Pentecost 24/Lectionary 32B, All Saints, Mark 12:38-44
Look at how I am dressed, where I am standing, where I sit, and consider what I do during this hour. How can I not feel indicted by the first part of today’s gospel reading? To reiterate and reinforce, here’s what Mark reports that Jesus taught about religious leaders of the day: “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 and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Ouch. That’s quite the indictment of religious leaders in Jesus’ day and perhaps many clergy today.
We religious leaders are not let off the hook and are cut little slack when it comes to the Jesus we see in the gospels. That’s the bad news, and I stand convicted in my own ways (I hope I’ve never had any part in devouring widows’ houses, though I have happily devoured a lot of home cooked meals from the skilled hands of widows in my thirty years as a pastor!).
But then there’s the good news in the second half of today’s gospel reading, also concerning widows, some of the least and the last and most vulnerable in ancient society. A widow put into the treasury two small coins worth a penny in contrast to the rich who put in large sums. Here again is what Mark reports that Jesus said to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 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.”
The widow offered everything she had to live on. How did she do it? And where is the good news in this?
To help us understand, we can turn our attention to today’s first reading from 1 Kings, the story of yet another widow, but one who had a holy encounter with the prophet Elijah who asked of her something to drink and to eat. At first blush, Elijah seemed to be seeking to devour the widow’s house!
Her response to Elijah’s request for food and drink? She said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
Then came the divine word, the good news, from the lips of Elijah: “Do not be afraid…. [Do not be afraid] The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
So, it was by the mercy of God working through Elijah that during a time of drought and famine, she and her household ate for many days, nor did they run out of provisions.
The widow in today’s reading from 1 Kings was empowered to respond generously to Elijah’s request and could offer all that she had left because a divine word of promise came to her from the prophet Elijah. In short, that sacred word evoked, called forth, the generous response in faith, in trust, even amidst the scarcity of drought and famine. That’s what God’s word does to us – it inspires faith and results in the fruit of generosity.
Perhaps the widow who put two copper coins into the treasury during Jesus’ day also had a divine encounter which evoked her faith, her trust in God’s abundance amidst her poverty.
Perhaps she herself had encountered the divine word in Jesus that made all the difference in her faith-full generosity.
Such radical, trusting generosity is a very different stance than that of the scribes, the religious leaders, and many clergy who seem to trust more in their own stature and works than in the promises of the word of God. And the widow’s generosity towers over that of the wealthy who gave out of their abundance, meaning that they had plenty left over to maintain their rich lifestyles. When you’re a billionaire, giving away even a tithe of your wealth is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things…
Today is All Saints Sunday, a day to remember with thanksgiving the unnamed, unremarkable by worldly standards, saints in our lives. The widows in today’s readings are such unsung heroes of the faith – of Judaism and of Christianity.
And what ultimately makes a saint a saint in the Christian tradition, at least from a Lutheran point of view? A saint is one who in faith points beyond themselves to Jesus Christ.
The scribes and religious leaders and the wealthy may well be named and remembered in the history books. But with their long robes and places of honor and long prayers, they may not be as transparent in pointing beyond themselves to the divine as the humble widows in our lives.
Indeed, think of the witness of the widow in today’s gospel. She put in, she offered, everything she had, all she had to live on. That self-offering foreshadows and points to Jesus’ own self-offering on the tree of the cross, where God ultimately offered all God had, namely, Gon’s only begotten Son, only child, our sibling, our savior.
Again, that’s what saints do; they point beyond themselves to Jesus. In offering all she had, the widow in her foreshadowing draws our attention to Jesus as he is referenced in today’s second reading, that from Hebrews which elaborates on Jesus’ offering of himself. Here’s what it says in Hebrews: “But as it is, Christ has appeared once and for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The generosity of God in Christ was of such an extent, that the loving self-offering needed only to happen once. It’s done, and in Christ, him dead, him raised, we have life and salvation. Thanks be to God. From the vantage point of the wider story, the widows’ generosity witnesses to God’s generosity.
And those who eagerly wait for the fullness of Christ’s appearing are the widows, the unsung hero saints of our lives who have gone before us and who rest in the nearer presence of God.
God uses their witness to inspire our faith. So it is that we, today, name their names, and will do so during the concluding petition of the prayers of intercession when the toll of a bell will follow the naming of each name.
Think about the saints like the widows. It is more likely the case that you and I have come to faith through the Holy Spirit working in the lives and witness of persons among our family and friends and church members who have never made it into Christian history books and listings of the official saints of the church.
It is these whom we celebrate on All Saints Sunday because they have pointed the way to God in Christ via the guidance of the Spirit working in them.
Thus, we come to this table with the widows, in the company of all the saints who have gone before us of blessed memory, to eat a tiny morsel of bread and drink a sip of wine, food and sustenance that will not fail or run out even in times of scarcity until the day of the Lord’s coming. Like the widow in 1 Kings with Elijah, like the widow in Mark, we, too, give in symbolic form all that we have in offering with thanksgiving bread and wine, the fruits of God’s good creation.
And in this meal, we discover that this food, these provisions do not run out. A little bit goes a long way – all the way to eternity – in giving us what we need for life’s journey in mission for the sake of the world.
Then, we leave this place fed in communion with Christ and with the saints to go out into the world to do as they all did – offering ourselves to others in faith, in trust that God is good, pointing beyond ourselves, we pray, to Christ, who is food for the hungry, and light to those who languish in the shadowy places, and life amidst so much death as the pandemic continues its plodding, ravaging way through all of humanity.
In due course, perhaps we, too, shall be remembered alongside the widows on some future All Saints Sunday….
In the meantime, thanks be to God for the widows, the unsung saints whose witness offers such a sharp contrast to that of the scribes, the religious leaders and the wealthy. Thanks be to God for the humble saints of our lives who faithfully point us to Jesus Christ. Amen.