A Christian nation?
November 11, 2018
1 Kings 17:8-16
Two of our readings today feature widows, and one features the Temple, so before you hear those, I wanted to tell you a bit about those things. First, widows: throughout the Bible, God commands His people to care for widows, because they are some of the most vulnerable people in the community. Widows in the ancient world were not like widows now – they did not have life insurance, or their husband’s pensions to draw from, nor were they allowed to get a job to support themselves. Once a woman was widowed, especially if she had no other family to care for her, she relied completely on the generosity of others for her survival. She could very well be quite young, and may have small children to care for, as the widow in our first reading today does. Widows were in a very vulnerable position.
I wanted also to say something about the Temple. Going to Temple is not like going to church today. Yes, worship happened there, but it was also the center of Israel’s economic life. And as so often happens, even today, when money is involved, the economic system was not always justly executed. In the chapter just before this, Jesus “cleanses” the Temple, turning over the tables of the money-changers and calling the Temple “a den of robbers.” Directly following our Gospel reading today, Jesus will foretell the destruction of the Temple (we’ll hear that story next week). And in today’s reading, he also criticizes the scribes, who were sort of like Jewish lawyers or judges, for their behavior in the Temple. All of this colors how we read this story of the Widow’s Mite that is wedged in the midst of all this criticism of the corruption going on in the Temple, so keep it in mind. Okay, let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ah, the Widow’s Mite. Today’s beloved story has been embraced for many-a stewardship campaign, because hers is a story of inspirational giving. It is a story about how the size of the gift doesn’t matter so much as the proportion – many in the Temple gave much larger sums than hers, but those large sums made little to no impact in how the givers lived their lives. They are no sacrifice. But the widow – she knows a thing or two about self-sacrificial giving! She is a model for us, an inspiration. Would that we could all be so generous as she!
Of course that sounds faithful enough to say. Truth is, I don’t really want to be as generous as she, and I don’t know many who do. How many people do you know who would throw their entire paycheck and everything in their bank account into the offering plate? That was the situation for a widow. She would have had no income, no pension or life insurance, but rather, relied completely on the generosity of either her surviving family members, or if she had none, the generosity of strangers. So for her to throw in everything she had to live on, really her whole life – that was… well some might say faithful, or trusting, others might say stupid, risky, or reckless! And we, we want to be faithful, but do we really want to be quite so risky as all that? Not usually. That’s why most of us keep our giving to a minimum – whatever we can faithfully give that will still allow us to pay all the bills and live a comfortable life. So maybe this widow is a model of generosity, faith and trust… but it is not a model I’m prepared to follow!
On the other hand, maybe her role is not to teach us about financial stewardship. Maybe instead, her role is to teach us about a different aspect of faith. Maybe Jesus is pointing her out to show us who we should be paying attention to, and how we should be responding. Looking at the text, Jesus doesn’t explicitly commend her. All he does is point her out. “Look, you see that widow?” he says. “Did you notice that she put in everything she has? She has nothing left now to live on.” And I have to wonder if the underlying question was, “So what are you gonna do about it?” Because look at what happens right before this, in the first part of today’s reading: Jesus has just condemned the scribes, the teachers and practitioners of Jewish law, saying that they, “devour widow’s houses.” And then he points out a widow, who has placed everything she has in the treasury, as if to say, “See what I mean? Devoured.” And then right after this, Jesus foretells the destruction of this whole Temple, and with it, the systems that would allow for a widow to be put in this situation. Huh, suddenly our dear, faithful, generous widow is looking less like a hero in this story, and more like a victim of a corrupt system, one which proclaims to take care of the likes of her, but which has instead left her with nothing!
I have a friend who commented this week on Election Day that her grandmother taught her always to vote for the candidate who would take the best care of the widows and the orphans. What wonderful advice! The Bible is full of the command to do exactly that. In fact, the Bible mentions widows specifically at least 80 times, from the books of Moses at the beginning, all the way through to Revelation. Why would God be so insistent that we are to care widows? Well, because in the ancient world, they were among the most vulnerable. The poorest of the poor. The least advantaged. Widows today are in a different situation. The grief is still real, of course, but financially they are not usually left with nothing. Women are able to get jobs now and support themselves, and own property. The systems we have in place do not, as a rule, render widows completely dependent like in the first century.
So all this makes me wonder: if the Bible were written today, who would God command us to take care of? Who are the proverbial widows, the poorest and most vulnerable among us? Who depends upon others’ mercy and generosity for their survival?
