Watch with Christ
For preachers, there are two very awkward things about the story of the widow’s mite. So let’s start with those and get them out of the way. Jesus began with a rant against hypocritical religious professionals. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues… They devour widows’ houses… They will receive the greater condemnation.” Well, every preacher wearing a long robe who stands up from a seat of honor and climbs into the pulpit has to shake in their boots a little at this. Of course, we all try to not be those puffed up people Jesus was mad about. But, if you ever do catch me strutting around in this outfit at, say, the farmer’s market at Bernice Garden or at Kroger, you might need to take me down a notch or two.
Now, on to the second awkward issue. Thanks to our lectionary cycle, the story of the widow giving her last two copper coins lands, without fail, in the middle of stewardship season. How easy it would be to offer an edifying sermon about how to follow her example and give everything you have to the church. It’s right there in the Bible. But everyone can relax. That’s not today’s sermon. While the widow’s example of sacrificial giving is amazing, I don’t think this gospel story is really about money.
Jesus commented on those who gave to the treasury either out of their abundance or out of their poverty. But the problem with turning this text into a stewardship sermon is that Jesus didn’t point to the poor widow as a model for financial giving that we should copy. Nor did he praise the wealthy donors. He knew full well how the temple ran, how it depended on the sum of all the financial gifts, large and small. Christ Church runs that way, too. So, let’s consider for the moment, that if he wasn’t talking about the merits of monetary giving, what was he up to? I think we can figure it out if we use an old method.
In the 16th century, a priest named Ignatius of Loyola suggested that, in order to understand the Gospels, we need to imagine ourselves inside of them. We need to place ourselves in each scene and notice what we see and hear. The story of the widow’s mite lends itself well to this practice with all of its detail and stage direction. We’re told that Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched for a while. Ignatius would have us sit with Jesus, to see what he saw. He noticed a poor widow. What is noteworthy about her catching his eye is that he noticed her at all in the hustle and bustle of the temple. She was someone invisible to everyone else in the scene. A poor widow would have been literally invisible, a person with zero status and very little to contribute to the temple.
If we go deeply into this story, we can see that there are many possible reasons for her to catch his eye. Perhaps he saw her as someone who was taken advantage of by the religious institution, which would make her more of a tragic figure than a heroic giver. But I don’t think that’s quite the gist.
Some have suggested that the widow’s act of giving foreshadowed Jesus’ own final sacrifice, in which he gave everything he had, even his life, so that all could be saved. Perhaps he looked at her sacrifice and contemplated his own sacrifice on the cross.
And I think he saw something else. He saw the kingdom of God coming closer in a small, quiet act of giving by someone who had very little to give. I imagine that he loved her for a simple gesture that revealed more of how the kingdom of God works than all the religious pomp and circumstance around her. In her, he saw a glimpse of a larger sacrificial love. He called the disciples to notice her, too, so that they would see a love so freely given. Because on a much larger scale, that’s how the whole divine system works.
Jesus watching the widow and the crowd has something to do with how our salvation works. Our salvation is always a mix of both judgment and love. Christ calls out sin and the corruption of the world, as he did outside the treasury one day. And at the very same time, Christ reveals a love that is freely given, and always larger than our sins. His judgment and mercy are to be seen together, but his mercy always has the wider view. His mercy extended to the widow, to the disciples, even to those scribes in long robes, and even to us.
At the foot of Mount Sinai, there is a monastery that contains some of the oldest Christian icons. There is one in which Jesus is pictured with a bible in his left hand, while his right hand is raised in blessing, a fairly common image. But what’s unique about this particular icon is that his eyes are different from one another. The left eye looks stern, even angry, while his right eye looks un-upset and loving. As one views the image, one experiences both conviction for sin and the forgiveness of sin at the same time. It’s a profound image that captures our realities of sin and grace side by side.
This icon is the Jesus I imagine in our Gospel scene, watching across from the treasury. With one eye he judges the hypocrisy he sees and a system that would take advantage of a woman in poverty. With the other eye he sees the nearness of the kingdom of God, the nearness of love freely given.
The story of the widow’s mite is an invitation to watch with Christ, to see the world through both judgment and mercy. We can look honestly at our lives and at the world around us to name sin. That is essential to following Christ. And it is also crucial that we look with love, always with compassion, always with mercy for ourselves and one another. This old gospel story offers an antidote to a present world that is so polarized, so quick to shame and dismiss and dehumanize someone else. Looking with humility and grace are requirements for following Jesus. Following Jesus means striving to see more as he sees. This is old wisdom that we all still need.
The story of the widow’s mite should challenge our habits of seeing. Do we notice when the kingdom of God comes near? Do we see injustices and sins, in ourselves and in the world around us? Do we notice those who are usually invisible? These are sacred ways of seeing, ones that we can practice daily.
And when we do, something amazing can happen. Watching with Christ will train us to see the bigger picture. Not too long after watching a widow at the temple treasury, Christ stretched out his arms on the cross and drew the whole world to himself. From that vantage point, he could see all of human sin, and took it all in. You could say that it was divine judgment that had the last look from the cross. And then, three days later, it was all forgiven. It was grace that had the first look in the resurrection. Depending on how you look at it, that’s the widest view there is.