Reflections on the story of the Poor Widow’s Offerings, Mark 12:38-44
At first reading, we tend to think of the story of the widow’s offering as a wonderful, challenging story of total surrender to church pleas for financial support. In fact, in many churches today it’s called “Stewardship Sunday” in which members will be urged to make pledges toward next year’s budgets. (I don’t even like confining “Stewardship” to money matters either!) So this story will be read and used to push folks to dig deeper. But such an interpretation and emphasis probably misses the point. It’s not a story about inspiring us to give more in pledges and gifts but a story about social injustice, in this case toward women such as the widow.
The Presbyterian Church has never been reticent to address social issues of the day. From opposing monarchical ecclesiastical government to having democratic representative governments, fighting slavery issues, supporting the women’s suffrage movement, pushing racial equality for all, giving women the right to reproductive freedom, supporting anti war efforts and support for gay/lesbian rights, Presbyterians have been there.
I admit I have been critical in recent yeas of such centerpiece energy given to social issues. The world we live within is an imperfect, often harsh and violent environment where inequalities will always exist and unfairness, wars and rumor of wars will be unending. As the Bible itself says:
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of birth pangs.” (Mark 13:7-8)
Two thousand years later the description still applies. It is still a world of wars and rumors of war, of earthquakes and famines. As the Course of Miracles says, “The world was made as an attack on God.” It is a fearful, guilty, often very insane place where in this dimension of time and space, people think of themselves primarily as bodies rather than eternal Spirit, One with the Creator. So don’t blame the imperfect world on God the Creator; it’s our dream not His.
Some counsel there is very little we can do to stop the violence and hatred. Just take care of yourself and let it go; learning social issues, standing up for the poor or those discriminated against is a waste of time; it will always be. “The poor will always be with you.”
True, the world ultimately is hopeless and a passing illusion of time but one of the basic principles of experiencing peace is by walking in love showing forgiveness, love and compassion to all which surrounds us. It begins with how I treat my own body and life, extending to my family, to the community, to wherever there is pain and disease, extending relief where there is poverty and despair, working and voting to help bring life and hope. The secret is to do what we can while not becoming angry, abusive, unforgiving and violent ourselves. Having said this we now look at the “social justice” issue in the story of the poor widow.
My friend David Pliss wrote this story as an introduction to today’s gospel story. Sometimes people do good things for the wrong reasons. There’s a story about a big, burly man who visited a well known widow of a suddenly deceased, beloved pastor. She was a woman well known for her charitable impulses. ‘Madam,’ he said in a humble voice, ‘I wish to draw your attention to the terrible plight of a poor family in the congregation your dear late husband served. The dad took off, the mother is too ill to work, and the nine children are starving. They are about to be turned out without mercy into the cold today, their belongings, thrown out in the streets unless someone pays their rent, which amounts to $850!’ ‘How terrible!’ exclaimed the preacher’s wife dressed in her mourning-black. ‘May I ask who you are?’ The sympathetic visitor replied through his handkerchief , covering his eyes. “Oh, aaa.. I’m the landlord,” he sobbed. Something’s wrong here— and that’s also the backdrop for understanding today’s lesson.
Widows in the times of our Jesus were part of the patriarchal system where the men, fathers or husbands ruled the household. If a daughter never married, it was the father’s duty to care for her. If she married, her father would give up all rights to her as property. If her husband later died, she was at the mercy of what children she might have or if poor, reduced to a beggar. If her deceased husband had some available brothers, then they could take her as a wife. Many widows were reduced to poverty by the temple system. As soon as the man of a household died, the scribes or temple lawyers were sent to collect the proper taxes and property for the support of the temple. Jesus attacked the system by ridiculing them for strutting around in long black robes, saying loud and pious public prayers, and always expecting due recognition with reserved seating and honors while taking advantage of the most vulnerable, such as widows. Scribes were the temple bankers who could tax people for support. Some were among the richest people in the city. But women survivors such as widows had no legal status in society other than being a slave.
Women in those times and in many parts of the world still exist within a slavery status. Many are enslaved as prostitutes in their teen or even earlier years as the film produced by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, “Half The Sky,” revealed anew a few weeks ago. In the ancient Ruth reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we heard about Ruth, the Moabite young woman who became the daughter-in-law of Naomi. When her husband died, who was Naomi’s son, Ruth pleaded to be taken back to Israel with Naomi. In time, Naomi arranged for her to secure another husband by her hard work in his fields and by giving comfort in his bed. (It’s what the Bible says!) Yes, among the world’s poorest, women can often have it the worst.
Jesus exposed this discrimination and exploitation in this story. Reduced by taxes and confiscation of property, she cynically threw her last two coins into the pot as a show of her desperation and hopelessness. It’s not an inspiring story; it’s a probably a tragic story of abuse and injustice.
Centuries later in our times, poverty and unfairness and hopelessness obviously still remain world-wide. The rise of the poor in our own country has grown in staggering numbers over the past 30 years. Middle income jobs have declined rapidly as “low income” jobs continue to soar. In the name of cutting taxes and creating more jobs, hundreds of psychiatric institutions were closed in the 1980’s helping to create what has become a common homeless population in our major cities. It’s been pointed out often; the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. In 1980, CEO’s of America’s largest companies earned an average of 42 times more than the average worker. By 2001, it had exploded to 530 times as much. From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to richest 1 percent. Today the richest 1 percent of Americans take home almost 24 percent of their income, up from 9 percent in 1976. (See recent Forbes Magazine, Stanford University reports.) And proposals are heard often that in order to boost back our economy we need to now give more tax breaks to the most wealthy. And people ask “Why is the middle class shrinking?”
In our scriptures there are frequent warnings about a wide inequity between the rich and the poor. In Jeremiah, the prophet recorded the social injustices of the nation Israel, and concludes the nation was in threat of being destroyed. It is a book describing the fate of a nation which “oppresses the alien, the orphan, the widow and sheds innocent blood. (Jeremiah 7) In the Torah, every 50 years was to be a “Year of Jubilee” when all debts were to be forgiven and any indentured slaves were to be freed! (Leviticus 25:10) In the early church writings of Paul, he writes we must share and give so that there is an equality among all, none too rich and none too poor. (2 Cor. 8:13-14) In the book of the Acts, we read in two chapters where early Christians sold all their possessions so they might live together in a common sharing. Today these stories would enflame many to tear them out as inflammatory communist agitations! (Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-37)
Do I believe all social injustices on earth will one day cease? No, I don’t, but I do believe that while here, we can offer assistance and support leadership which works to bring equality and fairness to all. It not only enhances other lives but will enrich yours and mine as well. Such efforts can be effective as long as we labor in compassion and kindness without anger or demonization of those who oppose us. The way we live and work for fairness will be part of the results we produce. “Projection makes perception” clear! To create a country and world of fairness with violence and war only continues on with more of the same. Our country had the dream of being a place where liberty, justice and freedom could be the equal opportunity for all. It has never been realized. We secured our freedom with a terrible six year war filled with insane carnage and then maintained hundreds of thousands of African slaves to work our fields while committing genocide against the natives of this land. President Bill Clinton once apologized to the African Americans for the history we inflicted upon them, but to my knowledge, no one has ever apologized to Native Americans.
A friend of mine once pointed out, the phrase “Social Justice” can be very deceiving. Everybody wants to change the world to make it more just and fair. Yet Hitler in the 1930’s embarked on the extermination of all Jews and “undesirables”, killing twelve million in the name of making a more just and equal society. Joseph Stalin, in the name of spreading equality and communism for all, carried out genocide in the Ukraine and other areas killing over twenty million people. And Mao Zedong, in the name of creating a more perfect country of equality, massacred an estimated forty million people to create a more perfect and just society! It gets very crazy.
Again, will there ever be a perfect world in which to live? Will it ever be on earth as it is on earth? No, I don’t believe so. Heaven is here but it isn’t a place but an understanding, a Spirit, Energy. We come to experience it by understanding and recognizing our True Selves not as bodies in time and space but as One in Spirit for all eternity. This awareness increases in our lives as we live in practicing forgiveness and kindness to everyone, especially toward those we have trouble liking. In India it’s called “Karma Yoga,” when people experience Eternal Peace within by freely giving love and forgiveness toward others without expectation of external rewards. If we thus want peace in this world, peace then becomes the way.
Work for rights and fairness for the poor, the widows, the children, the homeless and those abused by exploitation in factories all over the world. But do it in love, compassion and patience, never out of anger, violence and threats of extermination. For in wreaking violence on others in the name of justice and God’s fairness, we create more of it in our own hearts and manifested in the world and societies we create.
God bless the world with peace, and let it begin with me, with us!
Reflections on the Poor Widow from Rev. David Persons, offered at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca on November 11, 2012.