Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 11 November 2012
1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7-10; Hebrews 9:22-28; Mark 12:38-44
I have almost always heard the story of the Widow’s Mite interpreted as an example of sacrificial giving which we are to emulate. The focus is on the widow’s extraordinary obedience. She is the poor, old, female, counterfoil to the rich young man we met a few chapters back. Where he cannot give up his wealth, she puts into the temple treasury all she has to live on.
I am sure that Jesus is genuinely moved by the sacrificial generosity of the widow, but when we look at the verses that precede and follow this story, the point Jesus is making appears very different. Before drawing his disciples’ attention to the offering of the widow, Jesus warns his hearers against the ostentatious, honour-seeking religious authorities whom he accuses of devouring the property of widows. As he leaves the scene of this story, a disciple comments on the magnificence of the Temple precincts and Jesus predicts its utter destruction. What does this context have to do with the story of the widow? The widow is paying her temple tax, or at least as much as she can afford toward it. This money will go toward the work of the Temple. But what will it be used for? The law of Moses required that the tithes paid to the sanctuary be used to support widows and orphans as well as for ‘running costs’ and support of religious personnel. But when Jesus looks around, he sees how the whole religious show is actually swallowing up the livelihood of the poor. There is something dreadfully wrong when a faithful woman has to go home empty-handed to a starving family after she has given her last coins to an opulent temple.
Jesus who offers himself up completely for others is to be our model. But Jesus did not offer himself up in service to an oppressive system – his sacrifice was to break the power of all domination that opposes God’s will for us. Where sacrifice is glorified in and of itself, then religious devotion can serve to uphold the very systems that oppress.
The story of the widow of Zarephath which the lectionary pairs with the Widow’s Mite seems to support the traditional reading of that story as a glorification of sacrificial faith: the widow who has the faith and courage to first donate to God is blessed for that faith by being abundantly provided for. Her meagre supplies become enough to support herself, her son and the man of God. But notice how Elijah joins her in eating these humble rations. He is not strutting around self-importantly and using her small offering in ostentatious building projects! Together, equally, they have enough.
The God we adore through the words of the psalm is the God who feeds the hungry, frees the captive and secures justice for the oppressed. This same God thwarts the plans of the wicked, even when the wicked perform their deeds in God’s name. The people who claim to represent that God must do the same.