St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 24th October 2012
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour 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.’
The scribes, in their long flowing robes, sitting in the places of honour, did not even notice she existed. Nor did the rich men exhibiting their piety and bounty by sweeping past to make their generous, donations: they expected all eyes to be on them. They certainly never dreamed that the God (they said) their donations were honouring was the same, dust-weary man quietly watching them from the steps opposite the treasury doors. Nor did they see the wretched widow waiting humbly for them to finish, embarrassed at what little she had to give in comparison.
Those that did notice the widow’s gift were not happy. Some sneered at her pathetic offering; ‘thank goodness’, they said, ‘that we are not sinners like her.’ After the long walk home, the widow’s mother-in-law scolded her for giving away the money that was supposed to buy bread and grain: ‘piety is all very well’, she said, ‘but it will not put food on our table.’ Her little boy said nothing, but sat there with hungry eyes, wondering why his mother had given away all they had to live on.
The tabloid newspapers of the day, bursting with their usual gossip and scandal about the rich and famous, ran the headline ‘Chav Widow Insults Temple With Paltry Offering’, while the broadsheets merely had a small column on page fifteen speculating whether the Temple should be more careful with security around its treasury, as unsavoury characters had been seen hanging about.
Jesus saw all this, and heard all the people were saying. But Jesus did not care for fame, bright clothes, status, or grand performances of wealth and charity. To him, the poor widow was the most generous person in the whole of Jerusalem. ‘Truly’, he said: ‘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.’
‘But how can this be true?’ wondered the disciples. ‘This woman has given next to nothing!’ And how can this be true today, when we are so quick to judge people’s worth by their income? We tend to think of that widow as someone from a far-away land; when we think of poverty, we first of all bring up an image of a child in Africa, or another comfortably distant place. But if she were in this country, who would she be and what would we think of her? Would she be another benefit scrounger? Someone so different from us we would try to avoid the area she lived in? Would we see her son in his scuffed trainers and assume he already has a couple of ASBOs to his name? Would we judge, not her actions, not the generosity and devotion she possessed so richly, but by the things she didn’t have?
Jesus challenges us to think differently. The scribes and the rich did not value the widow’s gift, but he did. And because Jesus noticed her, many years later one scribe, a man named Matthew who was gifted at storytelling, also remembered her importance.