Preacher: Nathan Hosler
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44
We have a penny and a biscuit. This is what we have to work with and then we are finished. The widow in Mark’s Gospel has the equivalent of a penny (year of inflation value not noted in my translation). The widow of Zarephath has a bit of flour to make a cake. The cake is made of oil and flour…so I am calling it a biscuit. Cake sounds too bourgeois, too fluffy. We have a penny and a biscuit
We will eat the last biscuit and die. These words by a woman who is at the end and are stated quite directly.
Elijah, the prophet who announced the drought in the first place, then assures her that she need not be afraid but that the God of Israel has promised that the oil and flour will be replenished until the rain returns.
Does she know who Elijah is? Does she worship the God of Israel? I don’t know you or your God but, “ok, sure….we’ll go for it.” Not sure if that is faith or resignation. Ah, what the h**l it, nothing to lose.
The prophet—or random guy Elijah—makes a request and…
15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
As an interpreter I must ask—What is the purpose of this story? Well, it continues the trajectory of God’s engagement with a people and a leadership that doesn’t follow God’s way. You may remember that God was not in favor of setting up the kingly political system in the first place. In particular, in the chapter before we read that the new king Ahab wasn’t starting off well.
We read, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all of the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33b) . Mmm, not a great start. Notable, yes…good?… leaves a little to be desired. “Did more to provoke the anger of the LORD”…yikes. Because of this, God sends the prophet Elijah to declare that there will be a drought. Elijah then flees (tough luck being the bearer of such terrible news) and lives by a wadi as a source of water. A wadi is a temporary stream in the desert and God delivers food morning and evening by ravens. Specifically, the ravens bring bread and meat. Which is good because it helps him survive but made me grimace when I thought about how that would work practically. Little dirty raven claws holding meat…likely not wrapped…
The water source then dries up and Elijah leaves hiding (because I guess ravens can’t deliver water? You know—it’s the claws, water is tricky. They can’t grasp water?…wasn’t this a miracle already?, couldn’t God just rig up a little water pitcher?) Whatever the reason, Elijah goes looking for water. Which brings us to the widow. The prophet asks for water—which is presumably in short supply and she obliges. He then asks for food as well (since the ravens can’t come into town?) The famine has gone on long enough that the widow is down to her last bit of food. Now as a widow with a child this dire situation likely would happen sooner than for others, however, the drought has apparently already been taking its toll.
A few observations or questions may be in order. Firstly, the sins of a leader or leaders can lead to great suffering—I was at an event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday and the situation of civil war in Yemen and US support Saudi bombing and the dire famine in which millions are starving or on the brink of starvation was discussed. While the answer isn’t clear the negative results of the actions of leaders is quite clear.
Secondly, the question of God’s action—perhaps culpability—in this suffering is raised. Diving into the philosophical and theological tangle is not what I plan to attempt this morning, but this passage made me wonder about day 2 after this story for all of the other widows. If this widow had one more meal and then nothing what about all of the others?
Speaking of widows in dire straits who give in noteworthy and sacrificial ways….across town and x number of years later…
We see Jesus in the temple.
Beware of the leaders who wear fancy cloths, are respected, have the best seats, consume the needy, and as show, pray long. He doesn’t actually say, “don’t be this way” but watch out for them. Though one can imply that this path is a risk—Jesus-wise. Don’t be caught. Don’t be fooled! He asserts that they will receive “greater condemnation.”
After this exhortation they sit down to watch the offering plate station. In this, the wealthy give large sums and then a poor widow gives the equivalent of a penny. (Incidentally, last Sunday before I knew this was a the passage, I discovered that there was a penny hidden behind the pulpit covering—it is of so little value I didn’t even pick it up…still here). So Jesus and his people are hanging out, loitering even (hang out like it was a mall in the 90s—See Dream Cities for an interesting discussion of malls), and checking out what people are giving. Jesus then notes that this destitute and vulnerable woman has given more. More?! If we watch closely, he doesn’t say anything negative about the large sums—though this is the impression. It is the impression because of the comparison and praise for the other party, the widow. This impression of implicit critique is also because of the passage just before. The feeling is that some of the large sums are able to be given because the ostentatious “scribes” have not only done their religious duties for show but have devoured the widows’ houses.
