38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ 41 He 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. 43 Then 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. 44 For 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.’
Jesus was compassionate. A sense of compassion seems continually to have informed his life and ministry. It is the clearest and prevailing reason why Jesus did what he did and said what he said: because of his compassion for others. Compassion, which literally means “to suffer with” another person. Compassion is not just to observe suffering, but actually entering the suffering of another.
Again and again we read in the gospels how Jesus had tender loving mercy for the crowds and he healed their sick. He was moved with compassion because they were distressed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd. He had compassion for those with incurable diseases, for the blind, for those who had nothing to eat, and for widows, as we’ve just heard into today’s gospel. There is always this sense of compassion that informs what he does. Over and over again Jesus says to people, “Don’t cry,” “Don’t worry,” “Don’t be afraid.”
Think of the stories that Jesus told. What made the goodSamaritan in the parable good was the compassion he felt for the man left half dead on the roadside. There’s the story of the prodigal son and his father, which is a story about compassion. Again and again we hear that what moved Jesus to work and to weep, to help and to heal was compassion. And this ultimately gets Jesus into terrible trouble because it challenged the “purity system” that controlled his culture. Purity and holiness were inextricably connected. The Jewish Law said, “You shall be pure as God is pure.” This purity system, taken to an extreme, kept everyone and everything locked in place: what was clean and what was unclean; what could be touched and not touched; to whom one could speak and not speak; when help could be given and when it could not.
This interlocking purity system in Jesus’ day had several rules. One rule had to do with your birth. There was a kind of pecking order, from the best people to the worst people. The best people were the priests and Levites, and then came the other Jews, and then came those who were Jewish converts, and then people who were not Jewish, and then people who were physically or mentally ill, and then people who were imprisoned or very poor. The rules: men were the best, women the worst, or at least they were second class. Bearing children and the monthly menstrual period always made a woman impure. Certain occupations made you impure, like being a tax collector or a shepherd. It was tragic (but not accidental) that what made a person impure often kept them impure: women could not cease to be women; a poor person did not have money to see a doctor or eat healthy food, and so they stayed sick (which means impure). Likewise a poor person could not afford a pure animal or bird to bring to the temple to make sacrifice and therefore become “worthy.” And so they were stuck being an outcast. “Bad things happen to bad people,” was a prevailing sentiment.
Jesus breaks all these legalistic rules that kept people locked in their places. For Jesus, the most import “rule” was the justice and love of God. He spends time with “impure” women, and even allows himself to be touched by them. He enters graveyards “defiled” by mentally-ill people, i.e., demon-possessed people. He eats with anyone who will share their food – most any kind of drink and food – and for that reason he is called a drunkard and glutton. He didn’t just talk about forgiveness; he was forgiving… and so he had a reputation of being “a friend of sinners,” because he was always with the wrong kind of people. Jesus faced a “character assassination.”
Jesus refused to follow the “purity rules” that kept everything and everyone locked in their places. He says, what is most important is the purity of your intentions. He says the intentions of God, the God whom he calls Father, are that everyone has a place around the table. Everyone belongs in “the coming kingdom of God.” We all belong. Jesus says to everyone, come on, come follow me, every single one of you: “Follow my words, follow my way.” Jesus turned the tables upside down and said that compassion, not this legalistic “purity code,” is the most important thing. Compassion is the essence of holiness, not purity.
I would say this presents us with an enormous invitation and an enormous challenge. Many of us, I can imagine, may have internalized certain “purity codes” about who’s in and who’s out. And most of us – whether we fancy ourselves as conservatives or liberals, as evangelicals or as catholics, republicans or democrats; whether we are a man or woman, gay or straight, young or old, of African or Asian or Hispanic or Anglo descent – probably most of us are more naturally drawn to those whom we perceive to be most like us: those who think like us, behave like us, and look like us. And some days we might be tempted to think that God is much the same (which would be like creating God in our own image). But Jesus looks with pity and compassion on everyone, saying that there’s room within his wide arms and broken heart for everyone… including even those whom we ourselves might be tempted to think don’t belong, and those who have “fallen from grace.” There’s no such thing as falling from grace. We are always caught up in God’s grace. That’s the point. Everyone is a child of God. Even the people we may find to be poor (say, poor examples of anything we find good), even someone whom we may find to be pathetic, or presumptuous, or misguided, or disgusting, even those who reject us, even these people have a place at the table as children of God.
