38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then 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. 44For 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.”
poor widow- her story is so popular, especially during stewardship campaigns, and for obvious reasons. She has become the role model for giving- for self emptying- for trusting God with all we have. Jesus lets her actions speak for themselves without much commentary, but then again, everyone in the temple that day would have known more about the plight of that poor widow than we do. So let's look at her for a moment.
The thing is, the author of the Gospel of Mark has this story set in the middle of a series of passages about temple corruption.
Mark describes her as a poor widow. "The word "widow" in Greek means, "one without." means our poor widow can be understood as a person who is lacking something- she is one without- a husband, or without children, or without a home- perhaps she is on without food, or health care, or protection – without… The poor widow in our story is every woman, every child, and every man who has ever been taken advantage of, deprived of equal rights, harassed, beaten, killed, and told they were anything less than children of God." (1) But it also describes her as "poor." There are two Greek words used in the New Testament for the word poor: one refers to someone who doesn’t have a steady job (penes), the other describes someone who is a beggar (ptoche). Mark’s widow is identified as ptochoi; she is the poorest of the poor. (2) Worse, the laws of the temple were crafted in such a way that the scribes could legally exploit the poor- so not only did this one without have nothing (the poorest of the poor), the temple insured she would be kept destitute.
Yet, she gave everything she had. This is amazing to me! I mean, she could have at least kept one of those coins for herself- but she didn't. She just dropped them in the offering box and walked away. Why give everything to an institution that was structured to keep her on the margins?
A story break:(told this about 5 years ago so...) Once upon a time there was a man named Johnny Lingo. Johnny Lingo was a trader in the Samoan islands, always bringing back to his home to most beautiful rare, and valuable things in the world. But Johnny Lingo was also known as the shrewdest trader in all the land because he always got the very lowest price for whatever he wanted.
But Johnny Lingo was lacking one thing: A wife. Now, on this island, if a man wanted to take a woman as his wife, he would go to the woman's family on what was known as the 'day of bargaining,' ask for the woman’s hand in marriage, and then negotiate a bride price. A woman's value was determined by the number of cows a potential husband was willing to pay for her. A man could buy an average wife for three cows. If he was lucky, he could get a 'four-cow' wife- but they were few and far between. In fact, the highest price ever paid on the island for a wife was five cows, but according to the villagers, that was a "long, long time ago."
Mahana a girl on the island, was already 19 years old when Johnny Lingo came to ask for her hand on the 'day of bargaining.' Her father, Mokie, had long given up hope that Mahana would ever find a husband, much less someone like Johnny Lingo. He had realized long ago that Mahana was not like the other girls- she was scrawny, and it was said by the villagers that Mahana had a face like a stone. So she lurked in the shadows. She was dirty most of the time, she didn’t comb or put flowers in her hair like the other women on the island. Her nickname, even to her father, was "Mahana Ugly."
So when word got around that Johnny Lingo was choosing "Mahana Ugly" as his wife, when he could have any woman on the island, people came to their own conclusions about what Johnny was up to. "He wants a woman he can get for nothing," they said. That Johnny Lingo is so is shrewd! He will buy "Mahana Ugly" and get free labor the rest of his life," and so on...
On the day of bargaining, Johnny Lingo sat opposite Mahana’s father, surrounded by the people of the village. Mahana could not bring herself even to show up; she is too ashamed. But she hides in a nearby cluster of trees, close enough to hear the humiliating ceremony. The crowd falls silent as Johnny Lingo begins the negotiation for Mahana's hand in marriage.
Mahana's father Mokie, however, is a bit shrewd himself. He knows that Johnny drives a hard bargain- so when Johnny asks how many cows it will take to buy Mahana, Mokie does not answer right away. The villagers begin to whisper… “If Mokie says, "two cows," then Johnny Lingo will offer one… if Mokie says, "one cow," then Johnny Lingo will offer just a hoof and a tail…”
Mokie, who had said many times that he would "take one cow that gave sour milk just to be rid of Mahana," feels that although he has suffered with her enough, he also wants something for himself… and so finally Mokie spits out… “THREE COWS for Mahana!”
The villagers erupt with laugher: “He must be crazy, thinking he can get three cows for Mahana!!!”
