Mark 12:38-44 / Proper 26B / 11 November 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
The theme this morning seems to be widows. The widow at Zarephath with whom the prophet Elijah stayed. The widows whose houses were devoured by the religious scribes who made a big show of their religiosity. And the poor widow who came into the temple courtyard in view of Jesus and His disciples, who dropped two copper pennies into the temple treasury, everything she had.
Widows have a special place in the heart of God. Think of Ruth, a young widow, and her mother-in-law, and older widow. Or Anna who was with Simeon in the temple, widowed for most of her life. Paul reminds Pastor Timothy to “honor widows who are real widows” (apparently there were some who weren’t genuinely widowed). He reminds everyone that it is their religious duty of families to care for their widowed relatives. He makes provision in the church to care for those widows who truly have no one to care for them. James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. Clearly, the widow is of special interest with the Lord.
She is one notch below the beggar, in that she not only has nothing but has no means of support. In the societies of the Bible, women were not self-supporting and generally could not live on their own. Young women remarried, as Ruth did. Older women usually lived with relatives. The widow who had no one in this world was particularly vulnerable.
Such was the widow at Zarephath, a town in Sidon, up on the north coast, far from Jerusalem and the center of Israel. She wasn’t an Israelite, not one of God’s people, the insiders. She was, what the Israelites called one of the “goyim,” the nations, the outsiders. That makes Elijah’s visit all the more significant, as the Lord specifically tells Elijah to go there and specifically tells her to welcome him. And Israel, and we, are reminded once again, that God’s mercy knows no boundaries, that the blessing that was to come through Israel was not just for Israel but for all the nations, for the whole world. For this widow.
Like Old Mother Hubbard, this widow’s cupboard was bare. A handful of flour, a tiny bit of oil. Enough for a tiny loaf of bread to share with her son. A single mom unable to make ends meet. It’s not a new story, is it? And now there’s a guest. Another mouth to feed and where will she get enough flour and oil?
Elijah assures her. “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son.” She could have said no. She could have taken care of herself and her son first, never mind this stranger. But she does as the prophet tells her. All she knows is that she barely has enough flour and oil to feed her son and her. But she bakes the first loaf for Elijah. And then she reaches into her flour jar and oil a second time, and there’s more. Enough for both of them. And then more. And even more. Every time she reaches into her flour jar, there is enough for her daily bread.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Bread sufficient for the day, and not a crumb more. Or if a crumb more, than better to share it with Lazarus at the end of the driveway. But the old Adam will not have it this way. He would pray, “Give us today enough bread for a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, so I won’t have to work or worry any more.” Old Adam would feed himself first, take care of number one, before he gave any of it away to this stranger. That’s the sensible thing to do, isn’t it?
The manna in the wilderness lasted but one day. Except on Friday when it lasted two. If you tried to store it, it would rot. Give us this day our daily bread.
We want more and assurances there will be more. Like the rich fool planning for barns he didn’t need to store grain he would never eat. We store and hoard and acquire until we’re literally choking. “Greed is idolatry,” Paul says. Idolatry goes on in the heart unbuckled from God, a heart that seeks security in things, in bread, in wealth, in whatever promises to keep us safe, secure, and well-fed and happy.
“The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that He spoke by Elijah.” I imagine this was much like Jesus’ multiplying the loaves and the fish in the wilderness. He just kept breaking off more bread and more fish and it just didn’t run out, but the one thing you never saw was a big pile of bread and fish. All you ever say was those five loaves and two fish. All the widow ever saw, was the jar of flour and that cruet of olive oil. And every time she came to it, there was more, “according to the word of the Lord.”
The Word. It creates out of nothing. It multiplies the meager. The Word of the Lord brings daily bread. And that poor Gentile widow, who had nothing, trusted that Word of the Lord spoken by Elijah, and God cared for her and did not let her starve or her son.
Unlike Elijah, the scribes were known for bilking widows out of the homes. Like the televangelists today who prey on the homebound who watch them on TV, the scribes made easy marks of the helpless widows with their pretensions of religion. Instead of helping them, the scribes took advantage of them for their own profit. Their condemnation is great. God doesn’t take kindly to defrauding widows.
While they are sitting in the temple courtyard, another widow entered with her offering. Offerings went into these metal trumpets with long necks that ensured that lots of coins made lots of clatter as they went down. When the rich came, there was great excitement and a great noise as all their coins clanged down the neck of the treasury box. And then this poor widow came. And there was no great sound, nothing to draw anyone’s attention. Just plink, plink. Two little copper pennies. Plink, plink. Nobody would notice, much less hear.
Jesus heard. He heard that little, barely audible plink, plink. What He heard was faith, trust, a widow’s trust in the goodness and mercy of God who cares for the widow and the orphan. Faith that dared to give the last bit of flour and oil to the prophet. Faith that dared to put the last two pennies into the collection plate. “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” That’s what the accountants would say, but Jesus’ accounting methods are a bit different. It’s not the amount. It’s faith. Faith alone. Sola fide. It’s all that matters before God.
The poor widow held those two precious pennies with the dead hand of faith. That’s how she could so easily let go of them. She was dead to them and alive to God. Everyone else contributed out of abundance; she out of poverty. Those two pennies – plink, plink – they were all she had.
I doubt that any of us, I know for a fact that I am not putting everything I have in the collection plate this morning. And while it may be a bit more than plink, plink there is no reason for pride or boasting in our generosity. This poor widow’s two pennies will rise up to testify against us. She’s there to keep us from being proud of our giving and to call us to repent of our distrust of the Lord and His goodness.
Luther said at the end of his life, “We are all beggars.” It’s the truth. Before God, we are as empty as that poor widow’s flour jar. We have nothing to offer God. Yet He does something with His Word that we cannot do for ourselves. He forgives us. He baptizes us, joins us to Jesus’ death and life. He feeds us with a bread we cannot make for ourselves – the bread of His body, the wine of His blood. In the midst of Sin’s famine, to our utter lack and emptiness, to our spiritual hunger and thirst for righteousness, God in Christ gives us the Bread of Life, Christ, living Bread come down from heaven.
That’s what the scribes didn’t realize with their long robes and longer prayers and even longer religion. They didn’t recognize how impoverished they were. They didn’t see themselves in the very widows whose houses they were devouring. They didn’t see the one needful thing in Jesus, whose death and resurrection is the core and substance of faith.
How did that poor widow survive when she returned home from the temple? How did she have enough money to buy food? Where would she get more to replace those two copper pennies? We don’t know. Jesus knows. And He knows you too. And He cares for you. Your anxieties will never put a single crumb of bread on the table. But the Word of the Lord will give you living Bread forever. Trust in the Lord and in His Word and you will never be put to shame.
The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
In the name of Jesus,