Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Listen to this teaching that Mark records, “For all gave out of their abundance, but she from her lack gave all she had, her whole life.”
Two points and two lessons for today as we tell the tale of two widows. One is asked day after day to measure out the last of her food, and day after day God fills her with just enough; the other is moved to measure out all she had to live on. One forms a trusting bond with the prophet Elijah in a time of extreme need; the other may not have even known she would be memorialized in this book. One was called to extravagantly give away all she had for food and the other gave away extravagantly all the money she had to live on.
The first point for today is that widows were vulnerable. From the books of Moses, we find God to be the one who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner.” (Deut. 10:18) The prophets rail against those who “turn aside the needy from justice that widows may be their spoil and that they may make the fatherless their prey” (Is. 10:2). The early church cared especially for widows, taking up collections for them (Acts 6), and James sums the whole Christian vocation of service in these words: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
And the question is, why? Why is this class singled out? And next question is, why do they show up here in the text? But, first things first. Why is this class singled out in the Scriptures? Widows are those who had married but lost their husbands. They could be young, but many times “Widow” refers to someone who is older. In the times of the Bible, they are especially vulnerable because they’re in danger of getting lost in the shuffle, in danger of being cut off from family life, in danger of being forgotten.
So, you might think, “That’s not too bad,” but remember, we live in a time and place where I can hop in a car, drive for a quarter of a day and be 300 miles east, at my parents’ side. We live in a day when you can wash a week’s worth of dishes with a push of a button, when hot water comes at the turn of a faucet. If you lived in a day when to do laundry took a day’s worth of back-breaking labor, when making food very often meant grinding your own grain, making your own flour, baking your own bread, when getting new clothes meant that someone needed to weave them for you, then to surviving became a full-time job. You could have no sick days. But it meant something wore as well: since you fought so hard for yourself, you couldn’t really provide services for the community, you were in danger of being forgotten. Being forgotten was deadly.
It was deadly then and it’s deadly now. It’s deadly now when we spend more time looking into our screens then we spend face to face. It’s deadly when we don’t know our neighbors. It’s deadly because it’s so easy for people to pass through our lives and our town without us even knowing.
So, God had set up special provisions for widows, and he commands his people to look after them especially. So, our first lesson comes in the form of a question: who are our widows and fatherless in our little community? In part, they are the widows and the fatherless, but the question is, what makes people to fall through the cracks in little old Janesville?
Perhaps here we could add to our list young mothers. I know really well these days, it’s hard to be parents even when there are two of you. I don’t know how single moms or dads do it. Or perhaps it’s those moving into low-cost housing here. Even in my short time here I’ve seen people move in, inhabit an apartment and move on, vanishing like a ghost in the night. We have a duty to seek those who fall through the cracks.
And so our second point builds on the first: the second point is that it’s noteworthy in our texts that the widows are the ones giving and acting. It’s noteworthy because they are the ones who had the least resources to give, where every penny, every pinch of flour, every drop of oil is precious. It is precisely their poverty that gives weight to Jesus’ teaching. I mean, would it strike such a cord if a reasonably wealthy kind of a person would give a reasonable gift? Well, no, but that doesn’t quite parallel what happens here. Would it strike such a cord if an extravagantly wealthy person gave away all his wealth in the prime of his life? Instead of pennies, if Jesus praised the millionaire that gave away every one of his millions?
Because you can have the reasonable assumption that a man like that could even in hard times provide for himself. He gives, even if he gives everything, he gives out of his abundance. This is a poor, elderly woman giving away the only pittance she could scrape together, she gives out her poverty.
And its not just her, it’s us too. If the Pharisees, the pastors, the scribes, the professionals, the blue-collars, the working poor, if we were all to describe our spiritual state, we would at the end of the day, only be able to call ourselves spiritually poor.
The reason that Jesus draws attention to the widow is because her status is ours – poverty. Let me count the ways: You get the idea that we’re on the spiritual edge of the cliff every day of our lives. We are living hand to mouth every day, whether we have it all or we barely have our next paycheck. Nothing of this life is assured, and the only reason you take your life for granted is because it hasn’t been taken away yet.
It’s like the old joke…
A man dies and goes to heaven.
St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.” "Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, and loved her deep in my heart."
St. Peter says, “Alright.”
the man says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithes and service." “Very good”
I started a soup kitchen in my city and also worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Good, good," St.Peter says.
"Two points!?!!" Exasperated, the man cries, "At this rate, the only way I'll get into heaven is by the grace of God."
'Bingo! 100 points ! Come on in!'
Or, better, it’s like Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, in the great love chapter, “If I gave away all that I had, delivered up my body to be burned but have not love (read here, have not Jesus, the incarnation of love), I gain nothing.” Without Christ, everything is poverty.
But here’s the second lesson and it’s good news, and it’s two parts. First that Jesus becomes poor for us. It is his riches that keep the world spinning, and he’s the one that gives everything away, all that is rightfully his he chooses not to keep, and he does it in order to become poorer than the poorest widow. On the cross he dumps out the riches of his divinity so that he can take our place, he takes the measure of God’s wrath, the wrath that was supposed to be against us, so that he can load up himself the debt that we have.
If that’s first, this is second: when he rises from the grave, he does so to take up his riches once again, but this time, he gives them out … to us. Jesus, the king of all that really matters, lavishly and extravagantly doles out the riches of the universe upon his people.
It is an extravagant sacrifice that leaves nothing out, that leaves nothing to chance, that bargains all of our God’s divinity against the gaping hole of sin. It is an extravagant sacrifice that takes the widows, the fatherless, those who fall through the cracks, and it makes them to sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
On the last day, God won’t be impressed by budgets, by expanding buildings or big programs. No, his praise won’t be for that – it will be for the people cared for, for the imprisoned that were visited, for the naked that were clothed, for the despised that were loved, the avenues that the people of God gave out mercy through any means necessary. Our God looks to redeem your whole life, and he won’t rest until every one of your desires is lifted up to the heights of his love.
The kingdom of God is like a fight breaking out between middle school boys, where one asks “Do you want a piece of me?!” And the other says, “No, I want the whole thing!”
Just like Pastor Griffin said last week, quoting the commentator Lenski, (I paraphrase): It is God who makes us merciful, and then he rewards us for being merciful. It is God who places the extravagance of love in our hearts and then rewards us for that love. It is God who lifts us up to the heights of heavens and then delights to find us there.
The kingdom of God is like a big church in a small town where the whole church goes around worrying less about cracks in their buildings and more about those who fall through the cracks, where husbands are beginning to learn what extravagant sacrifice for their wives means, where families gather around kitchen tables to wonder together in awe at all that God has provided for them, and how extravagantly he’s equipped them to serve.
We know a little bit about what happened to the Widow at Zarephath – she had more tragedy and more joy in store for her. We don’t particularly know what happened next to the widow that Jesus praises. We don’t even know if she knew she was praised. But for generations to come, this woman and her two pennies are a sign of the extravagance that God places and finds in the hearts of his people.
Amen and amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters