A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 8, 2015
1 Kings 17:8-16 & Mark 12:38-44
The two passages of Scripture we’ve just heard are among the most familiar in all the Bible. We’ve heard these stories before, and they have a central figure in common: a widow, a mighty widow. This is why I’ve titled my sermon today, “Mighty Widows,”; I want to think with you about what these two widows teach us about faith and how we might take their example of faith and work into the practice of our own. I also want to challenge us to look at these women in a different way than we have before. You see, there is a danger in getting too familiar with passages from Scripture: familiarity leads to complacency. Said in another way, if we think we ‘know’ what Scripture is saying, we probably don’t. God speaks in the big moments of Scripture, but also in the small nuances. In the nuances of Scripture, in the small things we might miss along the way, there is good stuff…there is life-changing stuff. Let’s first begin by reviewing what we’ve just heard.
The word of the Lord came to Elijah and told him to go to Zarephath, which is a few days travel north from Nazareth. Remember with me for a moment that Elijah was not only a great prophet of Israel—he was the one thought to be the herald of the Jewish messiah. Elijah was powerful, in word and in action. God spoke mightily through Elijah, and God spoke to him often. This time God tells Elijah to pick up and go to Zarephath where he will receive room and board from a widow. Elijah does as the Lord says and meets his hostess at the gate of the city; the widow was there gathering sticks. Elijah calls out to her to bring him something to drink and a morsel of food. The widow’s response is strange: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing…just a little of this and a little of that…and what I have I’m going to prepare for myself and my son so that we may eat it, and die.”
This is strange first because the widow starts by acknowledging God, the Lord that has spoken to Elijah and sent him to Zarephath. This area of the ancient Middle East was known for having as many different religions as there were people. It is possible that word of Elijah has spread and the widow is aware that she is speaking to a very powerful prophet of God.
The widow’s response is also strange because she says she is going home to make what food she has so that she and her son can eat, and die. Eat and die? This is just a small indication of the kind of distress that had fallen on the widow’s household. If her situation is so bad that not even a meal can save her and her son, she has hit the bottom. There is no one to provide for her and her household; she has no security in a culture that liked to trade women among men like property. The desperation in her reply to Elijah is heartbreaking: “…so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
Still, Elijah persists. “Do not be afraid…make me a little something to eat and do the same for yourself and your son…the Lord the God of Israel says that there will be enough…the oil and the meal will not run out until rain falls on the earth.” “Do not be afraid” is the great Biblical prelude to miracles; after all, “Do not be afraid” is what Gabriel says to the young mother of Jesus. The widow does as Elijah says and there is enough oil and meal for the widow and her household and Elijah to eat for many days. Just as the Lord said, there was enough.
Flip over now to the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is sitting in the temple square in Jerusalem with his disciples. On one side of the square is the temple where everyone goes for worship and on the other side is the temple treasury where everyone goes to make his or her financial offering. Turning to the temple, Jesus points to the scribes and warns the disciples to be wary of them. The scribes walk around the marketplace like royalty, dressed in their finest attire, taking places of honor at banquets and in the temple. Jesus warns against these religious hypocrites because they are living the high life on the offerings of those who have so little to give.
Turning now to the other side of the square, to the treasury, Jesus contrasts the frivolity of the scribes with a woman…a widow. As the widow stands in line to make her deposit, many rich people push past her to make their grand offerings. When the widow comes to the deposit box, she puts in two copper coins, the total value of which is a penny. “Truly I tell you, the widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury…they have contributed from their abundance, but she has put in everything she had to live on.” The scene is poignant—the finery and wealth of the temple and its leaders on one side of the square, the widow and her small offering on the other. Jesus set these two realities in contrast with the other to really hit a point home: the widow has done much more than the other givers and the even the scribes.
Now comes the challenge. We’ve heard these stories before and it seems that the point is clear: giving is good and we should give to God even if it means giving what little we have to live on…God will provide.
But I want to suggest to you something different. I want to suggest to you today that these stories are not about who the widows are or what they give, but how they go about giving. I want to suggest to you that these stories are not about sacrifice as we know it, but about sacrifice as Jesus desires it to be.
For so long we’ve read about the mighty widow in Mark’s gospel, and the mighty widow of Zarephath, with eyes that only see the widows for who they are: husband-less women who are in desperate situations. For too long we’ve read about these women who had nothing—no husbands, no income, no hope. This makes the ‘what’ of their offerings all the more astounding. These husband-less widows, without income or hope, have given all they have to live on: wow! This has allowed us to put them on pedestals where they become the poster children for giving. How many times have you heard that God loves a cheerful giver? Or how many times have heard that you should give until it hurts? I’ve heard these messages, and I’m sure you have too, from preachers, church finance committees, even from non-profit fundraisers. If the widow of Zarephath had enough faith to do as Elijah told her, why don’t you? If the widow in Mark’s gospel was willing to give all that she had left, why can’t you? We put these mighty widows on pedestals because we think they are the perfect image of sacrifice, and it has been beaten into our heads that sacrifice builds character and character equals success.
