Column: “Jesus Laments Widow Who Gave All She Had”

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The health of the divine economy is measured by a poor widow’s budget,” said the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service. If she is not doing well, the rest of us are not doing well. The title of Taylor’s sermon was “The Widow’s Might” and her text was Mark 12:41-44.

“People have asked if Chautauqua got the title wrong, but I wrote the title on purpose to give her a headline,” Taylor said. There are many widows in the Bible who are named, like Tamar, Judith, Ruth, Naomi and Orpah. There are some not named, like the widow of Zarephath who received a jar of meal and one of oil to feed Elijah and her family.

“The widow of Jerusalem received a less tangible but no less significant gift — she got Jesus’ attention,” Taylor said.

The widow gave all she had to live on.

“How do we know?” Taylor said. “It was written all over the widow if you took time to read. She prayed over the coins like a gambler, blowing on them like dice and then she realized the full weight of what she had done. That is what penniless looks like.”

Maybe she was old or maybe she was young with five children. The term “poor widow” seems redundant, but there were rich widows. Roman law allowed women to inherit from their husbands and Paul was supported by wealthy widows.

“This woman was not a rich widow or a poor, married woman. She was a poor widow and her gender and marital status made her insignificant in the temple and the marketplace. She was not a person of interest and was just in the way,” Taylor said.

But she caught Jesus’ attention on his last trip to God’s house and the widow was the subject on one of his last teachings. Jesus sat across from the treasury box and saw how people were giving. Some made a great show without actually putting something in. Jesus called his disciples over and told them not to miss what had just happened.

“Why was this a big deal? She had set her death in motion; she had committed economic suicide. The treasury box was used to pay bills and whatever she put in, it would cost more to count it than what it could buy,” Taylor said. “It would not have made a difference if she did not have a witness and she had a witness who put words to her action. Out of the nothing she already had, she gave it all away. She was offering up her life.”

Jesus’ words are often construed as praise for the widow, she said. People are urged to be as generous as she was.

“Your two coins mean as much as a five-figure check. But I think there is something wrong with that [interpretation]. Nowhere did Jesus commend her action; he did not say go and do likewise,” Taylor said. “And there is nothing [in the text] that says this was an offering to God.”

In the verse just before that story, Jesus denounced the scribes who made a living devouring widow’s houses. They knew the Torah and acted as accountant, judge, lawyer and preacher rolled into one.

The Jewishness of the scribes is not the issue, Taylor said.

“Jesus was Jewish. It is a human story about people who use their education to take advantage of the poor or help others take advantage of the poor. They did a little editing of the text. They did a six-week series on the commandments and stopped at 10. They forget about Deuteronomy 24, to leave a sheaf in the field for the widow, orphan or alien,” she said.

Taylor admitted she was speculating, but Jesus was so mad he walked out of the temple and said the whole place was going to come down. The temple area was undergoing a 70-year renovation, called Herod the Great’s temple, and Josephus said it was plated in gold and looked like a fiery mountain with snow on top.

Take the brackets off the story of the widow and the Scripture shows Jesus judged the system that the widow funded, Taylor said.

“This sounds like a lament. She is committing economic suicide in hopes of getting God’s attention. She offered all she had to an institution that was not worthy of her and Jesus noticed,” she said. “This might have been a deal-breaker for Jesus. Where were the ones to remind people not to take the widow’s garment in pledge?”

It was too late for Jesus, on his last visit to God’s house, to fix the problem but he called the disciples over to see the widow pass through the eye of the needle. Jesus was right behind her.

“The judgment is on those who corrupted the temple, not the temple itself,” Taylor said. “Jesus turned out those who were using the temple for buying and selling, not those who were coming to worship.”

Taylor urged Chautauquans to give generously to Chautauqua to “keep this place alive and well to give food to those who need it for their work in the world.”

“Be the best possible scribes, because that is what we are,” she said. “We have power to spare and we are entrusted with editing the Gospel and being its embodiment to protect the vulnerable. We have the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; we have the tools to do it.”

Father Luke Fodor presided. Molly Vest, a scholarship student with the International Order of King’s Daughters and Sons, read the Scripture. Vest is an elementary education major at Campbellsville University in Kentucky. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “The Lord is My Shepherd,” by Nicholas White. The Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy supports this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.