Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
November 11, 2018
As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This morning we have the story of two widows, both of whom are down to their last earthly possessions. The first, the widow of Zarephath, is in despair; in the midst of a famine, she is about to use her very last bit of oil and grain to make a final meal for herself and her son, after which she expects they will die of hunger. The prophet Elijah tells her to make a cake for him first, then promises that God will not leave her to perish but will instead provide for her until the famine is over.
The second, the widow in the Temple, comes and gives the last two coins she owns, while those who are rich offer vastly larger sums. Jesus tells his disciples that although the monetary value of her offering is miniscule, she has in fact given more than the wealthy donors, for she has given everything.
We often read about both of these stories as models of sacrificial giving: though they have so little, neither widow calculates what must be set aside for themselves, but rather gives everything. The widow of Zarephath feeds God’s prophet before herself or her son, and the widow in the Temple gives all she has to sustain the ministries of God’s holy sanctuary. Their examples are treated as lessons that if we give to God first, no matter how little we have, we will be blessed.
Particularly on the Sunday before we receive our annual pledges, this is a tempting interpretation to take! And in some ways, it’s a very useful one. Like I preached a few weeks ago on the rich man whom Jesus asks to sell all his possessions, it helps us flip the lens we normally use for thinking about our wealth – we’ve worked hard for it, we’ve earned it, we should use most of it to sustain ourselves and our families and then give what’s left over – instead inviting us to think of all we have as being a gift from God, and therefore at God’s service.
But in researching the Gospel passage, I came upon an interpretation I’d never heard before – one that challenges us in a different way. As I mentioned, we often hold up the widow in the Temple as a paragon of selfless giving – but did you notice that Jesus does not actually praise her or commend her actions? He merely notes that she gave more, paradoxically, than her rich counterparts. And did you notice that at the beginning of the passage, Jesus condemns the wealthy scribes who “devour widows’ houses” – that is, eat up all their resources? And did you happen to remember that elsewhere, Jesus tells his followers not to “sound a trumpet” when you give, “as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,” but to “do your giving in secret” (Matthew 6:2, 4) – yet the rich patrons at the Temple are giving so publicly that Jesus, from across the vast courtyard, can tell how big their gifts are?
We might celebrate the widow in the Temple as a generous and whole-hearted giver, but I think Jesus’ attitude in this passage is one of condemnation rather than celebration – condemnation of a system that exploited widows, already at the bottom of the social ladder, so harshly that they were expected to give even their last two coins for the upkeep of a magnificent house of worship and its well-fed, powerful priests.
And this makes me think of the widow of Zarephath and her sacrificial giving in a different light. Why were she and her son left to starve? Where was the community to care about them and act as their safety net? Why were they expected to give all they had, while other households who still had able-bodied breadwinners were off the hook? God ultimately provided, turning what they had into just enough – but we’re left with an unsettling sense that Elijah was sent to step in only after it became clear that none of their neighbors would help.
On this Veterans’ Day, especially on this 100th anniversary of the Armistice at the end of the First World War, I can’t help but think about the parallels to how we ask some among us to give everything, while the rest of us go about life with little inconvenience.
I recently finished reading Jacquelyn Winspear’s book Maisie Dobbs, about a London private eye who served as a nurse in WWI. Maisie’s friend and assistant, a veteran named Billy Beale, confides in her that he hasn’t been able to sleep since the war ended 11 years ago:
Soon as I close my eyes, it all comes back…I can almost smell the gas, can [h]ardly breathe at times. If I fall asleep straight away, I only wake up fighting for breath. And the pounding in my [h]ead. You never forget the pounding, the shells. …I get up, so [as] not to wake the missus[, and] I go out…walking the streets…for hours sometimes. And you know what…? It’s not only me…there’s a lot of men I see, [a]bout my age, walking the streets…sometimes I think we’re like the waking dead…living our lives during the day…then [when night falls,] trying to forget something [t]hat [h]appened years ago.
The author’s description of how those who suffered shell shock (what we now call PTSD) and terrible disfigurement continued to face devastating mental and physical effects even a decade on reminded me of the very real toll of war – a setting in which humans are asked to do and to witness the most inhuman of things, all in the name of a cause that may ultimately prove futile.
The New York Times recently published an essay about a military outpost in an area of Afghanistan nicknamed the “Valley of Death” – an outpost that made no sense to occupy but that higher-ups kept demanding, for years, be held. The cost to those who have survived their time there and in similar settings – the physical wounds, the nightmares, the depression and addiction, the damage to your psyche when you’re always in fight-or-flight mode, the damage to your soul when you’ve watched your friends die or mistakenly killed an unarmed civilian – is horrifying. And despite their best efforts to contain it, the trauma bleeds out onto veterans’ families, communities, and even onto strangers, as we witnessed in the massacre this week of 12 people at a bar in California by a former Marine suffering from PTSD.
Because while today we particularly remember the end of the Great War, in our own time we have also been creating such casualties of war – not to mention killing civilians in so-called collateral damage – for 17 years. Of the 2.4 million veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, 1 in 5 suffers from PTSD or major depression, and 1 in 6 suffers from a substance abuse issue. 20 veterans and active duty troops die by suicide every day, meaning that in just one year, nearly as many people who have served in the military die by suicide as have been killed in combat in the entire 17 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rate is particularly high among women.
“I’m not surprised someone I knew ended up doing a mass shooting,” said Sam Tanner, who served with the California gunman and described him as a friend. “Guys struggle. We’ve lost more Marines in our peer group to suicide than we ever lost in Afghanistan.” [source]
I imagine Jesus just weeping over this sinful waste of human life. Yet most of us can afford to let the war in Afghanistan and our ongoing involvement in armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere simmer in the background; most of us can gloss over what we ask of our military and how many resources our country devotes to ongoing conflict. There is very little everyday cost or even inconvenience to most of us, and so we continue to unconsciously uphold a war machine that drains our country’s finances, rips holes in our social fabric, and disproportionately burdens the young, the poor, and people of color, looking for a way up and out.
As I think about the veterans I know and love who have suffered mental illness, disability, addiction, and broken relationships as a result of their military service, it makes me wonder what Jesus might say to us as we walk to the treasury to deposit out of our relative abundance – but fail to notice those who are giving everything to a system that may very well crush them.
We might attend remembrance services or stand to acknowledge vets at sporting events, we might fly flags or send our extra Halloween candy to the troops like we’re doing today, and be glad for the chance to contribute in some way. We might even donate to veterans treatment courts that provide alternative sentencing, mentoring, and counseling services to veterans who’ve run afoul of the law through drug or alcohol addictions stemming from the trauma of their service, a tradition I started a few Veterans’ Days ago to honor my dad, uncle, and cousin’s Navy service.
But most of us, myself included, don’t spend our time and energy fighting for policy changes in how we treat veterans when they return home; most of us don’t hold our politicians accountable for working to avoid or end war; most of us don’t use our voices to proclaim that it’s time for us to find another way. In other words, we might look for ways to help the widows after their houses have been devoured, but we haven’t figured out how to stop them from being devoured in the first place.
On this Armistice Day, I wonder if the Prince of Peace would ask us to honor veterans’ very real and deep sacrifice by glorifying it – or whether, like his condemnation of the Temple treasury system, he might encourage us to challenge and change a society that asks the sacrifice of them in the first place.