When Kathy and I were first married, we lived in a tiny New England saltbox house on Sparks Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a funny little house, turned sideways on a small lot, a block or so from the Charles River. It was in that house that we experienced the two great blizzards of 1978—one in January dumping around 28 inches of snow, the second in February, leaving us with 36 inches to shovel away.
Thirty-six inches of snow is a lot to take care of. Yet after each blizzard, we would be surprised to see a small army of seemingly frail older women out there with shovels and brooms taking care of business. There must have been a dozen or so of these elegant, scrappy women. As we shoveled snow and cleared out parking places we began to talk to some of them. It turned out that these women were in their 70s and 80s and were widows—some of Harvard professors, some of other kinds of professional men who had died long before them. Up until then I had operated under the notion of a “widow” as a meek, sad, lonely character. But these women were, well, tough. They all knew each other. And they knew a thing or two about how to protect a parking place.
Today’s Gospel [Mark 12:38-44] tells the familiar story we have come to call “the widow’s mite.” Of all the stories about money in the New Testament, this is the tale that we preachers love to use when we are hitting you up for dough during the yearly stewardship campaign. On the surface, it seems to be a sentimental story about true generosity contrasted with bogus ostentation, and our response to it derives from that shared cultural picture of the widow as a meek, sad, lonely character. Here’s where the preacher looks at you and declares, “Look, this poor widow put in two copper coins. Can’t you cough up a couple of thousand bucks?” I know about these sermons because, on occasion, I have given them myself.
But this time around I see the story differently. Remember, this event takes place in the Jerusalem Temple, the center of the official religious system of Jesus’s day. Just before we meet the widow we hear Jesus warn us to “beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes.” Among other things, says Jesus, these scribes “devour widows’ houses.” Wait a minute: the center of official religion? Walking around in long robes? Isn’t he talking about places like this and people like me?
One of the problems with using the widow’s mite for a stewardship sermon is that it fits more logically into Jesus’s prophetic critique than it does in a stewardship drive for what we call “organized religion.” Over the course of much of his ministry, Jesus aims his sharpest criticism at the cult of the Jerusalem temple itself precisely because that cult pretends to guarantee and deliver exclusive access to God. He is not critical of temple worship itself. He is critical of the system built up to make that temple what these days we would call “sustainable.” In Jesus’s view, the temple no longer deserves to be sustained. It has commercialized and commodified spiritual transactions, placing most of them out of the reach of the poor. And the people who work in the temple—those wearing long robes—are willing to do anything to keep the institution afloat, even going so far as to “devour widows’ houses.” This isn’t a story about why you should support institutional religion. This is a story about why you should bring it down.
When we hear the word “widow” in a biblical story, we should be alert to the category of people the Hebrew Bible calls “widows and orphans.” These are the poorest people in Israel, those with no economic or social standing. When their husbands died, ancient Near Eastern women were left without a way to support themselves. They were at the bottom of the social structure. They were the least powerful people in the society. The true test of Israel, said the prophets, was how it treated its widows and orphans, people who could do nothing for you in return. By that measure, says Jesus, the temple has failed the widow and orphan test. The scribes gladly feast off the offerings of widows. The temple has become disconnected from its very reason for being.
Now the plight of “widows and orphans” is not just a first century Bible-land issue. This week many of us were shocked by a story in Monday’s New York Times. Here’s how the story begins:
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.
That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists…Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. [“Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds,” New York Times, November 2, 2015]
While the Times article did not seek fully to explain the rise in death rates, some causes advanced were: lack of education, overall declines in general health, worsening economic opportunity, and ongoing mental distress. In the period examined by the study, household income for those with only a high school education fell by 19 percent.
If we’re going to ask who might qualify as this generation’s widows and orphans, we might answer that they are precisely the people like these—those who have been left behind by the expanding market and the tech boom. And if we’re to apply Jesus’s standards to ourselves, the proper measure for both church and society might be how they treat those with little education behind them and less opportunity before them.
So then: is the tale of the widow’s mite a stewardship story or not? The answer, like so many in the scriptures, is “Yes” and “No.” If we’re talking about religious giving that merely supports those “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,” then the answer is probably “No.” The day after the Princeton study came out the Pew Research Center released its findings on the declining religiosity of the American public. When this week’s Pew study tells us that the U.S. public is becoming less religious, they mean that Americans are becoming less interested in official organized religion, what we might call the faith of the scribes. A church that exists only for its own survival is decreasingly interesting or credible to anyone.
But if we talk about stewardship as giving that reaches out to the widows and orphans of today—not only to middle-aged white people but to what the prayer book calls “the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression” then the answer is surely “Yes.” A church that exists primarily for others is a city on a hill and a light to the nations. It is, in Jesus’s words, worth “everything we have to live on.”
And that brings me back to the widows of Sparks Street in Cambridge. They were tough women, but they also had a lot going for them. They were educated. They were privileged. They had a lot of social support. But they also knew, from experience, what life was about. No matter what economic class you belong to, losing a spouse is painful—one of the biggest losses that anyone can sustain. To be on your own at the end of a lifetime is hard, especially if you’ve shared it with someone else. To be widowed at any age is to suffer. And suffering always changes one’s character. It may not make us better, but it does make us tough.
The widows of Cambridge were tough. And I think the widow Jesus saw in the temple was tough, too. And say what you will about tough people, they tend to know what really matters. And they not only know it: they commit themselves to it. So the story of the widow’s mite does tell us something about stewardship after all.
It tells us that suffering makes us tough. And toughness teaches us what really matters. Prayer matters. Love matters. Justice matters. A church that prays and loves and works for justice is worth everything we have to live on. The long robes are nice. But serving the widows and orphans is finally what it’s all about. Jesus loved the temple, but he lived and died for you and me.
At its best, Washington National Cathedral strives both to love God and serve people. May this place, our temple, continue to live out our love for God in ways that will be worthy of your support. May we, like Jesus let life make us into the people God calls us to be. May we, like the widow, come to know what matters. And like them both, may we give ourselves, our resources, and our lives in ministry to those Jesus came to love and serve. Amen.