Their wealth is based on their exploitation of others. Was this particular widow impoverished due to her wealth being consumed? We don’t know. Perhaps she is simply part of a class of people who are stripped of their means of survival. While the main point of Jesus’ teaching is about motivation in religious actions there is a subtle (or not so subtle) economic critique in Mark.  It is not only the action and teaching of Jesus that matter but the text—the literary structure, flow, and rhetorical jabs matter as well.
Implicit in this is the economic critique but there is the explicit teaching as well. The gift of this destitute widow, though small—nay paltry—this gift given in this way was the greater gift.
Now this is not a sentimental “it’s the little things that count.” It is not an inspirational poster nor a Hallmark card with a kitten nuzzling something…anything! No, Jesus’ point was that giving that hurts (or is sacrificial) is better. But even that may be a tired moralism.
Giving that hurts somehow means more than the more “effective” big gifts. The rich young ruler in the Gospels gets generally affirmed—“You’ve done all the correct requirements, which would include the correct religious donations, but now go sell everything and give it away. Or Luke, the sermon on the plane—“blessed are the poor.” This is what Liberation Theologians called God’s preferential option for the poor. The widow who is poor amidst the wealth of those who disposed her—the widow and her tiny gift has given the greater.
Now it is fine for Jesus to say this. He isn’t the leader who is trying to repair the temple roof. It is fine for Jesus, he isn’t tasked with figuring out a budget. Those of us who do this institutional work very much appreciate this sort of gift. A smallish non-profit that I work with got a surprise $750,000 gift a year or so ago. The widow’s penny is great but….you gotta love a large bequest.
Which is the reality that James is addressing—don’t show favoritism to the wealthy who might become your benefactors.
Whether we try to or not and whether or not it is appropriate, we tend to identify with one character or set of characters. Because of our competitive or perhaps judgmental inclinations we quite likely engage with this text from what might be called a “distorted Jesus” vantage. We may watch how or if people give and think “well that’s interesting (of course not thinking it interesting in the curiosity sort of way but using this as a jab)…that’s interesting, it doesn’t look like they gave anything. (Of course, having the online giving option now sows some doubt in such judgments.) We may also feel some degree of identification with the scribes that get such a tough word from Jesus—are we devouring? Are we doing this only for show?
A problem with Jesus is that he, at least as recorded in the Gospel literature, is very definitive in knowing peoples’ motives. Jesus knows that this is all the widow has and that she is giving it in a laudable way. This is different than my anxious self-assessment. Am I up here preaching because I like the sound of my voice or because I have a call from God and the community to do this work? Am I distressed that the number of people here on a Sunday has decreased because I care deeply about proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel of Peace through word and deed on this particular location or am I distressed because it makes me feel like a failure as a leader?
Is Jesus inviting us to perpetual internal assessment? Are my motives pure? Is the percentage of my income given high enough? What if I get it wrong? What if we fail?
Kierkegaard’s leap of faith would seem to apply to the question of belief. Can it also be used to these more “applied” matters? What if—at least for those of us who tend toward introspection or self-doubt—what if we got over ourselves and got on with the simple things, the basics?
As a movement or organizational worker, I would much rather have someone give with wrong motives than get stalled or over-think it and not give at all. Motivation counts but if you are asking if your motivation is correct you are probably on the right track. Jesus wants us to be swept up in the Kingdom of God. Swept up not squashed down by perpetual self-reflection or doubt.
Being caught up in the work of God we may then be like the widow. The widow is swept up in the work of God. Those two copper coins—a penny worth, what I didn’t even bother to pick up from behind the pulpit drapes. All that she has is given to the worship and work of God. All that she has isn’t, at least on its own, all that useful. The power of God is seen in the widow. May we be like the widow. May we be like the women who lost everything and still gave.