The woman in our Gospel reading today is an example of generosity. Thst however, is not really the point, or heart, of the story. Indeed, one might even argue that the woman is being too generous for her own good, which may be part of the reason Jesus is angry about what is happening. For she is a widow, and widows, in Jesus’ day, typically had no means of support when their husbands died. Widows were typically some of the poorest of the poor and this is what Jesus was concerned about in this story. Jesus was concerned for justice.
Let us be like police detectives and trace Jesus’ last days. When we do that, when we look at where this story sits in what else Jesus was doing, the issue of justice simply shines out to us. Consider where Jesus was before this story; what Jesus did; and with whom. Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus in the temple, in deep conflict, with the rich and powerful. This, in Mark’s Gospel, is the material of the whole of chapters 11 & 12. Today’s Gospel story is in that sense the climax of all that: the climax of Jesus’ struggle for justice against the religious and political orthodoxies of his day. Yes, the widow is an example of sacrificial giving: another theme strongly expressed in Mark’s Gospel. Yet this is not the heart of this story. Rather, Mark's Gospel goes out of its way to make it clear that she is just as much a victim as a hero.
The most important clue that Jesus is speaking out for justice lies in this wider context which Mark’s Gospel provides. Even if we didn’t look at that, the first part of today’s Gospel reading takes it up. For the poor woman’s action does not stand alone. Instead, it follows right after Jesus' condemnation of the scribes who run the very temple to which she contributes. "Watch out for the scribes," Jesus says. They're all about themselves and their status.” And, specifically, Jesus says: "They devour widows' houses." Then, Jesus immediately calls attention to one of those widows who have nothing left. The widow's story and Jesus' condemnation of the scribes thus belong inextricably together: the one story telling us how to read the other.
A second major clue that Jesus’ last days are a struggle for justice comes with the passage that immediately follows this story. For immediately after Jesus comments on the widow placing her two coins into the temple treasury, we have his prophecy of the temple's destruction. Jesus, it seems, was certainly not recommending temple donations, as he clearly regarded its leaders as exploitative, and the temple itself as a symbol of corruption. Indeed, Mark’s Gospel specifically speaks of Jesus sitting "opposite the treasury" in viewing these temple donations. Again, this is another clue: for Jesus is thus clearly set in opposition to the rich and powerful of his day.
Does that seem strange to you? Sometimes we have been slow to understand Jesus as a powerful advocate for justice, haven’t we? Rightly, we speak freely of the mercy, healing, care and compassion of Jesus. The justice of Jesus however is much more uncomfortable. For it challenges us, and it challenges others, especially the rich and the powerful. Yet the Gospel makes no real sense without God’s call to justice. There are several fruitful ways, for example, of interpreting the death of Jesus theologically. None of them make real sense however without seeing that Jesus was killed, on the human level, because he was struggling for justice. For people rarely get killed simply for being kind and generous. When they critique and present a genuine challenge to the rich and the powerful it is often another story. This, at the very least, is part of the story of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel reading is therefore much more than we might at first think. For the story of the widow's generosity is designed to place the reality of poverty before our eyes. It reminds us that the poor do not represent parasites who drain society of its resources. Poor people, as a group, are hardly angels, and terrible things happen in the midst of poverty. Yet, as Jesus points out with this widow, the poor are sometimes so much more generous and so much more open to God than others. More importantly than even this truth however, today’s Gospel story is designed to call us to share in Jesus’ struggle for justice. It reminds us that we too live in a world where rich and powerful people exploit the poor. It challenges us to speak out against oppressive structures and systems, just as Jesus did.
The great Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara, once said that: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
Jesus might have said something similar:
‘When I help widows and the poor directly’, he might have said, ‘they call me a prophet and healer. Yet when I criticise the policies which oppress widows, they call me a threat to the nation and religion.’
There are people in this world who would like the worldwide Church to keep quiet about poverty. Some of them are even members of the Church in some places. Such people would like the Church to stick to simply to talking about individual salvation, or caring for individuals or running welfare and relief projects. They don’t want the Church to ask awkward questions about the way our economy works. They don’t want the Church to advocate just alternatives. But it can’t be done. Teaching, evangelism, pastoral care, welfare, and caring for God’s Creation; all are integral parts of the Church’s mission and ministry. But asking awkward questions about economics, and advocating just alternatives, is also an essential part of what Jesus calls us to. This is not about being left-wing, or right-wing, Liberal, Labor, National Party, Green, or anything else. It is simply a matter of responding to God’s call, sharing God’s compassion for all. We are not given the political answers by the Gospel, but we are encouraged to ask the political questions and to work with others to find the answers. For as the prophet Micah famously put it: ‘what does the Lord require of you?’ Just this: ‘to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6.8)..
In the name of Jesus, the Christ, who became poor that we might become rich, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, for Pentecost 24 Year B, 8 November 2015