We hear in our gospel lesson for today about the widow who caught Jesus’ attention. Why? The poor widow who made an offering of two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Why did this widow catch Jesus’ attention, and why has this story been remembered? This was not an event that was recorded live on CNN; nor was this account something which Jesus himself wrote. This was a story remembered and told by Jesus, and then remembered and recorded many years later by the gospel writer, Mark. Why? It doesn’t have to do with the amount of money the widow shared. (The copper coins, called lepta, were the smallest coins in circulation, worth almost nothing.) Nor was this remembered because of the unique experience of Jesus’ meeting up with a widow. Widows were everywhere, and most of them were poor. The reason why the Old Testament prophets and the early church kept extolling the needs of widows was because their needs were as great as their numbers. They were as common as chattel, and often treated the same. I think this story was told by Jesus and remembered in the scriptures because it is so common; this is an every-person story. The Hebrew word used to refer to a widow literally means an empty house. No one home; nowhere to belong. This is an every-person story. We have an innate need to belong, to matter, to be a participant in life, to have dignity. We all do. With people who live in abject poverty, with nothing to hide behind – no clothes, no cash, no name, no stature, no place where they belong – with people who live in abject poverty, this innate need is all-the-more obvious: to belong, to matter, to be a participant in life, not just an object to be towered over or judged or disdained. A widow, literally an empty house.
This past week in the news we’ve heard of many people who would understand what it is to come home to an empty house, like a widow’s exposure. We’ve seen politicians and political appointees and preachers and educators and leaders in industry lose the place where they belonged. Many people have been exposed. Whether or not any of us agree with these various people being ousted or outed, I would say there is an invitation for compassion. For those of us who dare call ourselves followers of Jesus, there is an invitation for compassion, surely not sarcasm. The etymology of English word ‘sarcasm’ is from the Greek, sarkázein, meaning literally to strip off the flesh. People who are exposed have already been stripped. They don’t need our help with that. Nor more judgment. They have enough of that, also, and mostly from within their own souls. They need to be re-clothed. They need to find their belongings. They need to be shrouded with compassion, which means to suffer with them. We suffer with these people – all the people who show up poorly on our poor list – because we could so easily be they. We are all so similar. People simply do not wake up some morning and say to themselves, “How can I screw up my life? How can I make things really, really bad for me and for others?” Life isn’t like that. Bad things happen to bad people and good people alike; and even good people are prone to make very bad decisions. All of this can have terrible, sometimes inescapable repurcutions, like a tsunami of the soul that a person has started but cannot stop. The theology which Jesus confronted in his own day can still surface in our own day: that people get what they deserve. I hope not. I certainly hope not for myself.
If you’re in touch with some sarcasm or cynicism in your own soul toward some person, maybe a mighty person who has fallen or someone who is like an urchin to you, if you find yourself teeming with recreational delight because of the well-deserved suffering of someone in the news, pray for them. Even if they represent everything you find abhorrent – as if they were your enemy – pray for them. Pray for them long enough until you can see how much you are like them. You really are. Pray for them until you can understand what must be their suffering, which is compassion. Pray for them long enough until you are ready to receive them when they come knocking at your door, exposed and desperate, asking for your help. We bear Jesus Christ to this world. The clearest and prevailing reason why Jesus did what he did and said what he said was because of his compassion for others, his tender loving mercy. Pray for the people whom you could be glad you are not like. Pray for them until you are ready to receive them knocking at the door of your heart. Judge them by the standards God will hold up for you. Judge them… in need of God’s love, as much as you. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, says, “at the end of our life, we will be judged by love.”
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