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.” 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 and, eventually, his death.
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?
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.” 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.”
Who are we not seeing as we go about our daily lives? Or who is it that we see, but don’t really see? The writer of the letter to the Ephesians talks about seeing “with the eyes of the heart.” “The eyes of the heart” is a metaphor used across cultures. In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book, The Little Prince, the prince says, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” A way of seeing with the eye of the heart and the mind is what Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday calls “reciprocal appropriation.” That is where, writes Momaday, “man invests himself in [what he sees] and at the same time incorporates [what he sees] into his own most fundamental experience.” In other words, when you see something or someone with the eyes of the heart, you give yourself to it, and it gives itself to you. You connect; you develop a relationship with it. You let it touch you; you let it impact you. The word we use to describe that relationship is compassion. “Compassion,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” We are woven together.
Friday and yesterday were the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the night of “broken glass” – when the Nazi persecution of their Jewish neighbors began in deadly earnest. The problem was not that the Nazis didn’t notice the Jews living around them, but rather that they would not see them with the eyes of the heart. They did not see them as genuine human beings deserving compassion and respect, as kin in the larger human family, let alone as kindred children of God. Rather, they saw them as opponents to be feared. When we do not notice people, we are apt to forget or ignore them. That in itself, that choice to ignore our fellow human beings and their perspectives, concerns, needs or plights, is brokenness. It is disconnection. When we go a step further and do not see others as human – because we have been taught to fear or despise them – we are likely to treat them inhumanely, with violence, as we’ve seen played out all too frequently in recent months.
When I’ve seen photos of neo-Nazis and swastikas in the news lately, I can’t help but wonder whether my father, a World War II veteran, is rolling over in his grave. He would certainly be heartbroken. World War II: Talk about sacrificial giving. Would we as a nation be where we are now if more World War II veterans who put their lives on the line, who lost friends and loved ones, were still around? More people who saw the Holocaust with the eyes of the heart? I think not. It is Veterans Day today – tomorrow is the day off school but Veterans Day remains November 11th. Veterans are often used as patriotic tropes in our country, but how often do we see veterans with the eyes of the heart? Between 2008 and 2016, more than 6,000 veterans committed suicide each year, and the rate of suicide is dramatically higher for younger vets. About a quarter of all homeless people in this country are veterans. Those of us who worked at the REST shelter have seen this statistic up close and personal. Maybe a day off of school and excessive flag-waving isn’t the best way to see, to thank and to honor our veterans.
The REST shelter is a powerful example of what it looks like to see with the eyes of the heart. I confess that prior to our congregation’s involvement with the REST shelter I was as likely as those scribes to look away from people I saw on the street who I was pretty sure were homeless. I was likely to look away from those encampments under freeway overpasses. It isn’t that I didn’t care about homelessness; it isn’t that I didn’t recognize it was a systemic and structural problem; it isn’t that I didn’t believe that something in our society was broken and needed to be fixed. But what Jesus is showing us in the Mark passage is that it isn’t knowing all that that changes people. It isn’t an abstract commitment to justice; it isn’t knowing Torah backwards and forwards; it isn’t the law that changes hearts. It’s seeing people. Noticing them; connecting with their lives. Seeing them with the eyes of the heart, and recognizing there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for them, too.
We call today Together We Serve Sunday. It’s kind of a long story but some of you will not have heard it. This congregation was established as the Seminary Church on November 14, 1897, and became First Presbyterian Church about 10 years later. So in November, we celebrate the church’s birthday. The “Together We Serve” part began when one of our dear, departed saints, Jean Holm’s husband Johnny Holm, used to close his church-related correspondence with, “Together we serve.” It caught on with the rest of the congregation when he was chair of the search committee that called Chandler Stokes, the pastor who served this church in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s. It became the church’s motto, our website URL, and the title of the hymn we’ll sing at the close or worship, a hymn composed for the congregation’s 100th birthday and that’s now in the Presbyterian Hymnal. Many of us still close our letters with, “Together we serve” to remind ourselves and others that, for one thing, our commitment to Christ is not an abstraction. It is service; it is a concrete, visible, courageous and formidable way of being in the world. And for another, that this commitment, this service, this living out of our discipleship is something we do together. It connects us. We are, as Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, woven together.
When Jesus notices the widow, sees her with the eyes of the heart, he reminds us that while “Together We Serve” is certainly an affirmation of our connection as a community, it points to our connections beyond the community. We are empowered and inspired and granted the courage to keep on doing the good work we do in God’s name when we see the people we serve, both within and beyond the congregation, with the eyes of the heart. When we notice them, and connect with compassion, because as Jesus shows us, that is God’s way. When we are touched in ways that we grasp the truth that we are all woven together. David Lose writes, “… I think God is inviting us to look around and see each other, those in our community we know and those we don’t. And I mean really see each other – the pain of those who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, the desolation of those who cannot find work and have been abandoned to fend for themselves, the despair of those who have given up on finding work and have lost hope, the anguish of those who have been exploited by sex traffickers. God is inviting us to see them, to care for them, and to advocate for a system that does not leave anyone behind.”
God sees their struggles and cares; God sees all our struggles and cares. And God believes in us enough to use us to make a difference. God sends us out to look for where God is already at work and to join God’s efforts to see those in distress, help them find comfort and relief, and work for a more just world. Together, we serve.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 George Gaylord Simpson, quoted in Peter Steinke, Healthy Congregations (Lanham, MD: Alban Books for Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 3.
 David Lose, “Surprisingly Good News,” November 4, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/pentecost-24-b-surprisingly-good-news/
 David Lose, “Seeing the Widow,” November 9, 2018, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/11/pentecost-25-b-seeing-the-widow/.
 David Lose, “Seeing the Widow,” ibid.
 Celeste, Yacoboni, “Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart,” January 3, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/seeing-with-the-eyes-of-the-heart_us_586adacde4b04d7df167d6c7.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1973, 1993), 18.
 VA National Suicide Report 2005-2016, September 2018, https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/OMHSP_National_Suicide_Data_Report_2005-2016_508.pdf.
 “Together We Serve,” Daniel Charles Damon, composer; # 767 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal. The hymnal adds this background information: “The ﬁrst three words of this text appear in the website address for First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, California, for whose centennial the hymn was commissioned. The text draws on Ephesians 4:11–16, a passage describing the many gifts and ministries within the body of Christ.” [ https://www.togetherweserve.org/. ]
 David Lose, “Surprisingly Good News,” ibid.