Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
I know that the gospel we just read sounds like a perfect segue into an annual giving sermon, right? Poor woman gives her last two coins to her place of worship, and Jesus commends her for it. One would think that the compilers of the lectionary planned this all just for us: we launched our annual giving season with Jesus telling a rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and we bookend it today with a woman actually giving it all away.
It’s just that I’m not sure that’s quite the right way to look at this scene with this woman. It seems to me that Jesus is actually making more of a critique of the scribes than he is lifting up this widow’s example.
Let’s step back for just a minute and realize where we are in Mark’s telling of the Jesus story. He’s already made the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He’s thrown the moneychangers out of the temple and told a parable about some wicked tenants, answered a question about paying taxes andabout resurrection, and then our reading today opens with his challenge of the scribes, whom he describes as prancing around looking for the place of honor and elevating themselves at the expense of the poor. “They devour widow’s houses,” he says, and “say long prayers” to make themselves look good (12:40).
And as if on cue, in walks a widow to make her offering. Now, the custom was that priests would be sitting near the treasury where large trumpet-shaped receptacles were placed for people to make their offering. When they dropped their coins in, the people were to say loudly how much it was and what it was for. This was a great way for folk like the scribes to show how important that are.
But this widow has two little coins that hardly made a sound as they went into the container. She was probably as silent as her offering, yet in Jesus’s eyes, what she was doing set her aright in God’s eyes, just the opposite of his words to the scribes that they would receive “greater condemnation” (12:40). They strut around, chests puffed out, probably making a lot of noise when they make their offerings – offerings made out of their wealth. The widow gave from her poverty. In fact, in saying she gave “all she had,” the Greek word is from the root bios,or life.She was giving her very life.
Now, I don’t happen to think it’s a great idea to give your last two pennies to the church. This woman had no backup plan. As a widow, there was likely no one to take care of her, to feed her. The model that she provides, though, is that she is living a transformed life, one that is so utterly and completely trusting of God that she can give her life to God, trusting in God’s care for her.
And the scribes? They devour widow’s houses, according to Jesus. This widow is not poor through any fault of her own. She is poor because she has been used and abused by a system that keeps the poor impoverished and the rich wealthy.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have this widow and another widow, Naomi, in the Hebrew scriptures as our lessons for today. Because last week was All Saints’ Day and we used the readings for that day rather than the ones in the series of lectionary readings we have been following, we missed the first part of the Ruth story. So, here’s a summary:
Naomi and her husband left Bethlehem during a famine and relocated to Moab (modern-day Jordan) across the Dead Sea from Israel. Eventually he dies and she is left with two sons who marry local girls. Then they die, leaving her with these two Moabite daughters-in-law. So Naomi tells them she is going home to Bethlehem and for them to return to their families. One does so (the one named Orpah, which is where Oprah got her name except her mother inverted the letters). Ruth, however, says those beautiful words to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
We don’t really know how Naomi felt about this. Taking home a foreign woman could have been risky for her, or at least an inconvenience. Nevertheless, Ruth went home with Naomi and managed to catch the eye of a rich relative of Naomi’s, eventually marrying him and becoming great-grandmother to the great King David. And this is important because Jesus is descended from David which means he is also descended of this Moabite woman named Ruth.
This widow, Naomi, is a refugee when she flees the famine with her husband. She returns home a widow and with a foreign woman in tow. There were no guarantees that she and Ruth would be able to survive. The plight of widows was harsh in the ancient Near East, but Jewish laws about leaving the gleanings in the field for the poor to gather helped to feed Naomi and Ruth. The generosity of Boaz, the man Ruth would marry, saved them – from starvation; from abuse of the workers in the field; from being shunned as outsiders not entitled to the same benefits as the native-born.
After the passage of centuries, there did not appear to be a field in which to glean for the poor widow in the temple. And not only was she not protected, to hear Jesus tell it, she was a victim of oppression that made her life miserable.
And yet she trusted God to provide anyway, giving of her poverty everything that she had. We have a hard enough time giving of our wealth, and that, too, is the critique Jesus aims at the scribes. Once you have privilege, it’s really hard to believe that we didn’t make it on our own.
Today, we will bring forward our pledge cards, our promise to dedicate a portion of our life and labor to the work of God through this congregation. It is our opportunity to trust that God will provide and to be so transformed by that trust that giving becomes a cause for joy and celebration.
A few weeks ago, I told you about our relationship with a hospital in Haiti and the feeding program, Rise Against Hunger, that got Tim connected with the hospital as well as an orphanage and school in Grison Garde in northern Haiti. Back in 2003, a young orphan named Lovelie came to the orphanage where she thrived, excelled in school, and eventually went on to study nursing. She is now working as a nurse at the orphanage and serving as the local medical contact for medical teams from the US that support Haitian medical providers. When she was hired, she told them not to worry about how much to pay her because they had already given her so much. That is the kind of generosity that leads to transformation.
Did you read the newsletter essay written by Tom and Michele Postema, about a woman who sets aside a portion of her income and gleefully gave it away? It’s a story I hear over and over again – the more I give the more joy there is in my life. We can make ourselves pretty miserable as we amass more and more that we have to protect, and that applies to status, to possessions, to money, to anything that we invest in as if it’s going to save us from hardship or trouble or death. There is nothing that will protect us from any of that.
But there is a lot that we can do, that we can give, to help protect others from hunger, poverty, need, loneliness, homelessness. We can transform their lives even while we are being transformed by our own generosity. What makes the story of this widow so compelling is that Jesus actually sees her. There is no question that in the noise and the crowds, no one else took notice of her, but Jesus did. Jesus sees her. Jesus sees us. Jesus sees the small and the insignificant and the lowly and the broken and raises up that as an example. So maybe our lesson is not just to give, not just to gloss over the need of our world, but to see the people beloved of God who are so vulnerable to poverty and hunger. I can’t promise you that we’ll change the world, but I can promise you that we will all be changed as we live into this season of transforming generosity.