The Widow’s Mite, the story of the poor woman who gave all that she had to the Temple Treasury is a lesson about openhanded generosity and placing one’s trust fully in God. It is a story we need to hear, an encouragement to live fully and generously. The widow’s contribution in monetary terms was tiny, only a penny and yet her gift would place her high in the roster of true philanthropy because she gave out of her poverty, rather than her abundance. But that is only true in a material sense. This woman could not have given as she did had she not had an abundance of love and trust in God’s providence. The lesson from the first Book of Kings echoes this as well. Poor widows occupied a precarious position in Middle Eastern culture at the time of these stories and I doubt that their situation has changed much since then. . They were without male support and protection and most were financially destitute. We do not know if the widow who gave her half penny to the Temple Treasury had children to feed, but we do know the Phoenician widow of Zarephath who fed the Prophet Elijah did. She was about to prepare a final meal before she and her son gave themselves up to starvation. When the Prophet begged her to share her meal with him all he could do was assure her, “Do not be afraid. The Lord will take care of you.” So often in Scripture we encounter poor widows and orphans. These were the unprotected poor who were forced to live precariously at the edge of society. It was for the Christian destitute of this group that the first deacons were set apart to provide for in the early Church. Were we to translate these widows’ stories into modern times, it would be a welfare mother who fed the Prophet and it would be a homeless person who gave what she had to the Temple Treasury .
Several years ago a modern story along these lines made the news. An elderly laundress, Osceola Johnson, of Biloxi , Mississippi after a lifetime of frugal living and careful saving, established a scholarship at a local university to enable poor African Americans to achieve a college education. She had always lived well below the poverty line, had never owned an air conditioner, a television or any of the modern conveniences, and had washed other people’s dirty clothes at subsistence wages all her life. And for years she had dreamed of doing something significant so that others would be enabled to have a better life than she had known and she knew education would be the key.
This Gospel is the sort of text at this time of year one might hear to encourage pledging and instruct about tithing. But I would like us to listen to it another way this morning. In her new novel, Oxyx and Crake , Margaret Atwood presents a terrible apocalyptic vision of our physical world in the near future destroyed by greed. Some of you may have read it. After the world is pillaged of its natural resources for financial gain and its eco-structure is destroyed so that it can no longer sustain life, a small group of humans survive for awhile in hermetically sealed biosphere cocoons, while plague created by scientists rages outside, destroying all living creatures. This is a chilling and highly disturbing prediction of what is in store for the world’s population if we continue to live in the destructive way we now are. Already there are visible symptoms of this coming catastrophe; at this moment a billion people in the world are without adequate safe water. Already we are witnessing the rapid extinction of animal and plant forms, the destruction of the oceans and global warming. All these indications of impending global disaster are caused by the humanity’s greed and much of its destructive force has been unleashed in the last hundred years.
On Sundays in recent months from texts such as the story of the rich young aristocrat and the scribe seeking the greatest commandment, we have heard Scripture instructing us to love God above all else and to place our trust in God and not earthly things, to choose life. So many of us do not choose life and we refuse to do so because we are afraid. We don’t give of ourselves because we are afraid there might not be enough. So we hold on to what we have, work hard to accumulate more but never seem to have enough. What we do have doesn’t satisfy, no matter how much we have. And poverty is a grim, unrelenting reality in our wealthy nation. People are asking themselves anxious questions, “If at midlife, securely ensconced in my career, I choose to have children and give up my job to do so, will I have enough money for my old age?” Or, “Can I really give more of what I have to make the world a better place and still have enough for myself?” Because they are not sure they are afraid to act. And if fear is powering the greed that is destroying the world, imagine what fear may be doing to your life or my life. How it may be holding us back or causing us to live in ways that are destructive to ourselves and rob us of our potential as human beings.
Several years ago I knew a young man who had a major congenital heart defect. At his birth the family physician has assured his parents he would not live to adulthood, but he did, and one day fell in love with a wonderful woman and married. Because of his illness the couple debated whether they should have a child, which they desperately wanted, or should they try to make the best of their marriage without one because it was clear his illness would get worse and his chances of a normal lifetime were slim. After much emotional struggle and with the wholehearted support of his wife, he decided to father a child. He chose to take the chance, devote himself fully to the child for the time he had and trust that no matter what happened to him it would be a better, richer life for his family if he did. As it turned out, this man’s time was short. He died when his son was four years old. But Martin was able to see his son through the wonderful times of infancy and early childhood and then leave him a significant legacy. Not a large monetary inheritance, but something even more valuable. By the way he lived his life he taught his son to live life abundantly as well, to give generously to others and to trust and not be afraid. These were priceless lessons his son would understand and cherish when he grew older. And in living this way Martin gave to all the rest of us who live with illness and fear the understanding that such a life as his or ours need not be crippling or emotionally impoverished. Indeed, if we are to live richly and be the people God intends us to be we have to give ourselves away. That is what the poor widows did and what the Gospel urges us to do as well. Live fearlessly, take risks, give to others without counting the cost, and if we reorder our life this way, beyond comfort, beyond the anxiety of not having enough, God will take care of us abundantly. Do not be afraid. The Gospel challenges us to take a new path and to begin today.
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