I’ve heard a lot of bad sermons on this text from Luke’s gospel and its cousin in Mark 12. I think I’ve probably preached a bad sermon on this text a time or two. Typically they go something like, aww look at how generous and trusting this poor widow is, you should be more like her.
Anyone ever heard something like that?
I’m sure many of you have, and it’s not surprising. After all, Jesus seems to commend the poor woman when he says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Read in isolation, Jesus’ words can be construed to be some sort of encouragement for others to mirror a similar kind of generosity. And I’m sympathetic to that sort of reading. It’s an exhortation to trust, to believe and have faith that God will provide. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. In fact, many biblical scholars don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here.
Read in the context of the passage immediately preceding it, Jesus’ words ring notes that are more of lament or condemnation than praise.
In verses forty-six and forty-seven Jesus says,
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses…
Now here just a few verses later we see a widow whose house has quite literally been devoured. In Jesus’ day, widows were a class of vulnerable people. In a patriarchal society, a woman who had lost her husband had lost her livelihood, her support network, in many ways had lost her identity.
Throughout the Old Testament, there are passages urging God’s people to take special care of widows and orphans, to make special provisions for them so that the vulnerable in society were not neglected and abused.
In many ways, the temple structure itself was charged with caring for widows. Those making offerings at the temple would have been invited to make gifts for vulnerable, the widows.
And yet her you have this poor, destitute woman pouring everything that she had to live on into the temple structure. How could a system that was designed to protect someone like this woman fail so completely in its charge?
I suppose I don’t have to answer that.
We don’t have to look too hard to find analogs in our world today. It’s not hard to identify those people that function like the scribes and the Pharisees who Jesus critiques. People who like to look good, to be noticed, to have places of import and prestige, people who neglect the vulnerable and those in need. People who lay claim to things that were never theirs.
Somedays I just need to look in the mirror. I am one of those people.
For the next two weeks, we’re going to be talking about how we think about what’s been entrusted to us: our money, our time, our lives. We’re going to be living with the question, what if it’s not yours? How might a simple question reorient our attitudes our actions, our choices when to comes the really hard stuff in life, like our money.
There was a story that broke last week, one that I think went mostly unnoticed amidst some of the political nuttiness of the past few weeks, but I want to share it with you today because it I believe it speaks precisely to the challenge before us. Here’s what happened.
In 2012 a group of young men from the Harvard Men’s Soccer team completed a “scouting report” on the incoming class of freshmen women soccer players. In this document these men, and I’ll use that term loosely, “rated the women on a sexual appeal scale of 1 to 10, including explicit descriptions of their physical traits and musings about the women’s preferred sexual positions.”
Recently the document was discovered and the remainder of the soccer season was forfeited by the university, as any potential postseason run for the team. An appropriate response from the university I think, but that’s not the only reason why this story matters.
Six of the women who were in this scouting report are now seniors on the Harvard women’s team. They’ve played and practiced with their counterparts on the men’s team for four years, they considered them to friends. These women wrote an op-ed piece in the Harvard school paper, and it was picked up by the New York Times. They said,
Having considered members of this team our close friends for the past four years, we are beyond hurt to realize these individuals could encourage, silently observe, or participate in this kind of behavior, and for more than four years have neglected to apologize until this week.
While at Harvard, our coaches taught us that the only thing we can control in life is ourselves—our own attitude and effort—ultimately, our own actions and our own words. The actions and words displayed by members of the 2012 men’s soccer team have deeply hurt us. They were careless, disgusting, and appalling, but an aberrant display of misogyny such as this does not reflect the type of environment Harvard Athletics cultivates. Harvard Athletics, specifically Harvard Women’s Soccer, succeeds because, despite any atmosphere of competition, we know how to be a team—to lift each other up and bring out the best in those around us to achieve our goals.
These are clearly remarkable women and the entirety of the piece is worth your time, but I want to share one last piece with you, how they end.
Finally, to the men of Harvard Soccer and any future men who may lay claim to our bodies and choose to objectify us as sexual objects, in the words of one of us, we say together: “I can offer you my forgiveness, which is—and forever will be—the only part of me that you can ever claim as yours.”
These are godly words.
These are God’s words.
For in the face of the human compulsion to overreach, to lay claim to the things that aren’t ours and will never be ours, the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ offers to us one thing, forgiveness.
We may lay claim to one thing, forgiveness. It is a gift that it irrevocably ours, it is a gift that shifts how we see the world, it is a gift that is ours though we little deserve it.
Brothers and sisters during this season where we make pledges to steward what God has given to us, entrusted to us, may we have the courage to claim only what is ours and in so doing help to create a world where all can thrive.