Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.3He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (NRSV)
For some of us, Covid-19 may have turned stewardship season into something we’ve always wanted it to be—a discreet, minimalist affair. We’ve had to pledge as if following Jesus’ instructions on prayer: Isolate yourself in your room. Give privately, anonymously.
On the whole, though, that’s not the way of Christian stewardship. What we do today is a prophetic aspect of our communal faith.
The impoverished widow knew what isolation and anonymity felt like. Being poor and a widow in first century Jerusalem was like wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Her presence in the temple stirred the air about as much as the flutter of a fish’s eyelash. If we’d been there, we probably wouldn’t have noticed her, either. There would have been too much else to see, hear, and smell—merchants selling sheep and doves, Roman soldiers keeping a grim watch, Pharisees preening in their gilded robes, pilgrims from all over chattering loudly in their various languages and dialects.
Such pulsating carpe diem is a luxury beyond the woman’s imagination. Her life is far more about surviving than anything we might call “living.” Perhaps because of that, she has an angle on giving that the wealthy folk around her don’t. So, she wades into the wild cacophony of Passover preparation and whispers her two-cent blessing.
Giving out of acute need is very different from giving out of wealth and privilege, which often becomes a conspicuous exhibition. Giving out of poverty declares a person’s gratitude for their dependence on the Giver of all good gifts and an intrepid compassion for people in need. Giving out of poverty is a prophetic act. It proclaims, as Paul says, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed.” (Romans 8:18)
In practical terms, this woman’s gift is two pennies toward a multimillion-dollar budget. It’s pretty much useless. The sad and shameful irony is that it’s toward folks like her that God calls the temple to direct most of its earthly energies and money. At the deepest heart of it all, loving God means loving and caring for widows, orphans, strangers, and others in need.
Isn’t that something? The impoverished one, whom the community is supposed to care for, teaches the community’s well-heeled leaders about the nature of true gratitude and generosity.
While Jesus does make an enduring example of the woman, it’s still a sad commentary that she gives everything to the community that ignores her, that she empties herself for the sake of a broken institution.1
Institutions can wield that kind of influence. And religious institutions have been notorious for manipulating people in the name of God. That’s one reason that Jesus is such a thorn in the Pharisees’ side. He challenges their understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people. Calling attention to the widow only sharpens that critique.
Look at her, says Jesus. She gives all she has to the temple in spite of its failures. She offers all she has for the sake of the community, not because they have remained faithful to God, but because God has remained faithful to them.
The Spirit continues to call the community to faithful worship and service. Jesus continues to lead us toward holiness. And God continues to do all this through the prophetic gratitude and generosity of people who, by some uncommon grace, have seen God’s presence in the community, and in humankind as a whole, and who refuse to give up on us.
We must still confess that, over the centuries, the church has traded Jesus’ prophetic life, and his call to go and do likewise for individualistic spiritualties of personal salvation. Such self-centeredness has paved a wide and winding road for superficial religion, for the belief that a person’s wealth and well-being conclusively declare God’s love for them.
People of religious faith who give out of material excess, or, as Jesus says, “out of their abundance,” often hold back because they fear losing material advantage. Theologically—for people like the Pharisees in Luke’s gospel, and for many much closer to home in our own day and time—to have less than more-than-enough means that God has judged or even forsaken them. When we structure our spiritual world that way, we reject any kind of lack or loss; and we can’t abide Jesus’ talk of the last being first, of experiencing blessedness in poverty, and of gaining one’s life by losing it.
If I, as a member and a leader in a community, make my love of God contingent on personal ease and contentment, I will almost inevitably ignore God’s fundamental call to care for people like the widow who—giving from the fullness of her faith rather than the emptiness of her pocketbook—dropped her last two coins in the temple treasury knowing that the temple and its leaders will fail to be faithful stewards with her gift.
Another compelling thing about this brief story is that the widow’s gift to the temple anticipates Jesus’ gift to us. Let’s face it: You, I, and the Church itself can all be as selfish, power-hungry, and hurtful to one another as the Pharisees and the temple were 21 centuries ago. And yet it was for them and for us—broken and beloved creatures all—that Jesus drops the two cents of his life into the great treasury of time. Knowing full well that even those closest to him will abandon him, Jesus does not withhold the fullness of his life. In an unforgettable act of prophetic stewardship, he empties himself in praise of God and in love for us, for all that, in God’s eyes, we are and can become.
Together, Jesus and the widow invite us into that same prophetic adventure. And this is more than a Consecration Sunday event; it’s a way of life, a continual emptying of our limited, imperfect selves into God’s loaves-and-fishes grace.
As we think about what we will pledge, or have already pledged to God, some of us may think about all that we consider right or wrong with Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. I hope, though, that we all hear God’s call to live prophetic lives, lives that proclaim the holy “nevertheless” of faith. For while we’re not always faithful, God is. And what each of us dedicates today, we dedicate not simply to this church or to the people in it. We dedicate our gifts and ourselves to God so that we may be, together, a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s kingdom of justice, compassion, and grace.
Here and now, and in the days to come.
1I no longer remember where I read this interpretation of this text, but I do remember that the idea of the widow’s gift to a broken institution came from the Rev. Pete Peery when he was serving as president of Montreat Conference Center.