Mark 12:38-44, I Kings 17:8-16
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
This morning, the heroes of both our stories from scripture are widows.
Widows, women whose husbands had died. Women who had no financial support. Women who were pitied. Women who often had children to feed and clothe but no means to do so. Women whose lives were hard—and not beautiful. Women who depended on the kindness of community. In both the Old and New Testaments, when the prophets and apostles and historians tell the story of true religion and God’s justice done, they speak of caring for the widow and the orphan, the most vulnerable people of ancient days. You don’t want to be the widow.
But it would be easy to say that we should be the widow this morning. The widow who donates her very last cent to the temple treasury, a temple large and beautiful. The widow who watches others put riches in the proverbial offering plate and still offers up her small gift. The widow whose trust and faith in God put to shame the scribes who unjustly “devour widows’ houses.” Or we could be the widow of Zarephath to whom God sends the powerful prophet Elijah. The widow and her son who possess just a scrap of meal and a few drops of oil to feed themselves. The non-Jewish widow of Zarephath visited by a Jewish prophet sent by the God of Israel whom she does not worship. The widow who has lost hope to the point that, when this strange prophet turns up demanding food, she shrugs and says: Okay. This was going to be our last meal, but okay. You don’t want to be this widow.
Real poverty, desperation, blatant inequity, these are very hard to see and hear and acknowledge, even if it’s poverty, desperation, and inequity in our own lives. We run the risk of romanticizing these stories, stories of people who honestly and grimly struggled, if we proclaim the greatness of their faith and generosity without recognizing their poverty and vulnerability due to injustice, namely the deep sexism and patriarchy of biblical times. Though sexism and patriarchy have dramatically decreased, inequity and injustice continue in our world in ways I hardly need detail. Jesus and the writer of Kings do not advocate that we bravely and faithfully give our last cent or our last meal for the sake of a powerful institution or a powerful prophet. That’s not the point.
Rather, these women’s faith and courage and generosity remind us that each person is valuable, has dignity, and is as fully human as we are. Of course, this seems very simple but is not. If it were simple, the world would be just, but it is not. Jesus points out the shame of the scribes, that they devour widows’ houses even though the scribes know scripture teaches to care for widows, and then reveals to the disciples the ordinary faith, courage, and generosity of the widow. Her story is not romantic but rather mundane, giving to her religious community, just like every other member does. The same is true of the widow of Zarephath. Confronted with a hungry, thirsty, rather demanding man, she responds to the human need in front of her; she feeds him because that’s what you do when face to face with a person who’s hungry. It’s not so much that these women are heroes so much as ordinary people who do the kind, generous, loving deed. They reveal what God desires, not because of how extraordinary their gifts are but because of how ordinary they are. Rather than declaring them heroes or pitying their vulnerable state, Jesus and the ancient writer of Kings lift up their stories because giving and sharing is what people of God do.
In trying to figure out how to talk about giving and sharing here and now for us, I run into some trouble because the only vivid example is to speak judgmentally about those who give to show off their gift—like the scribes. And the reason the only effective illustration is judgmental is that ordinary people giving and sharing is kind of boring.
Ordinary giving and sharing is the kind where we give the financial gift to the church or elsewhere. The gift is gratefully received and acknowledged but not publicly. We know that our gift has made something possible in the world that we value and need; it’s enough to simply give it. Ordinary giving and sharing is the kind where we show up for each other—maybe at neighborhood meetings or choir practice or at someone’s doorstep with a meal when they are sick or grieving or at 12-step meetings, not just for our sake but the sake of everyone else there. Whether we’re picking up trash in the park or around Grace, cooking meals for our family or church family, spending time with children who just want love and attention, or helping someone with a project, each one of us and our gifts are valuable. In our culture, we appreciate large, heroic gifts that build hospitals and colleges and other institutions of public good, but without the ordinary sharing—of ourselves, our time, our energy, our finances, all that we find beautiful and good and loving would cease. So there is no meaningless gift; there is no valueless person.
The problem with romanticizing or sensationalizing the widow at the temple and the widow of Zarephath is that, embedded deep in our assumptions about these women is the idea that they don’t really matter and that what they can give is not of substance. These stories strike us powerfully because they reverse our assumptions. Jesus and the writer of Kings do not make these women heroes but instead human, just like all the rest of us. And if we take anything from this story, I hope we might see with the eyes of Jesus the ways that ordinary people all around us give of themselves for the sake of others. This I know for certain: every single person in this room has given of themselves by being here this morning. Your presence here matters because without it, the people of God would not have a community with whom to gather in worship and study, prayer and communion.
Just as Jesus sees the value of the widow and her gift and God deems the widow fit to feed a prophet, we too can see the value of one another and the gifts we bring to God’s people—including widows, prophets, and each one of us—for the sake of the world God loves.