Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 14, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Mark 12: 13-34
"That comes to $125,000, preacher." She explained to the pastor who had come to visit her in her home about the double-indemnity life insurance payout she had just received after the tragic accidental death of her husband. She continued, "And there's no sense at all in either one of us wasting our time breath about the widow's mite. I'm a widow my own self now, and I realize that if that widow in the Bible had amounted to anything, or had anything besides just a mite, she wouldn't have had to throw it all in the collection plate at one time. She could have just given a tenth. You can't divide a mite, preacher. There's not even ten parts to it, I suspect."
That's an issue excerpt from a story by Ferrol Sams, titled, "The Widow's Mite." The widow's mite has become a stock phrase in the English language. It's even got its own dictionary entry. You look it up and it'll say something like a small contribution given willingly that is all one has to give. The word mite M-I-T-E comes from the King James Version of the Bible in the Gospel according to Mark 12:42, which tells about a poor widow who gives her offering, two mites, which make a farthing, or as modern translations have it, two small copper coins, which make a penny.
A mite is an insignificant amount of money, just half a penny, but what's surprising about this widow's mite is that the Lord Jesus Himself speaks for her, speaks up for her. He says that she put in more than all the others, because she in her poverty put in all that she had to live on.
Now it's an interesting observation, but what's the point? What does the widow's mite mean for you? For me? Let's take up this question and consider some possible answers to it. A common answer to the question, "What does the widow's mite mean?" is this: her devotion is something we should imitate.
If you're a church-going person, you may have sung the hymn "Take My Life and Let It Be." You remember that one? In the fourth verse of that hymn, we sing to the Lord, "Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold." Not a mite would I withhold, in other words, Lord, help me be like the widow who gave it all and held nothing back, but not completely like her. Because if you're a widow with double-indemnity life insurance payout and you've got more than just a penny to your name, say you've got several million, and all of those pennies got jobs to do, to take care of the necessities for you and for the people who are depending on you. You're not going to really just give it all away at once, are you?
So you don't completely imitate her. You could identify the idea behind what she did: sacrificial, wholehearted giving. You could idealize her and then imitate her. But hold on a minute. There's something odd about this whole scene in the Gospel according to Mark. Apparently, this widow doesn't even know that Jesus is there, and it's odd because almost every other character in the Gospel of Mark is focused on Jesus and has some sort of interaction with Him, but not this widow. And for whatever reason, Jesus doesn't even have an opportunity to speak with her, but He does speak up for her. And what He says prepares us to hear about another woman who comes later in Mark's Gospel, two chapters later. We hear of another woman who practices sacrificial, some would say, reckless, wholehearted devotion to her Lord. And there are striking similarities between these two women. So when you take all this together in the larger context, what the widow's mite means isn't so straightforward.
And there's another problem with this first answer that we should idealize and imitate this widow. The problem is that her contribution is going into a corrupt system that is headed for disaster. The offerings collected in those boxes go to support the temple system in Jerusalem. And if you've been following in the Gospel of Mark, you know that Jesus has already condemned the temple. He described it as a den of robbers. The temple is the place where the bandits go to count their loot. And the robbers are the religious leaders of the temple because they devour widow's houses. That is, they're stealing money from the widows when they should be supporting them. And so, Jesus announces that this whole system is so corrupt and evil that God's judgment is coming down on it, and in a few decades, the whole place is going to be destroyed.
So, does it make sense to idealize and imitate this widow's behavior? Consider this question in a different setting. For example, should we idealize and imitate the behavior of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare's famous play? On the surface, there is something admirable, even something beautiful about Romeo and Juliet's devotion to one another, just as there is something admirable about the widow's devotion. But remember, the play is a tragedy. Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo, we're told. It's a horribly sad story about bitter rivalry and immature infatuation and teenage suicide. And Shakespeare gives words to this story, not so that we can idealize and imitate them. He gives the word so that we can feel their pain and grieve with them.
And when Jesus' biographer, Mark, includes this account of the widow's mite in his story, he's doing something similar. Listen to it in context, at the end of Mark, chapter 12, the beginning of 13, and the beginning of 14.
Jesus taught in the temple. And in His teaching He was saying, "Beware of the scribes, the religious leaders who love to walk around in long robes and desire greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats at synagogues and the places of honor at the feasts. They are the ones who are devouring widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the harshest judgment."
And taking a seat opposite the treasury in the temple, Jesus began to observe those who were putting money into the offering box. And many wealthy people came and put in large sums, and a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And Jesus, calling His disciples, said to them, "I am telling you the truth. This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box, because they gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in everything she had, all that she had to live on." And as they were going out of the temple, one of Jesus' disciples says to Him, "Rabbi, Teacher, look, what wonderful stones, what wonderful buildings." Jesus said to him, "You see all these buildings? There will not be left here one stone standing upon another. They all will be thrown down."
