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. Our gospel lesson takes place after Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. It takes place after he enters the Temple and begins overturning the tables of the money changers, shouting, “My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers.” It also takes place after Jesus tells a not-so-veiled parable about the wicked tenants who are thrown out of the vineyard and replaced by others.”
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 vs. Jesus’ humble donkey march. It’s a clash between a sacrificial system that favored the wealthy and took advantage of the poor, vs. God’s house being open to all people. It’s a clash between an occupying power who relied on fear and intimidation to remain in control, vs. the reign of Christ whose power resides in its citizens ability to love.
The final blow in this narrative comes after the widow’s offering where Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple itself. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In order to appreciate Jesus’ prediction, we need to look at the power dynamics in the story of the widow’s offering which are often misunderstood. After Jesus’ bold, prophetic act of overturning the tables of the moneychangers, he is back in the Temple several days later. While he is teaching the crowd, he turns his attention to the treasury where wealthy people are putting coins into the boxes that are located there.
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. 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. It was a chance for people to say, “Look at me. Look how generous I am.” In other words, it was an opportunity to “trumpet” their own cause. They could put on a show and be seen by everyone.
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 considering everything else that was going on in the Court of Women. Jesus, then, told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in 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, that changes the way we understand this story. 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 is not generous. She is the victim of an oppressive system.
In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus criticized the Temple authorities, saying, “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.” [Mk 12:38-40]
This leads me to believe Jesus is not praising the widow for her generosity. He is critiquing a system that has probably forced her to sell her house and live in poverty. The final bow to her finances was her Temple contribution which left her bankrupt as well. This is why I believe she is not generous. She is the victim of an oppressive system. She is one of those widows whose house was devoured by the system.
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 here is that the widow is the victim of an oppressive system. The sad thing is that most people didn’t notice nor care about her plight because they were too busy “trumpeting” their own cause.
When we apply this power dynamic to the stories which surround it, everything makes on new meaning. Jesus is saying loud and clear that this oppressive system needs to change. But this is nothing new for him. He had been saying this from the very beginning of his ministry.
Back in Luke 5, Jesus told the crowd he had come “to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Lk 5:18-19] We see this quotation from Isaiah coming to life in the stories which surround our gospel lesson.
The Palm Sunday story is a lesson in humility, that proclaims the kind of ruler Jesus would be. One who did not flex military might, but whose power lie in humility and sacrifice. The cleansing of the Temple tell us that God’s house should be a place where everyone is welcome and included, instead of being a playground for the powerful and wealthy.
Finally, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple, which follows his observation about the widow’s offering, tells us that the poor and oppressed should always be our greatest priority, instead of building bigger and bigger monuments to ourselves.
This is one of those gospel lessons where I wish I had another week to work on my sermon. There are so many unspoken dynamics going on here that I’m certain I missed something. But what I hear the Spirit saying to God’s people is that we must never loose our passion for taking care of the “least of these.” The kingdom of God, the reign of Christ, is most clearly revealed when we bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.
Yes, buildings are important. And we’re going to have a big challenge ahead of us as we figure out how to pay for a new roof. But as we maintain this beautiful facility, it means nothing if we fail to embody our Mission and Welcome Statements. It means nothing, if we loose our passion for taking care of those in need.
I love being your pastor, not only because I think you’re wonderful people. I also think you understand what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. We may be small, but we are mighty in Spirit. The ministry we do out in the community, and for each other, is needed and valued. So let us recommit ourselves to being a house of prayer for all people. Let us recommit ourselves to being visible signs of the kingdom by taking care of the poor and oppressed. This is truly what Jesus would do, and what he calls us to do as well. Amen.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck