In his book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, Jimmy Carter identifies “the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge as the deprivation and abuse of women and girls,” (3).
Carter calls achieving rights for women “the human and civil rights struggle of our time.” His commitment to seeking equal rights for the world’s women comes from decades of circling the globe working to eradicate poverty. In his travels, Carter has seen it again and again: the vast majority of the world’s poor are women.
It’s an insight Jesus was tuned into. A case in point is today’s story of the widow’s mite. We heard the story a couple of weeks ago on Consecration Sunday. Matthew chose the text for his sermon that day and used it to help us reflect on our own stories of giving.
As with most Bible stories, there are as many ways to interpret them as there are interpreters. Today, I invite us to look at the story of the widow’s mite through another lens, the one President Carter looked through in his book: the lens of impoverished women.
The scene comes after a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. If you were here last week, some of this will sound familiar. Jesus upends the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, enraged at their exploitation of the poor. When the religious authorities ask the source of Jesus’ authority to do such a thing, he refuses to answer. When they ask about paying taxes, he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Another non-answer. When the Saducees ask about the resurrection, he pretty much buries them.
The only word of praise Jesus offers anyone in Mark 12 is the teacher who asks about the greatest commandment. Jesus says to love God and love your neighbor, then tells the guy he’s not far from the kindom of God. After that, remember, no one dared ask him any question.
Which I’m sure is a big relief to Jesus. Now that people aren’t interrupting him with all their questions, he’s able to get some actual teaching done. The lesson just before this scene? ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
And as soon as he says it—boom! Who should show up to pay her Temple fees, but a destitute widow, who, amidst all the rich folks putting in their large sums, quietly slips in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” Jesus sees the widow, then invites the disciples to see her, too: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
So…what do you think Jesus is doing here? Is he using the widow as a role model for sacrificial giving? “If this poor woman is giving everything she has, why aren’t you giving more?” If we looked only at the one scene with Jesus and the disciples observing the widow, it might make sense to interpret it that way.
But looking at the scene in light of everything that’s gone before, that interpretation doesn’t make as much sense. Remember, the price-gouging of the moneychangers at the Temple enraged Jesus. He dismissed several questions about Jewish law before he announced that the entire law could be summed up by loving God and loving neighbor. Then we get that part where he warns people to beware of the religious authorities, who “devour widows’ houses.”
Which begs the question: Is Jesus drawing the disciples’ attention to the widow because she’s doing everything right? Or is he inviting them to question a religious system that’s got it dead wrong? What kind of system would require a widow to give “everything she had to live on” to the Temple? I’m reminded of the words of Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, who said, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist.” Might Jesus be inviting the disciples to ask why the poor are poor, to question the social and religious systems that created poverty and exploited the impoverished?
Though Jesus doesn’t explicitly refer to the woman’s gender, her poverty is no doubt directly related to her gender. In first century Palestine, women without men had nothing, no social standing, no safety net, no income.
The same is true for many women around the globe in the 21st century. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call poverty a form of what Jimmy Carter has named “gender abuse.” In an open letter to Pope Francis in September, Sr. Joan Chittister made the connection between women and poverty explicit.
“Dear Pope Francis: Your visit to the United States is important to us all. We have watched you make the papacy a model of pastoral listening. You have become for us a powerful reminder of Jesus, who walked among the crowds listening to them, loving them–healing them.
“Your commitment to poverty and mercy, to the lives of the poor and the spiritual suffering of many–however secure they may feel materially–gives us new hope in the integrity and holiness of the Church itself. A church that is more about sin than the suffering of those who bear the burdens of the world is a puny church, indeed. In the face of the Jesus who consorted with the most wounded, the most outcast of society, all the time judging only the judgers, your insistence is the lesson of a lifetime for the self-righteous and the professionally religious.
“It is with this awareness that we raise two issues here: The first is the dire poverty to which you draw our attention ceaselessly. You refuse to allow us to forget the inhumanity of the barrios everywhere, the homeless on bank steps in our own society, the overworked, the underpaid, the enslaved, the migrant, the vulnerable and those invisible to the mighty of this era.
“You make the world see what we have forgotten. You call us to do more, to do something, to provide the jobs, the food, the homes, the education, the voice, the visibility that bring dignity, decency and full development.
“But there is a second issue lurking under the first that you yourself may need to give new and serious attention to as well. The truth is that women are the poorest of the poor. Men have paid jobs; few women in the world do. Men have clear civil, legal and religious rights in marriage; few women in the world do. Men take education for granted; few women in the world can expect the same. Men are allowed positions of power and authority outside the home; few women in the world can hope for the same. Men have the right to ownership and property; most of the women of the world are denied these things by law, by custom, by religious tradition. Women are owned, beaten, raped and enslaved regularly simply because they are female. And worst of all, perhaps, they are ignored–rejected–as full human beings, as genuine disciples, by their churches, including our own.
“It is impossible, Holy Father, to be serious about doing anything for the poor and at the same time do little or nothing for women.
“I implore you to do for the women of the world and the church what Jesus did for Mary who bore him, for the women of Jerusalem who made his ministry possible, for Mary of Bethany and Martha to whom he taught theology, for the Samaritan Woman who was the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, for Mary of Magdala who is called the Apostle to the Apostles, and for the deaconesses and leaders of the house churches of the early church. Until then, Holy Father, nothing can really change for their hungry children and their inhuman living conditions.
“We’re glad you are here to speak to these things. We trust you to change them, starting with the Church itself.”
Strong words, insightful words, and yes, prophetic words. The role of prophets is to draw attention to injustice, speak truth to power, and then show us how to live in new ways, ways more in keeping with God’s hopes for every person in the world—ways of justice, ways of well-being, ways of love.
I don’t think we’d have much debate about whether or not to call Sr. Joan Chittister a prophet. One commentator also has called the widow in today’s Gospel lesson a prophet, “the widowed prophet,” she names her. This preacher suggests that by dropping her last two coins—all she had to live on—into the Temple coffers, the widow was drawing attention to injustice, her action spoke truth to power; and all who witnessed her action were invited to live in new, more just and more loving ways.
Hear today’s Gospel story one more time. See if it might say to you something you’ve never heard before. Listen carefully and see what prophetic words this 1st century widow might be speaking to us 21st century people.
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
If you respond to these words, then for you they have become the word of the living God. Thanks be to God!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
The Widow’s Offering
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’