Now it was two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were seeking some underhanded way to arrest Him and kill Him. But they were saying, "Not during the feast, otherwise the people will riot." Now Jesus, when He was in Bethany at the house of Simon, the leper, while He was reclining at the table, a woman came carrying an alabaster flask of ointment, pure nard, very costly. And she broke the flask and poured it over His head. Some of those who were standing by began saying to themselves, indignantly, "Why was this ointment wasted like that? This ointment could have been sold for a year's wages and given to the poor." And they scolded her. "Leave her alone," Jesus said, "Why do you give her grief? She's done a beautiful work for Me. The poor you will always have with you. And whenever you truly desire it, you can do good for them. But Me, you are not always going to have Me. What she has come to understand, she did. She went ahead and anointed My body for its burial. And I am telling you the truth, wherever this Gospel, wherever this Good News is proclaimed in all the world, what she has done will be talked about publicly in memory of her."
I used to think that the phrase "star-crossed love" referred to people who were so madly in love that when they looked at each other, they had stars in their eyes. And that's why Romeo and Juliet are called star-crossed lovers, right? Well, that's not what the phrase "star-crossed" means. You can get the meaning of it by comparing it to another word that has star in it. The Italian word for star is "astro," and to cross the stars would be to dis the stars. It would be a dis-astro. Star-crossed love is love headed for disaster. And the devotion of both of these women is star-crossed in that sense; it's headed for disaster.
So, if we don't idealize and imitate the widow who gave her mite, then what? Another response would be to dismiss her. We dismiss her offering as foolish and we denounce the system that put her in this awful situation. And there is some merit to this answer because we have our own corrupt systems where people use religious-sounding words to prey upon the generosity of others, and if you or I were ever to be involved in that, we should expect the harshest judgment. But again, notice how Jesus' response is odd. He denounces the corrupt system, but He praises the widow. So maybe we shouldn't dismiss her. Maybe our analogy with Romeo and Juliet can help some more.
I know a high school teacher named Chuck. Chuck had taught Romeo and Juliet to high school students for 30 years. But let's say that you were skeptical about this and you asked Chuck," Why do you teach young people this play, with its childish ideas of love and an adolescent fantasy about death solving all your problems?"
Now I don't think Chuck would dismiss the tragedy of it all, but I think he would talk to you about the power of language, the power of words. Shakespeare gave his characters words, words that we can take into our souls, into our stories, and they can help us face the disaster to which we are all headed. When you hear a Juliet say to her Romeo, "In the face of this disaster, my bounty is as boundless as the sea and my love as deep. The more I give thee, the more I have. For both are infinite." Or when Friar Lawrence is having second thoughts about performing the marriage for the couple because he knows the disaster and the sorrow that is to come, Romeo says to him, "Come what sorrow can. It cannot countervail the exchange of joy that one short minute gives me in her sight. Do thou, but close our hand with holy words. Then, love devouring death, do what he dare. It is enough that I but call her mine."
And if all you did was dismiss these words outright, you would miss the way, the way that when you take them into your story, they sweep you up into something more. The widow in the temple was devoted to something that was headed for disaster. We find her in the story, not so we can idealize and imitate her, but neither should we dismiss her. So what does this mean for us? It means that if Jesus brought her into His story, He can bring you in, too. Even if this widow did not yet know Jesus by name, she trusted in the God whom He calls Father. So even if this temple, made with human hands, is destroyed, even if she loses everything and death does its worst, her God lives. And for the second woman in the scene, she's also devoted to One who is headed for disaster, but she has come to understand that after the temple of His body is destroyed, after He has given his life to rescue the whole corrupt and condemned human race, He will live again—and she will live in Him. So she has to go ahead and anoint Him for burial now, because there won't be time for it later. He won't be dead long enough for that.
I got to know Chuck, the English teacher I mentioned earlier, through my son. My son was his student. They got to know each other by being cast members for the school's production of Romeo and Juliet, and my son played Friar John and Chuck played Friar Lawrence, the priest to perform the wedding ceremony for the star-crossed lovers.
Sometime after the play, Chuck learned that his wife Marcia had a brain tumor. Together, they were headed toward disaster. She died eight months later. Chuck told me that after teaching Romeo and Juliet for 30 years and then being a cast member, the play has had a profound impact on his soul. Shakespeare gave his characters words that resonate with anyone who's loved another in this disaster that we call mortal life. And Chuck knows their sorrow and Chuck knows Jesus. Chuck had taken some of Shakespeare's words as his own, but Jesus has taken Chuck and Marsha as His own. And their love lives because Jesus lives.
Turns out that the widow with the double-indemnity life insurance check was right. The widow in the Bible who gave her mites hadn't amounted to much, but truth be told, none of us have and none of us will on our own, even with life insurance. Everything in this death-marked life will eventually crumble and fail, but Jesus won't let us be dismissed. He has spoken for us. He spoke up for those two women. So go ahead and give it all, not imitating them, but swept up into Jesus' story with them. Hold nothing back, because His love is infinite, and the more you give for Him, the more you have.
Pray with me. Father, God, come what sorrow can. Nothing can countervail the exchange of joy that we have in Your presence. Let death do what it can because Your Son Jesus has destroyed it. And He has made us His own. For He lives and He reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
No Reflections for March 14, 2021
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted" arranged and performed by Nathan Drake. (www.reawakenhymns.com) Used by permission.
"Return to the Lord" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" arr. J.S. Bach