But the true essence of sacrifice could not be further from this. Sacrifice is the mash-up of two Latin words: one meaning “to make” and the other meaning “sacred”. Put these two together and the elementary meaning of sacrifice is ‘to make holy.’ Sacrifice, if we take its meaning seriously in our lives, is to do or offer or give something as an act of devotion or worship to God. In today’s world, sacrifice often means something different. It often means giving up more than we should and less than we can. At times, sacrifice is best when someone else is doing it because none of us really wants to give up anything. But still we are told that sacrifice is a righteous way of life, that giving up more than we should is far better than anything else. I’ve heard it said that going without something is the only way to really know what life is all about, and I’ve heard that if you give, sacrifice, until it literally and metaphorically hurts, God will be there with a reward.
We love these mighty widows because they allow us to perpetuate this understanding of sacrifice on ourselves and on others. In a lot of ways, this keeps society under control by keeping power structures in place. It is a mechanism of guilt, one on which the church has survived for many years. But if this new reading of what Jesus is saying is right—that its not about who or what, but about how—than we have to rethink our understanding of sacrifice, of giving, and allow God to change our hearts and minds. If these mighty widows are teaching us the real meaning of faith, if Jesus is showing us the real way to sacrifice, we would do really well to follow and embrace what they have to teach us.
Don’t get me wrong: we can never forget that these two women were completely destitute, mostly because of a societal structure that gave them value and worth based on their marital status. We can never forget that, even in their poverty, they gave. We can also never forget that institutions like the church survive on the offerings of their people. But these women were more than widows. The oil and the meal, the two copper coins, they are more than money and the ingredients to make a meal. They are sacrifices, symbols of faith given over to God to make something holy from them. The reason these widows are mighty is because they did not hesitate to give what they could, even if it is was small, because they knew in their heart of hearts that God could take their offering and make something holy from it. In the case of the widow of Zarephath, she believed that God could take her meager amount of oil and meal to create the holy, saving meal for her household. In the case of the widow in Mark’s gospel, she believed that God could use her two meager coins to continue the good work of the temple even if its leaders were corrupt. They did not give out of self-righteousness, or from some puffed up sense of poverty or martyrdom; they gave because they knew God was going to do great things.
This is radically good news for us today and also a call to transformation. This is good news because we can leave behind the idea that God is only concerned with what we give, and focus on the truth that God is really concerned with how we go about giving. This is good news because we, the Church, can give up the damaging belief that our personal value is tied up with how much we give to the church, or the symphony, or the SPCA. This is good news because in the light of who and what God is, none of us can give anything that compares; what we can give is ourselves, the small parts of our lives, our sacrifices, with the belief and knowledge that God is going to make this stuff holy. Because God will. This is the business that our God in most interested in: making you and me, the whole of creation, everything all around, holy. It is God’s desire that our hearts and minds, our very bodies, be holy, so we can sacrifice, give them to God confidently. It is God’s desire that the earth all around be holy, so we can confidently sacrifice, give to God the fruits of our labor, the resources we extract, the discoveries we make. It is God’s desire that our churches, our communities, our homes, and the places we work be places of holiness, so we can confidently sacrifice, boldly give these places to God and allow God to transform them. And we can be confident that giving these things is enough because we have sacrificed them to God, given them to God to make them holy.
This good news is a call to transformation, as all good news is that comes form the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we can no longer assign value to ourselves and each other based on how much we give or how much we write at the end of the check, we must recognize value in ourselves and each other in a different way. For this, we need only turn to God. It is the message of our faith that God does not see us as the world sees us; God does not value us because of what we display on the outside. We are valuable in God’s eyes because before we were even born, God was in the womb knitting us together. We are valuable in God’s eyes because each of us bears in and on us the perfect image of God. We are valuable in God’s eyes because God was willing to sacrifice Jesus Christ in order to institute a new relationship between God and the human family. These things are unseen by the human eye, but they are seen by God. Our faith may not be seen by others, but it is noticed by God. This is how and why God assigns us value, and we can live and act towards each other in the same way.
The widows of Scripture are mighty because of how they gave their offering. The widows of Scripture are mighty because they understood sacrifice, that God can take anything and make it holy. May we give in the same way and understand that God will take our offerings, our very lives, and make them holy. May we value ourselves and one another by the ways we sacrifice ourselves to God. May we give what we can to support and sustain the work that God is doing in the world, not because we think we have to, but because we want to be a part of God’s work. May we allow the good news of the Gospel to sink in deeply today and transform us. Because then we will be mighty, too. With God’s help, may it be so. Amen.