One of the things I like about the branch of the Church into which God has placed me is the use of a defined Lectionary, or schedule of scripture readings to be used throughout the year. One of the reasons I like this is that it is another way of removing the preacher from the throne, while leaving him in the pulpit: His (and her) task is to explain, expound and apply the Bible, not to cherry-pick the verses that fit his particular slant. But, like anything derived by humans to keep us out of trouble, “the rules” sometimes provide their own slant on the text. I believe that this may have happened the last two Sundays.
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said …
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
(The Gospel according to St. Mark, Chapter 12:35 – Chapter 13:4)
The readings are broken up into the section commonly called “the widow’s mite” and, with the start of Chapter 13, a teaching about the last days. But the chapter markings, like our lectionary divisions, are not inspired by anyone’s reckoning. The divisions are placed there simply for our convenience and aid in referring to a particular passage so as to find it again, and are of comparatively recent origin.
Some years ago, I heard a preacher read the story as I have placed it above, without the chapter division. The common point of the first section is to commend the faithful, sacrificial giving of the widow, giving to God’s work without regard to her own need. The work of God came first! She is to be praised, and we should do likewise.
And so she should be.
But I think that perhaps Jesus had another point in mind-
The context is that Jesus was teaching in the Temple, engaging with Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees about a number of issues about religion, and how the religion should relate to the state. But then Jesus says to beware of such people, they like the good things that come from being known as religious, but they live by devouring the sustenance of the poor. And along comes this poor widow, who provides exactly the illustration!
Our numbering system breaks the next sentence into the following chapter, but I think it is probably the conclusion of THIS teaching: Jesus followers exult in the glory of the edifice of their faith, the magnificence of the Temple. But Jesus replies that the system that produces such structures, that “delights to wear long robes…” and “Make long prayers for pretense” while being financed by taking “All she had to live on” from the poor, whom the people of God should especially nurture and protect (according to the Law and the Prophets); well, this system is coming DOWN! Such a way is NOT part of the kingdom of God, and will not be part of His kingdom. It is the corruption and distortion, which we habitually inflict on the things God would teach us. If memory serves, after sins of idolatry, the thing most raved against by the prophets was the exploitation, or the failure to protect, the widows and orphans, the powerless and vulnerable. James reminds us from this side of the cross, that true religion involves caring for the widow and the orphan in their distress.
Given the prominence of this theme, it seems entirely consistent that Jesus, while praising the widow for her own faith-in-action, was focused on the false system which led to such exploitation of those who should be protected – that took the place of worship of the living God, and turned it into a “den of thieves”
So, am I advocating a “social Gospel” which defines the role of the Church as social action? No. But I don’t rule it out. That is for God to do. I am quite conservative, in my politics and my understanding of societal forces, as well as in my theology. But that may be more to my point: It is for people like me to hear the warning in Jesus’ words. And in James. And, for that matter, in 1 Corinthians 13. If we get, if I get so wrapped up in religious questions that I am careless about the poor, then I have missed it. If I care more about discussing the love of God than about the exploitation (perhaps by me) of “the least of these,” then I am discussing something when I know absolutely nothing about it, and am no more than a clanging gong.