Johnny Lingo calls for silence… “THREE cows are many," he says. "But THREE cows are not enough for Mahana. For Mahana… I offer EIGHT cows!”
The villagers gasp! Eight cows??!! Mokie stares at Johnny Lingo, sure that he must have said, "eight cows" by mistake. It was unheard of! No one had ever offered eight cows for a wife! Who would offer to pay more than something was worth. But Mokie agrees quickly, the couple is married, and Johnny Lingo takes Mahana on a honeymoon.
Many months later, they return to the island and the villagers all gather on the shore to greet the couple. But as they grow near, the villagers are surprised to see that Johnny Lingo has the most beautiful wife they have ever seen! 'Mahana ugly' has been transformed into a stunning beauty- walking confidently yet gracefully, with a radiant smile on her face; a delicate flower placed just right in her silky hair.
The villagers are amazed! But they rush to ask Johnny Lingo the question that has been on their all minds since it happened…”Johnny Lingo, why would you pay that much- 8 cows!!, when you could have gotten Mahana for nothing?"
And Johnny looks at his beautiful bride, and says, “I wanted an EIGHT cow wife.”
I can stop right here and be done for today- and everyone can go home thinking about and reflecting on the legend of Johnny Lingo- it’s a great story, isn’t it? Because it's all about seeing the value in something that other's might miss.
Johnny Lingo could have chosen to see Mahana according to how the world saw her- dirty, less-than, worthless… But he chose to see Mahana, not as the world saw her, but as who she was at her core, who she was created to be.
Now let's go back to our poor widow. At first glance, we want to compare her to Mahana Ugly. She is after all one without. She has been marginalized and scrutinized and ostracized by the community- and Jesus saw something in her- the value in who she was created to be- that other's miss.
But I believe that the poor widow in our text today, the one "without," perhaps knew her value... despite the fact that the world had told her she was worth nothing- despite the actions of the religious institution that kept her oppressed, she knew who she was in God's eyes. No my friends- the poor widow is no Mahana Ugly- she is Johnny Lingo, shrewdly paying 8 cows for something others would advise her to walk away from. And why? Why would this widow continue to support a Temple System that oppresses her?
"In reading “Believe Out Loud,” an online scripture commentary by lgbtq+ Christians on this text, some of the writers liken their own journeys in the Church to that of this widow. “Why do we stay?” they ask, amid so much rejection and abuse. Yet, their hearts feel a pull, a hope, and a yearning for the Church to become what it is meant to be–a home that is open and welcoming, loving and inclusive." (2)
Seeing the church as, not as it is, but as it was created to be- and hoping that by sowing into the ministry, God's original intent for the church will be realized. AMEN!
Look around this place today! Do you know why we are here? Why we have this beautiful worship space to praise in every Sunday morning? Because, Johnny Lingo, you are people who see the church, not in the way the worlds sees it, but as God intends it to be- and it won't take you long to find people and people groups represented here even today whom the church has marginalized, criticized and ostracized, but who continued to drop all they have into the offering box each week and let the sound ring out loud and proud for all to hear. People willing to take risks so others could find a home. People who spoke and sang for the voices of the silenced. People who stepped out in hope and yearning for the church to become what it is meant to be and who continued to sow into the church even in the midst of trial, and exclusion. And AMEN (A big AMEN) to that!
And those gifted, beautiful widows among us, continue to teach us what inclusion and welcome really mean- lovingly calling us on our racism, and sexism, and gender bias; they lead us in the fight to dismantle and disempower the systems of oppression that the church has perpetuated for centuries. Thank you widows past present and future for seeing the church as it is, and believing and investing in what God has designed it to be.
But one last thing- as far as we have come, God has even more for us to live into- we have given ourselves to God, we have opened this space as one of safety to all, and offered this place as one of worship for all, a sanctuary to both the blessed and the broken. Again, AMEN, but my beautiful congregation of Christ, there is so much more to do.
(1) paraphrased from Christine Erb-Kanzleiter, sermon on the widow's mite, seen here in it's entirety http://www.peacechurch.de/The_Widows_Mite.pdf (2) Rev, Mary Hammond, Oberlin Peach Church, from her sermon "Noticing and Truth Telling, 2012 http://pccoberlin.org/2012/11/11/noticing-and-truth-telling/