“The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow…” (Psalm 146:9).
This verse reads like the banner headline of today’s lectionary texts. The book of Ruth follows the story of two resourceful widows: Naomi, an Israelite, and Ruth, who is a “stranger,” a foreigner. Through God’s providence and Naomi’s quick thinking, a son is born – the grandfather of King David. In 1 Kings 17, an unnamed widow receives the prophet Elijah into her home and courageously feeds him her very last bit of flour and oil. God rewards her costly hospitality with miraculous abundance. Truly God upholds the widows, who have no one else to bear them up.
Mark 12 begins not with a widow but with Jesus’ indictment of the scribes – teachers of the law and leaders in the Temple. He describes them as the ones who want to walk around in nice robes and receive greetings in the marketplaces, the ones who want the best seats in worship and at dinner parties – the ones who (and here’s the punch we weren’t expecting) devour the houses of the widows.
Immediately after these threatening words, who would appear in our story but…a widow. Surely we are meant to think of those who devoured the houses of women like her. Surely we are meant to wonder if her house, too, has been devoured.
Jesus has gone to sit opposite the temple treasury, and he is watching how people put their money into the offering plate. Small word, how – he’s not just watching people give their money, he’s watching how they do it. A lot of rich people put in a lot. And then comes along one poor widow, and she puts in two small copper coins.
Summoning his disciples, Jesus tells them that this one poor widow has put in more than everyone else put together, because everyone else gave out of their abundance, but she put in everything, as much as she had, her whole livelihood, her whole life.
The story is deeply ambiguous. Are we meant to feel admiration for the widow’s selfless, sacrificial generosity? Is Jesus lifting her up as a model to imitate? This seems right. Of course it’s good to give our whole lives to God’s cause. Like the widow in Zeraphath, this widow courageously offers everything she has to God, trusting that he will provide for her. John Wesley writes, “See what judgement is cast on the most specious, outward actions by the Judge of all! And how acceptable to him is the smallest, which springs from self-denying love!”
On the other hand, are we meant to feel uneasy, or even outraged, at the spectacle of a poverty-stricken widow donating every last penny she has to the very Temple whose leaders have devoured her house? This seems right, too. Immediately after Jesus points out the widow’s sacrificial action, he predicts the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-2). The treasury into which the rich and the poor alike are putting their coins will soon be no more. The Temple, like the scribes, sits under God’s judgment.
Reading the lectionary texts together does not help us resolve this tension. In our texts and contexts we find both themes: costly hospitality, the blessings of giving out of one’s own poverty, and the rewards of sacrificial, courageous giving; and the special care that God has for the poor and the vulnerable, and the fierce judgment that falls on those who abuse them.
Too often we hesitate to give all we have, paralyzed by fears of scarcity rather than faith in God’s abundant provision. Too often we turn away from the widow, the stranger, and the orphan when the rich devour their homes and destroy their livelihoods. Lord, have mercy.