The Widow’s Offering


Mark 12:41-44

Jesus said, “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.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. Then a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”

The widow

Some of the most important people in the Bible are nameless. The widow in today’s Gospel is surely one of them.

When Jesus saw her putting her coins into the Temple treasury box, he pointed her out to his disciples, as an example for them. But what was she an example of?

(We are now once again in the stewardship time of year, and many are the sermons that have pointed to this poor widow as an example of someone who gives her all to her church and to charity – and I’ve preached one of those sermons myself!)

It’s true that the poor among us are much more likely to give sacrificially than the rich – perhaps because no one knows better than the poor what poverty feels like.

But have you ever thought that Jesus is not talking about money here, but about something else altogether?

The setting

So let’s step back from this widow for a moment, and look at the context in which her story has been set.

Mark’s Gospel has been telling us that this week is Jesus’ last week on earth.

The week began when he entered Jerusalem, riding on a lowly donkey, while massed Roman legions were marching through another gate to maintain order during the Passover.

Then Jesus went into the Temple and drove out the merchants who had set up their tables in its courts, selling their wares and in the process swindling the poor.

Returning to the Temple the next day, he sat down to teach his disciples and the others who crowded around him. He warned his disciples to watch out for the self-important people who were walking proudly through the Temple, ostentatiously depositing their offerings in the treasury – the same people who took away widows’ houses and scorned the poor.

And that’s when Jesus pointed to this widow, putting her last coins into the treasury box.

The disciple’s offering

In just two more days it would be Passover, and the Last Supper, and the night in Gethsemane, and the trial before Pilate, and the cross on Calvary.

Just like this poor widow, letting her last coins fall into the treasury, Jesus was pouring out his life – teaching, healing, giving, suffering, dying.

At the Last Supper he would even take the cup of wine and tell his disciples – and telling us, in every Eucharist – “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.”                                                                   (Mark 14:24)

At that moment during supper, his disciples were afraid, but they still didn’t know what was about to happen.

Later on they would remember what Jesus said, and meditate on the lengths he would go to serve others. And later still, they would begin to understand the example he had set for them: he was not only giving himself for others, but calling them to do the same.

The New Testament only begins to make sense when we understand that it was written for Jesus’ disciples – and when we begin understand that we are Jesus’ disciples, too.

So, if we are his disciples, we are called to give ourselves for others — to pour ourselves out, not just into Temple treasuries or into worthy charities, but into the world around us. But to walk the road that Jesus walked – to walk the way this widow walked – that is so hard!

How can we learn to offer ourselves, as she did – as he did?

The disciple’s prayer

I’ve come to understand that prayer is the first step toward offering ourselves for others.

I’m not talking about prayers when we’re using words, whether we’re in church, waking up in the morning or going to bed in the evening, or at times throughout the day when we are stressed or drawn to the needs of others – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re prayerfully reading, or listening to music, or looking at art, or walking in the natural world, reflecting on the presence and meaning of God in our lives – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re listening to (or watching) the news, feeling our hearts going out to people who are being threatened by fires, crushed by earthquakes, drowned in storms, murdered by guns, rejected for the color of their skin, persecuted for their religious faith – although this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

I’m talking about simply opening our hearts, our minds, our selves, to God – so God can be with us throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year, going with us wherever we go.

Or to say it more accurately, so we can be with God throughout our days, throughout our weeks, throughout our years, going wherever God takes us – following Jesus wherever he goes.

Henri Nouwen writes *

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness…

Why would you really want to do that?

Perhaps you would let the Other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something. But to allow the Other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped – that is dangerous and calls for defense.

An elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center… She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fists and give up your last coin. So… when you want to pray… the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? …. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway…. Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of your many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving You must be patient, of courses, very patient until your hands are completely open.”

That day in the Temple, when Jesus watched the widow pouring her coins into the treasury, he saw that she knew how to open her hands wide. He watched her letting go of her fears for the future.

Can we also look at this woman, and learn how to follow her – to that place where we become willing to let God lead us into our future?

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – November 11, 2018

 

* Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press, 1995.

 

Come, Follow Me


St. Anthony’s Monastery, Egypt

Mark 10:17-22

We can hear today’s Gospel speaking directly to us, through the power of God’s Word – words first spoken by Jesus, words echoing down through the centuries, words which still call us today: Come, follow me.

