1 Kings 17:8-16
The Widow’s Gift
Rev. Joshua D. Gill
We rejoin the lectionary this morning. I would imagine if you have been in the pew for any length of time you have probably heard a sermon on this text. I would encourage you as we reflect on this passage to look for new ways to hear it. For most of us when we have heard a sermon about this, I would imagine those sermons probably were looking at this episode as a short morality play — you have the negative examples of scribes and then you have the example of the poor widow. The poor widow becomes a figure, an archetype of woman who sacrifice for the greater good, and while this reading is true I think there is more here and I would invite you to hear this text in new ways.
One of the first things to note is there were scribes and there were other scribes — some were city clerks, some were intellectuals, and some were experts in interpreting the law. Directly before this passage in Mark 12:34 Jesus actually compliments a scribe being impressed by his wisdom and telling him “you are not far from the Kingdom of God”. We need to approach this with nuance. We also need to identify underlying cultural assumptions the text has that we miss. The culture in which Jesus lived was a culture built around honor and shame. When reading scripture, I think this is one of most difficult things to understand and one of the most often missed things. Most of us grew up in legalistic or law-based culture. We see the world and scripture through this lens. For example, the story of prodigal son is less about rule breaking and more about the shame that he brought upon his family. Asking for an inheritance, in one sense wishing his father was dead, wild living bringing more shame, squandering the inheritance more shame. That is why he thinks he can come back and be a hired hand. So, when we hear Jesus talking we need to be thinking about what people are feeling, what they should be feeling.
The other cultural assumption is about the temple. The temptation is to often think when we hear the word temple we are just talking about a really large church, but that is not what is going on here. The Temple did not separate secular and sacred life. Goods and services are regularly exchanged here, business is done, and redistribution of wealth also happened where the temple was expected to redistribute to those in need, but that system was rigged.
When understood in this light Jesus is commenting less on her extraordinary gift of piety and more on an institution that was hopelessly corrupt. She is giving beyond her means. Those with resources would have given a calculated portion, she is literally giving all that she has left. We see Jesus and the gospel writer setting up this criticism in Mark 11. Jesus is heading to the temple when sees a fig tree, he reaches for a fig only to find a barren tree, and he curses the tree. The implication for the gospel writer is the tree is barren and so is the temple, a system which had become corrupted, in which its leaders are unfairly redistributing goods and resources. Those who had the least were penalized the most; in this reading this is less an act of piety and more about the horrific consequences of the economics of the temple. The President of Austin Theological Seminary Theodore Wardlaw in his commentary on this passage writes: “We cannot know whether her house is one of the ones devoured by those duplicitous temple officials, but we do know she is down to her last coins. Her husband is dead; she has no voice in that culture, no income, nothing. She is totally vulnerable.”
This is an act that would have put her in danger, she was on the edge, and now she is off the cliff. You have to wonder why is she doing this; is this a case of her being faithful to a larger vision? A case of her choosing this even though it is unreasonable?
If you were to rewrite this episode how would you rewrite it? Would you rewrite it so someone reach back into the box and pulled out her coins and maybe give her a few extra. Would you rewrite it so the system works for everyone so even though she gave so little she would then receive more in return. Would you rewrite it so the institution has an understanding of justice, so that the institution will be more concerned about her welfare. Or maybe we wouldn’t rewrite it, maybe we wouldn’t want to reach deeper into our own pockets and add a few more coins to the box, maybe we wouldn’t be concerned for her welfare.
One of things that we seem to be struggling with right now is an understanding of the “common good”. Back in 2013 ( which seems like an eternity now) Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners Ministry wrote a book called the (Un)common Good How the Gospel Brings Hope to a Divided World, he shares the following:
“ Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion—from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It’s time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world.
Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it’s a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies.. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good…
The story of the widow is a call to relationship. A woman who shows her faith in the face of a broken system. This widow would challenge us to consider all the broken systems around us and ask who is this not work for? Jesus could call us to love deeply, widely and extravagantly.
 Connections: Year B, Volume 3 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 471). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.