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.”
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?
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.