Could be a lot of people. The homeless, those living with disabilities, especially severe ones, perhaps veterans, or battered women. It is also useful to see who else God mentioned, often alongside widows, as those who people of faith are called to care for. Check out our Psalm today, for example: it mentions the oppressed, the hungry, the captives, the blind. “The Lord sustains the orphan and widow,” it says, and “cares for the stranger.” Hm, the stranger. Do you know who that refers to? This is another frequent reference throughout the Bible, appearing some 100 times. Often God implores us to care for the stranger, adding, “for you were strangers in a strange land.” It refers to people who are traveling from one country to another, either to escape persecution, or to seek new opportunities – just like the Israelites did when they left Egypt, and like Abraham did, and like Mary and Joseph did when Herod went about killing all the boy babies after Jesus was born. In other words: “strangers” refers to refugees and immigrants.
Refugees and immigrants get a lot of play in the news lately. Everyone is well aware of a large caravan making its way from Honduras, a country with high levels of poverty, violence and unrest, toward our borders, seeking safety and opportunity. A lot of fear has been stirred up about it, from worries about them carrying disease, to gang members and terrorists being among them, to the very practical concern that we don’t have a place for them here, because we have a hard enough time taking care of our own poor and homeless population, and these needy folks will just take more of the resources we need for our own citizens. Many, including many people of faith, have been resolute in their insistence that refugees and immigrants are not welcome here.
And yet… that is not what God asks of us. That response may be practical (I won’t get into that debate here), but it is not what our faith asks of us. The other faithful widow we encounter this morning, the widow of Zaraphath, shows us what a faithful response to a stranger looks like. Living in the midst of a drought and raising her young son, she also has nearly nothing. In fact, she has only enough to make one more meal for her and her son. She plans to make that meal for them, and then just sit there waiting to die. (Can you imagine? How hopeless she must feel!) And along comes the prophet Elijah. She doesn’t know him. He is a foreigner, traveling to her country. He asks her for water, which she gives. But then he ups the ante. “Give me a morsel of bread,” he says. She points out that she has nothing baked, and what she does have is only enough for one meal for her and her son. She would be completely in her right to refuse Elijah! She doesn’t even have enough resources for herself and her family, let alone this strange foreigner in need! Yet Elijah asks her again, “Feed me first, then yourself.”
And incredibly, she does. Even with as little as she has, this poor widow feeds the stranger first. And more amazing still, God blesses her for it, providing abundance where before there was only scarcity. Her resources did not run out. She had enough to serve this foreigner in need. When she follows God’s command, to care for the stranger, God provides everything she needs.
I don’t know what is the best way forward with immigration in this country, nor with this caravan of refugees currently heading toward our border. But what I do know is this: God is quite clear throughout the Bible that we are to care for the weakest among us, in particular the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant and refugee. The Bible does not ever say, “Take care of your own first,” nor, “Feed my sheep, as long as it is safe, and poses no threat.” In fact, God demonstrates that true love looks exactly opposite that! God showed us what love looks like through Jesus, who, like the two widows we encounter today, gave absolutely everything for the sake of the other: for the oppressed, the captive, the blind, the widow, the orphan, and yes, also the stranger. Our God is not about seeking self-preservation over love of neighbor. Love of neighbor is expressed in self-sacrificial giving. Love is expressed by a man hanging on a cross, having given his life for all – for all of us sinners. Love is expressed through giving to those in need, no questions asked.
That is what it looks like to be a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not making a political statement here, nor a policy suggestion. I’m not saying welcoming everyone who comes knocking into our country is what is best for our country. I’m saying that having mercy and generosity and grace and care for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the refugee is what it would look like for us to be a Christian nation. That is what it would look like to be Christian people living in America. It’s a bit scary and uncomfortable and risky (I bet it was for our two widows today, too), but yup, faith is all those things sometimes. That’s where the trust, and a whole lot of prayer, come in. That’s what our widows today can teach us: how to trust that God will provide.
The more I read the story of the Widows’ Mite, the more I think Jesus is using her story to point us toward those in need, those we might not have noticed, or would have dismissed, but who can, nonetheless, show us the face of Christ, the face of the one who gave everything… for us. When we respond to those in need with fear, we are prone to fall into scarcity mode, fearing that there will not be enough. Yet God shows us again and again that what happened with the widow of Zaraphath is true: when we follow God’s command, when we respond with love and not fear, when we care for the other without pretense, God will provide an abundance. Let us all live in the hope of this promise, because we know that God’s promises are true!
Let us pray… God of mercy, grace and abundance, having faith is sometimes risky business. Help us to trust that when we live according to your word and command, you will always provide what we need to do so. Show us the people in this world who are in special need of your love, and give us the strength to show it. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Image attribution: JESUS MAFA. The Widow's Mite, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48392 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).