Pentecost 24 B
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
All across America today, preachers, hunting for happy pledge cards, are milking today’s Gospel for all that it's worth. Hey, can you blame them? Our reading hands them the faithful widow, giving all that she has on earth to the Temple treasury!
“Now that is trust in God!” we crow. “How much better to give sacrificially of your time, talent, and treasure than just to drop what’s left-over into the plate each week.”
Yes, I’ve heard that sermon before. Haven’t you? I might even have preached it. After studying the text, though, I was taken aback to see what today’s Gospel reading is really about.
Since we preachers in budget season can’t be trusted with this text, I’ve invited someone else to come speak to you today. An eye-witness, you might say!
"Good morning! My name is Hannah. I’m Miriam’s friend from Jerusalem … Miriam, she’s the widow who Jesus talks about in your lesson. Miriam and I share neighboring shanties on the outskirts of the city, together with our kids. We both lost our husbands several years ago. She’s got four young mouths to feed—three girls and a boy--and I just have two, thanks be to God, though they’re both girls. Why the Holy One couldn’t at least have given me sons, I’ll never know, what with Him taking away my husband so young. What am I supposed to do with a bunch of helpless girls?
I apologize for these rags that I’m wearing, and for the smell. It’s hard to find water to wash with, out where we live. All that we have comes from what we can scavenge from the garbage dump or from the edges of harvested fields. We didn’t used to be like this, you know. When our husbands were alive, we lived in real houses and cooked warm food for our children every day! How I dream of those days! My husband was a carpenter, and Miriam’s had a stand at the market. But they were both only sons. When they died, there wasn’t any family left to care for either of us. We and our kids have to make do on our own.
Miriam, she hasn’t been quite right in the head for a while now. Sometimes desperation makes people believe crazy things, you know? She’s really fallen for the promises that some of the religious leaders preach to us widows. Every day, there’s a group of scribes praying and carrying on out in front of the Court of the Women. You know, it’s the faction with those fancy robes and those voices like honey. They sound so sure of themselves, so clever and educated, that it’s hard not to listen to them. I’ll give you that. They keep telling us that if we give them money, then they’ll use their beautiful words to appeal to God on our behalf, and God will bless us with new husbands and fine homes. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in the Holy One. I love His Law. I’d even buy some doves to sacrifice in the Temple, if I had the money for them. But Miriam, she falls for every story that these fancy men tell her! Instead of buying bread for her children, she keeps putting every penny that she gets into their fat, ring-clad hands. I worry about her. That’s why I went with her to the Temple that day—to try to talk her out of putting her last fifty cents into the Treasury. Her only son has been so sickly lately, and she’s so desperate for him to get well. She told me that she just knew that today was the day. Today, she told me, if she just gave the Temple the 2 coins that she had earned sweeping up trash, then God would hear the prayers of the scribes. God would spare her little boy’s life. How could I stop her, without dashing all of her hopes?
So I just stood there like a fool, wincing inside as I listened to those slick prayers. I watched her drop all of her coins--and all of her hope--into one of their grand, trumpet-shaped boxes. Blinking back tears, I turned my head to go. That’s when I caught a glimpse of a thin rabbi standing apart from the crowd. He looked so different from the other religious leaders, that he really caught my attention. His robes were rough and covered in dust, and his cheap sandals looked as if he had walked many a mile. I could tell that he was a rabbi because he had a group of men and women with him, clearly his disciples. They all looked like country-bumpkins, maybe from somewhere out in the Galilee. This rabbi wasn’t praying out loud or preaching to anyone, though. He was squatting thoughtfully on his haunches, watching everything intently. I saw him turn his head toward the scribes and listen, a deep frown forming on his brow. I saw his hands clench into fists at his sides. A few of his disciples noticed, too, and looked jumpy. He was clearly angry at what the scribes were saying. Well, good for him! Somebody needs to be angry at the way they pretend to love God while they take advantage of poor folk!
Then I saw his eyes focus on the people who were bringing their offerings to the treasury. He studied them carefully and quietly, and his expression changed from anger to something else—maybe pity, pity mixed with love? His fists weren’t clenched anymore, but he looked so, so very sad. He saw the rich parading up to the treasury box looking pious and pleased with themselves. He saw Miriam drop in her coins, too. And I think that I saw him blink away a tear. He got up slowly, as if he carried the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, and he went over to his disciples. I couldn’t hear him, but I could see him pointing at the scribes, and at the wealthy donors, and at Miriam, and shaking his head in exasperation at how wrong it all was.
I wanted to take Miriam over to him. I just had the feeling that this rabbi could truly help her. But she had hurried off, back to her little boy. I decided to follow him myself. As I caught up with his group, I heard him telling his disciples that the Temple would soon be torn down. “Not one stone will be left,” he shouted in disgust. He seemed really determined about something. He walked on into the city like a man with an important purpose, like someone who had made an important decision. I thought then that he must also be a prophet, just like Jeremiah, or Amos, speaking God’s judgment upon us and our corruption.
Miriam and her son both died, you know. Starvation, sickness, broken hearts …all of that. I took in her little girls. One day, I was outside the city walls, looking for some scraps to feed all of these kids, and I saw the rabbi again. I saw him die. Right there on a Roman cross, like a robber or a traitor. It was a terrible sight, and it upset me. It’s just like the authorities to kill a prophet like that—to mow down somebody who would dare to stand up for the poor.
Now, of course, I know what it means. His disciples taught me. Miriam gave her whole life to God, but she didn’t understand. But this rabbi--Jesus was his name—he understood, and he gave his whole life, too. I think that Miriam inspired him. He gave his life for Miriam and her baby boy. And for me. And even for the pompous scribes and for the rich givers. He gave his whole life for the life of the whole world. I know it's hard to believe, but he didn't stay dead! He rose up and appeared to his disciples. He rose to show that God’s power is different and stronger than the power of money and smooth-talking politics. He rose to prove once and for all, that love is stronger than oppression and death.
I follow Jesus' Way now. For me, what I remember most about that day at the Temple is how Jesus held us all in his gaze. You could tell that he truly saw us, and that he cared. The Holy One himself was looking through Jesus’ eyes, looking into squalor and injustice, into sin and earnestness, into generosity and greed. And not flinching. God was right there, blessing the goodness that He could find. But what am I lecturing you all about?! Rev. Anne has told me about this parish. She told me about how so many of you came to the airport at midnight to welcome Ortance and her daughters into their new lives in this country. You reached out to them with a loving embrace, their first welcome after so much hatred, so much indifference. Your embrace to them was just like Jesus’ eyes watching Miriam. The blessing of God was in it. Rev. Anne also told me about the struggling cancer victim in the Kroger parking lot—the one who wept when she received a palm cross from the hand of a small child from this parish. That palm cross was just like Jesus’ eyes, too--full of blessing. This parish knows how to see the world like Jesus sees it: down on your haunches, looking outward, open to take in hurt, injustice, and joy alike. And to offer them up to God, in Jesus’ Name. May the love of Christ continue to flow through you and sustain you always.