Monday, November 9, 2015

The Poor Widow & The Temple Treasury

A parishioner approaches his priest.  “I have some bad news.  My old car finally gave up the ghost and yesterday I went to buy a brand new one.  The problem is my car payment is the same amount as my monthly pledge and I can’t do both.  I really need a new car and I hope you will understand.”  The priest, very excited, says, “I think I’ll go down to the dealership.  I didn’t realize you can buy a new car for that little.”

The Widow’s mite.  It is an enduring phrase that survives in our contemporary lexicon even though most people don’t know its origin in the bible.  If I had a penny for every stewardship sermon ever preached based on this story I would have a whole lot of mites.  I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news: I am not going to preach another stewardship sermon based on this text.  The bad news: by the time I am done, you just might wish I had.

Let’s put this story into context.  It is Tuesday in the week of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem.  On Sunday Jesus entered the city riding a donkey – a very intentional act with messianic implications.  Mark tells us Jesus enters the Temple and takes in the entire scene, but because it is late he leaves for the evening. 

On Monday he returns to the Temple.  Normally a busy place, during the Passover it resembles Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  Perhaps more than a million people have poured into the city for the festival.  They are obligated to offer various sacrifices while there.  Many have travelled long distances, making transporting the various animals required for these religious obligations quite difficult.  Over the years the Temple has developed a tidy way to deal with the problem.  They have set up a system that allows pilgrims to offer money rather than animals. 

Now, the most common form of currency at the time was a Roman coin that bore the image of the emperor, who claimed to be divine.  Temple officials held these inscripted coins contained a graven image and thus were unsuitable as an offering.  No problem, money exchangers set up shop in the Temple courts so pilgrims could trade Roman coins for currency acceptable as an offering.  Of course there was a cost for this service and moneychangers were notorious for exploiting a profit any way possible.  Jesus’ first act in the Temple is to turn over the tables of the moneychangers, claiming God’s house should be a place a prayer, not a den for thieves and robbers.  His act does not bring an end to this process.  It only disrupts it momentarily.  Still, it makes a statement and reveals Jesus’ deep dislike for what God’s Temple has become.

Now it is Tuesday and Jesus has returned.  If the Temple officials were leery of him before the incident on Monday, imagine their concern now.   A group is sent to confront him.  They demand to know by what authority he does what he does.  They challenge Jesus with a serious of questions, aiming to discredit him or, even worse, to find legal grounds on which to arrest him.

Once this confrontation ends, Jesus is sitting in the Temple courtyard women were allowed to enter.  It was sixty feet square with a colonnade running along its interior walls.  Thirteen wooden boxes known as Trumpets were located in the colonnade.  Each box had a trumpet-shaped funnel mounted on it.  Wide at the top and narrow as it came to the box, it was designed to catch coins pilgrims dropped into the various boxes.  Each box was designated for a specific purpose or sacrifice.  Worshipers were obligated to contribute to the first nine boxes while the last four were strictly voluntary.

Jesus is watching masses of people drop coins into these various boxes while at the same time scrutinizing Temple officials as they glide around in fancy cloths.  They are pompous figures who feed on the respect people must offer to them.  Their prayers are long and elaborate and intended only to impress those who are listening.  Jesus is absolutely disgusted with the entire scene.  The hypocrisy of it galls him.  He comes from humble roots and knows first-hand the toll these taxes take on the poor.  He knows what it cost his family and people in his community to feed this religious machine.  What sense does it make for a widow to be forced to liquidate her home in order to pay the Temple?  Whatever the original intention for the Temple was, what it has become by Jesus’ day is just plain appalling. 

He notices a poor widow drop two coins into one of the thirteen treasury boxes.  He reckons it is all she has to live on.  Based on his observation, Jesus must wonder how or even if she will survive.  He will be dead on Friday.  Will she even make it that far?  He points out to his disciples the egregious nature of a system where some people can afford to pay the Temple tax out of their abundance but the widow has to surrender everything in order to participate.

Her act is not an example for us to follow.  She is a victim of a very powerful and deeply corrupt system.  We should not feel ashamed that our pledge to the church is not as costly as hers.  We should feel anger at a system that treats people this way. 

And, as Jesus points out, a system is not some anonymous entity, it is a collection of people who benefit personally from the way things are.  This privileged group oversees a structure that uses religious pretense to take from the poor their marginal resources in order to perpetuate their own lifestyle of prestige and lavish living.  How desperate are these people to protect their system?  Well, about the same time this widow turns over all she has to the Temple treasury, Temple officials take thirty pieces of silver out of it to pay Judas to betray Jesus, whose teaching and actions are a major threat to the racket.

For centuries this story has been used to teach something important about Christian stewardship, but I think we have gotten it wrong all along.  Why would we applaud a destitute woman who was obligated to give her last two pennies to the Temple and then slipped away to starve?  Jesus is not calling us to emulate her example.  He is calling us to weep.  And to rage.

And maybe, just maybe, Jesus is calling his followers to give their lives to expose injustice in any and all forms we encounter it.  “Do you see what she has done?” he says to his followers.  “She has given all that she has, her very ‘life’ (bios in the Greek, a part of the root of our word biology – the study of life).  We will never know to what degree her example solidifies in Jesus’ mind what he must do, but in three days he too will give his bios to expose the Temple system for what it is.  As such, she is not a model for parishioners to follow at pledge time.  Rather, she is a courageous, prophetic figure more akin to Rosa Parks than a generous giver.

Well, I said earlier you might end up wishing this was just another stewardship sermon.  It seems to me what is difficult about what I have said is figuring out what to do with it.  Many preachers and many listeners might go from this point into the waters of politics; focusing on particular candidates or specific policies that promise to obliterate unjust systems and champion the cause of the oppressed.  This tact reduces your Christian obligation to walking into a voting booth and pulling a specific lever.  Even worse, it reduces Jesus’ glorious vision of the kingdom of God to support of one political party or the other. 

For me, I take away from this a mandate to reform and transform.  Neither is easy or clear.  It calls us to shift our charitable mindset from “doing good” to fostering new life.  Again, easier said than done.  Bill and Dixie Peachy have a vision of this through their support of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Suffolk.  It is an organization that seeks not to give ‘things’ to ‘needy’ people, but to foster life-changing and life-enhancing relationships transforming our community.

I would life to think that our Christmas Giving Opportunities are cut from the same cloth.  Boys Home of Virginia in Covington and Jackson-Feild Home in Jarret touch the lives of teenage boys and girls who are alone, disadvantaged, at risk, or who have struggled to find a way through our traditional educational process.  Our project will provide a modest Christmas for five youngsters at each institution and, through the grace of God, will encourage them on their path to a better life.

What we contribute to Episcopal Relief & Development will provide a wide array of resources to elevate the lives of a few specific people in a particular community:

· 100 trees for reforestation of a devastated area.

· A micro-credit loan that will engender economic opportunity.

· Three goats that will provide milk, cheese, manure to improve farming, and will reproduce quickly (everything on most of our Christmas wish lists, I’m sure!)

· A clean water source for three people.

· A care package for three newborns to improve health and quality of life at a time when infants are most susceptible to malnutrition and disease.  

“Do you see that poor widow over there?”  It is a question Jesus asked of his disciples and asks of us.  It is a great paradox in our time that we have the ability to see people scattered over every corner of our planet while at the same time feel so helpless to make a difference, even though we have more resources and opportunities at our disposal than ever before.  I invite you to join me in noticing the ‘poor widow’, in being aware of how systems and structures perpetuate hopelessness, and doing what you can to make things different.