Perhaps no story in Christian history shows the power of this Gospel more than the story of St. Anthony of the Desert.

Anthony was born in Egypt, the child of Christian parents, only 200 years after the first Christian churches were established. As a child Anthony loved to go to church with his parents, and he listened to the Scriptures read in church so carefully that he remembered them for the rest of his life.

Now when Anthony was about twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with all their property.

A few months later, on his way to church, Anthony was thinking about a Scripture he had heard on a previous Sunday: How the first Christians had sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the Apostles for the care of the needy (see Acts 4:35).

Then, when Anthony entered the church, he heard this Gospel being read:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing;
go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

When Anthony heard these words, he felt they were spoken directly to him. So he sold the property he had just inherited from his parents and – setting aside some of the money for the care of his younger sister – he gave the rest to the poor. Then, taking only a wooden staff and his cloak, Anthony walked out into the desert, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Soon disciples were following Anthony into the desert, gathering around him to live with him and learn from him. (In later centuries other monks would call Anthony the “Father of Christian Monasticism,” because he inspired similar communities of monks, first in the Egyptian desert, and then throughout the Christian world.)

Now these are the words that inspired Anthony throughout his life:

Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

At the end of a very long life, when he knew that his death was approaching, Anthony told his disciples to give his possessions away as soon as he was gone – 3 things in all:
his old wooden staff and two sheepskin cloaks.

In the end, that’s all Anthony had left – two cloaks and a wooden staff.  Throughout his time in the desert, Anthony’s only wealth came from his love of God and from the Word of Jesus.

The Word of God and the Power of Wealth

So Anthony’s story is really a story about the power of God’s Word.  But his story is also a story about the power of human wealth.

By the middle ages, even though they were founded upon the teachings of St. Anthony and those who followed him, many Christian monasteries had become fabulously wealthy because they held onto the money and possessions given to them over the years.

How hard it is to hear the Gospel in the face of wealth, even for those monks who heard it every day of their lives!

Wealth, in Anthony’s time as in ours, always has the power to drown out the Word. Unless the Word is planted so deep in our hearts – teaching us to love others, constantly calling us to share what we have – wealth can keep us from hearing the Word.

Wealth, in our time as in Anthony’s, builds up over the years; we can hold onto it and treasure it, and at the end of our lives we pass it on to our heirs.

And the Word, in our time as in Anthony’s, can enter deeply into our hearts, working there until it prods us into action. But the Word can also go right over our heads.

Some of us will hear Jesus’ words, but we think there’s no way we could follow them. (Some of us imagine that we, too, are being called to walk out into the desert with just a staff and a cloak.)

Others will make a practice of giving away some of what we have: from the ordinary giving of everyday people, to the extraordinary giving of some of the richest people in our country today.

But many who have heard Jesus’ words will still spend our lives collecting possessions and wealth. (Some of us can hear this Gospel, and even Anthony’s story, without really letting it speak to our hearts.)

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me?”

Anthony heard Jesus tell him to sell everything, and walk out into the desert.

The Way of Love

Very few of us are called to live in the desert; but all of us are called to walk the Way of Love.

The Way of Love will be different for every one of us, but those who have been taught how to love, and those who have learned how to share, can learn to resist the call of wealth.

In Anthony’s life, it was his parents who taught him to love Jesus, and to love the word he heard in church.  In my own life, it was my grandmother, who showed me her love of Jesus, and taught me to share with others. Who taught you the Way of love?

The Word of God is the Word of Love. Love was the Word that hovered over the waters of chaos, at the very beginning of time.  The Word of Love lived deep in the soul of Jesus, who looked on that rich young man and loved him, even though he knew that the man would not find the strength to follow him.  And the Word of Love is still working through the Spirit, who breathes through us here today.

It is the Word of God, the Love of Jesus – who loves us all, and connects us all  – who calls us all to share what we have been given.

My prayer for all of us today is that we will hear these words of Jesus, letting them penetrate deep into our hearts, helping us find the Way of Love, and helping us to share more of what we have been given.

And my prayer for Leela and her family today is that she will someday hear Jesus’ words, and remember Jesus’ words throughout her life: Come, follow me.

 

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood, at Leela’s baptism.