temple taxes, she was forced to sell her house in order to pay her obligations. I have a sneaking suspicion that she sold that house at a ridiculously low price. I’m certain someone bragged about how big a profit they made off of her when they resold it.
This is the unspoken reality of our gospel lesson. This is why I can’t see it as a nice story about us “giving our all” to God. The ugly truth of what’s happening in the story is that the widow is a victim of an oppressive system. The sad thing is that most people are unable to notice or care about her plight because they are too busy “trumpeting” their own cause. This is a case where the the English words of “trumpet box: and “trumpeting” fit the situation perfectly.
If I’m right about the dynamics in our gospel lesson, it is calling us to re-evaluate our lives and look at the ways we are more like the scribes and the rich in our story, rather than the widow. This is also one of those weeks where I wish I had more time to work on the sermon. Because my thoughts on this story are just beginning to come together. I’m seeing it in a way, I’ve never seen it before.
So, Friends in Christ, let us resist the temptation of letting ourselves off the hook here. Instead, may we consider the ways we are all a part of this oppressive system. Then, perhaps, we can summon the courage to become advocates for the poor and oppressed, following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 David Eck