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Woven Together

Lesson: Colossians 2:2-4; Mark 12:38-44

20th century paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote, “No animal or plant is self-sustaining. The quest to be alone is indeed a futile one, never successfully followed in the history of life.”[1] On this planet, everything is a whole, which doesn’t mean everything is one or the same – just that everything is connected. Everything is woven together. What more proof do we need than that a wildfire 150 miles away leaves ashes on our cars?

The first thing we need to know about the Widow’s Mite, as this story in Mark’s gospel is often called, is that it is not one of those, “Wow, I need to be more like that” stories. It is a story about connection. It is a story about being woven together. Certainly, generosity and even sacrifice are praiseworthy. Certainly, we are challenged by God’s abundance to be generous. Those are qualities that value our connection. But Jesus is not pointing to the widow who dropped her last two coins in the treasury so that the disciples can feel appropriately guilty that they didn’t do what she did. The lesson here is not, “God wants everybody to give away everything they have.” So everybody take a deep breath, and just relax.

Okay, now let’s take a step back. This story is part of a larger set of passages that focus on Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees. The verses before the passage tell us this exchange takes place in the Temple, where Jesus has been teaching. Immediately after this passage, the disciples call Jesus’ attention to the wonderful stones and buildings of the Temple. Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It’s predictions, or perhaps threats, like this that have prompted his opponents to seek first his arrest[2] and, eventually, his death.[3]

It’s in this context that the widow comes forward with her offering. We can’t hear Jesus’ tone of voice as he watches her. Is it praise? Or is it lament? To put it another way: Is Jesus holding up the widow and her offering as an example of great faith and profound stewardship, or is he expressing his remorse that she’s given away the little she has left, and perhaps even feels compelled to do so?[4]

It matters, doesn’t it? Because if it’s praise, then this would be a “Wow, I need to be more like her!” story. But notice that Jesus doesn’t actually commend the woman. He doesn’t applaud her self-sacrifice, or tell us to “go and do likewise.” He just describes what he sees. Combined with his ongoing critique of the religious establishment, this tells us he is more likely lamenting. Even accusing.

This woman, the widow, has no way to support herself. The men in her life are supposed to be doing that. That’s the plan; that’s how this ancient Middle Eastern culture honors its connections; that’s how it was supposed to work. But for some reason, the system isn’t working. We don’t know whether her male relatives refused to take her in, or whether they’ve all died. We do know that Torah requires that widows be cared for. Again and again, widows and orphans are lifted up as those who need society’s care because they can’t fend for themselves. And again and again, the Old Testament prophets condemn the rich and powerful for failing to do so. Jesus echoes those prophets with his warning at the beginning of the passage: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes … They devour widows’ houses” – shorthand for taking pretty much everything they own – “and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

Something is broken. Instead of taking care of widows and orphans, the system somehow encourages these preening scribes, swishing about in their long robes. Perhaps these scribes mismanaged this or other widows’ property; perhaps they took their houses as collateral for debts. In any case, the tragedy was this: this widow has been encouraged by the tradition to donate as she does, but no one should be expected to give “all she has to live on,” particularly when she isn’t being cared for as the tradition promised her. Jesus is condemning the hypocrisy and injustice that allow this woman to be poor in the first place, and then keep her poor.

It won’t be news to any of you that Jesus would have us stand up for those who are most vulnerable, stand against laws or customs that exploit the poor. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about this exchange, and maybe the heart of the passage, is that Jesus notices the woman in the first place. He sees her. This widow is just one in the crowd, with a small, even paltry offering. Yet Jesus sees her. “Whatever it is that he wants his disciples to learn from her, perhaps the first lesson is simply to notice her. … To acknowledge her person, her being, her plight, and her offering. She is not, in the end, an object lesson.”[5] She isn’t a poster child for a cause, for the reform of a religious institution that has lost its way. She is a person. “Easily unseen, even invisible, yet worthy of Jesus’ attention, and ours.”[6]