The One to Watch
Scripture - Mark 12:38-44
What would fall be without the widow’s mite? It would be like Thanksgiving without turkey, Christmas without presents, or Easter without eggs. The story of the widow’s mite is the all-time remarkable story of Christian giving, the story of a poor woman who gave everything she had to the church. What the rich young ruler could not do, she did without even being asked, only there was no crowd to witness the liquidation of her estate. It was as easy as uncurling her fingers from around two copper coins & letting them fall into the offering plate. Still damp from her hands, there they made such a small sound that only she could hear it.
As far as she knew, no one even saw her. But then again, no one ever saw her. She was one of life’s minor characters, one of the invisible people who come & go without anyone noticing what they do, or what they have on, or when they leave the room. She was a bit player, one of the extras who ring the stage while the major characters stride around in the middle, dazzling everyone with their costumes & drama.
In the temple scene Mark describes for us, those characters include rich people & scribes – among many, many others, but those are the ones who stand out – people who know that other people are watching them & who seem used to it, even pleased, when heads turn & talking stops for a moment as they make their entrances. Their clothes are splendid, & they fit. They do not hang on them like the clothes of the minor characters. They have shape; they have flair. When these clothes come into a room, they announce that Someone has arrived, someone whom the no-ones both envy & admire – the rich because they have money, & the scribes because they have status.
The scribes of Jesus’ day were the Jerusalem elite, doctors of the law whose long years of study made them the official interpreters of God’s word. They were religious professionals, the ones to whom people turned for guidance & counsel. They were the clergy, who wore long robes, & whose names were listed in the bulletin, & whom people wanted their children to know. However, they were not paid as clergy are today. They were, in fact, forbidden to receive pay for doing their jobs, so they lived on subsidies instead – a little from their students, a little from the poor box, & a little from the temple treasury.
Some scribes were not content with a little, however, & found ways to make a lot more – by using their positions to wrangle invitations to people’s homes, for example, where they accepted the best seats, the best cuts of meat, & the best cups of the best wine.
When they wore out their welcomes, no one dared to tell them so, least of all their poor parishioners, who were glad to spend their savings on such distinguished guests.
So, while the scribes may have been without money, they were not without honor, honor that some of them – not all of them of course, but some of them – turned to their own advantage. When they felt that advantage begin to slip, they could always say, “Let us pray,” reminding everyone whose side they were on. Or they could spend a little more time in the temple, planting themselves there in their long, impressive robes to be seen by those who came to make their offerings to God. The scribes were clearly the people to watch. They were the guardians of the faith, the religious aristocracy, even if they did sponge off those they were supposed to serve.
They were the ones to watch, only Jesus was not watching them in the temple that day. He was not paying attention to what was happening on center stage because he was far more interested in what was going on in the wings, & in one woman in particular. It is hard to know how she caught his attention. She did not catch anyone else’s, that is for sure. She was all used up. Even a scribe could see there was no meat left on her bones. She was out – out of food, out of money, out of what it took for a single woman to scratch her living among people who looked right through her as if she were not there. When she lost her husband, she not only lost her place & her name; she also lost her face. She had become invisible. No one saw her anymore. No one, that is, except Jesus.
He saw her walk to the temple treasury to give up her 2 coins, & something about the way she did it – the length of time she stood there, maybe, or the way she cradled them in her hand like her last 2 eggs – something about the way she did it let him know it was the end for her, that it was everything she had, so that when she surrendered them & turned to go, he knew she had nothing left that was not God’s. Her sacrifice was complete, so complete that he called his disciples over to witness it. I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money into the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.
That is why we know about her today, that nameless woman – because she gave all the little she had, holding nothing back, which made her last penny a fortune in God’s eyes. If you think tithing is heroic, try following her example. She was a percentage giver, all right – 100% - but while she is admired for her generosity, I cannot help but wonder about that.
Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution? Was it right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she? What if she were someone you knew, someone of limited means who decided to send her last dollar to the 700 Club? Would that be admirable, or scandalous? Would it be a good deed or sadly unfortunate?
Note: Nowhere in this passage does Jesus praise the widow for what she is doing. He simply calls his disciples over to notice her, & to compare what she does with what everyone else is doing. He invites them to sit down beside him & contemplate the disparity between abundance & poverty, between large sums & two copper coins, between apparent sacrifice & the real thing. He does not put anyone in the wrong. He does not dismiss the gifts of the rich. He simply points out that the major characters are minor givers, while the minor character – the poor widow – turns out to be the major donor of them all.
It is the last of his dizzying lessons in the upside-down kingdom of God, where the last shall be first, & the great shall be the servant of all, & the most unlikely people will turn out to have been Christ himself in disguise. The poor widow is his last case study. When he leaves the temple with his disciples that day, his public ministry is over. In 4 days, he will be dead, having uncurled his fingers from around his own offering, to give up the two copper coins of his life.
If you ask me, that is why he noticed the poor widow in the first place. She reminded him of someone. It was the end for her; it was the end for him, too. She gave her living to a corrupt church; he was about to give his life for a corrupt world. She withheld nothing from God; neither did he. It took one to know one. When he looked at her it was like looking in a mirror at a reflection so clear that he called his disciples over to see. “Look,” he said to those who tried to follow him. “That is what I have been talking about. Look at her.”
He could not have picked a less likely role model for them. If he had taken a picture of the temple that day & handed it to the disciples with one question – “Where is Christ in this picture?” – they would never have guessed the answer. There were major characters in that room, after all – doctors of the law, patrons of the arts, rich people & smart people, people with names & faces – any one of them a better bet than the thin woman in the widow’s rags, a minor character if there ever was one. “She is the one,” J tells them when their time is up. “The one without a penny to her name, she is the one to watch.”
I wish he had said it to her. It was a great moment, in which the tragedy of her life took on the possibility of meaning. It was a great tribute to her, in which the enormity of her gift was acknowledged, only she never knew it.
She walked into the temple with her last two coins in her hand & she walked out again without them, unaware that she was being watched. As far as she knew, no one even saw her. As far as she knew, no one ever saw her. She came in with no name & she went out with no name, but where did she go? And what did she do, once she had given her life away?
I keep thinking I see her as I drive around town. It would sound better if I told you that I have been looking for her, but that is not true. She is not one of the people I look for; she is more like one of the people I try not to see, but now that J has pointed her out to me, she is harder & harder to miss. The problem is, I am never positive it is her. Only she knows that for sure, but there are certain clues I am willing to share with you.
She is not a main character, for one thing. While her appearances are memorable, they are all cameos; if you have no peripheral vision, you may miss her altogether. Sometimes she is a he, sometimes she is a child. Now you see her, now you don’t. So, if you want to spot her you have to watch, really closely, because you never know where she will turn up next.
The second clue is that she is usually giving something away. Her time, her heart, her living, or her life. The general rule is that you cannot see how much it costs her, but it is almost always more than you think.
The third clue is that what she is doing rarely makes sense by any ordinary human standard. It is as if she gets her orders from another planet, where superior beings know things we do not yet know – like how to let go of the little you have in order to receive the more you do not, or how to trust what you cannot see more than you trust what you can.
That is as far as I have gotten with the clues. But you can come up with some more of your own. Here is what you do. You sit down somewhere where you can get a good look at whatever is going on, & you pay special attention to what is happening out on the edges of your vision, where people are sometimes hard to see. Then you squint your eyes just slightly & you ask yourself: Where is Christ in this picture? And you just might glimpse a saint.