In the first Shrek movie, there’s a scene where Shrek and donkey are on their journey to rescue the princess and Shrek tries to convince the donkey that there’s more to ogres than just being mean and nasty. Shrek says, “There’s a lot more to ogres than people think--ogres are like onions--they have layers!”
Our Gospel reading, often called the “Widow’s Mite,” is a story with several layers. Today, I’m going to try something different and describe the layers of meaning and see where it leads us. I invite you to listen for what connects with you in each layer as we consider this “mite” of an offering the widow brings, which means a very tiny amount.
The first layer is, the widow is a model of generosity. She doesn’t have much, but that doesn’t stop her from giving what she has. The widow gives not out of her abundance, but out of her necessities—she’s not offering God her leftovers, but she offers what we call “sacrificial giving.” Even though it’s only a penny, she will notice it and miss it because it’s all she has. It’s not an accident we read this text in Stewardship season when we are preparing next year’s budget and being encouraged to support it; the widow and her tiny offering gives us a model for what it looks like to “Live Generously,” our stewardship theme for this year.
When we peel back that layer of meaning we notice the contrast Jesus draws between the powerful and the poor—between the appearance of righteousness and the reality of righteousness. The religious leaders, in this case, the scribes, like accolades and public recognition; by contrast, the widow just comes forward, unnoticed by anyone except Jesus to make her offering of one penny. This is a dangerous text for me since I am the only one in the room wearing a robe and saying long prayers! Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss the application to my own life, I had an experience recently that this text describes. I attended the prayer vigil at Shearith Israel Synagogue after the anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh. It was standing room only with people standing along the wall and in doorways. I stood near front side door on the far side where there were fewer people. A gentleman who noticed my clergy collar got up and gave me his seat—I just received one of the best seats in a synagogue!
Jesus points out the contrast between the religious elite who get their sense of identity and satisfaction from outside themselves in others’ opinions, whereas the widow worships privately and quietly, getting her sense of identity and satisfaction from her inward relationship with God.
The religious professionals are supposed to be righteous, but it’s the widow who actually is righteous. She doesn’t need or expect anyone to notice her and no one does.
Here we notice another layer. In the third layer, we hear Jesus’s critique move from the personal level to the institutional level as he condemns the religious establishment. Jesus’ words are not a judgement of this slice of Jewish history alone, but of the affluent elite and their institutions in any time or culture who accumulate wealth while people in their community go hungry. In addition to being a religious institution, the Temple was also a business that made money from the purchase of animal sacrifices in order to run the institution and provide livelihood for the priests. Often those fees made it difficult for the poor to atone for their sins, not unlike the Indulgences from Martin Luther’s day. Earlier in Mark, Jesus cleansed the Temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers for this very reason. Jesus criticizes this practice of any religion that seeks to accumulate wealth for itself, “devouring widows’ houses,” rather than ensuring justice for its people.
A “just” religion would return the widow’s offering and then add to it to ensure that she, and other vulnerable people had enough to eat.
This brings us to the fourth layer: Jesus looks for and lifts up faithfulness at the bottom. Everyone else is looking at the big sums of money wealthier people are putting in the treasury. That’s what’s impressive to our untrained eyes. We want to see good and therefore God in the big, the flashy, and the dramatic. I drove by Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano for the first time yesterday and I was astounded at how enormous it is. I’m not saying they’re not doing great work, I’m sure they are; I’m admitting that it really caught my attention, and I kept looking at it from every angle as I drove. The big and dramatic captured my attention.
Groom, Texas outside of Amarillo is home to a 190-story cross with life-sized stations of the cross all around it, captivating our attention. There are enormous and gorgeous cathedrals all over the world; the Vatican has about $50 million in gold and precious metals.
We want to experience God in the big and the beautiful—on mountaintops, and in rainbows that span the whole sky. It’s not that God isn’t in all of these places, but that’s not where Jesus looks for a “God-sighting.” Jesus sees God where we never think to look—at the bottom, not the top. Jesus finds faithfulness in the offering of a penny, in a lost sheep, in a mustard seed, in a grateful leper who was healed, in salt and light and leaven, in a criminal beside him on a cross. Jesus has a bias for the bottom—he looks for God in the small and insignificant. To see the righteous and the faithful, Jesus looks down, not up.
The fifth layer brings us back to the one who offered that penny from the bottom—the widow who gives not just her resources, but she gives her whole being to God. Jesus says that the widow, “out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” She gave her God her all, her whole self—not just her copper coins, but she gave her whole life, entrusting it to God.
As we recognize our veterans today, we see that this is the kind of trust our veterans and those serving in the armed forces today give to God—you can’t enlist in the military, and not put your whole life and being in God’s hands. That’s what the widow did—maybe she would live another day, maybe she wouldn’t—but she left that up to God.
When we pull back a final layer, we find we’re back to Jesus. The widow’s offering of her whole self—her whole being—is a foreshadowing of Jesus himself. In her, we see a glimpse of Jesus’ own offering on the cross for us, where he gave all that he had—his very life, body and spirit—entrusting himself to God and surrendering his life for our sake.
The widow lives where Jesus lives—in the heart of God—entrusting everything to him—and that’s where generosity flows, that’s where the peace that passes all understanding comes. Living in the heart of God as the source of our being and identity means we can entrust God with our whole life—our needs, our livelihood, our body and spirit—and that’s when generosity flows, that’s when we Live Generously, no matter how much we have to give.
As we peel back the layers of the story, we join the widow and Jesus living in the heart of God. With them, we trust that God’s might covers our mite as we offer our whole being to God.