Pages Navigation Menu

The Return of the Widow

Thomas J Parlette

“The Return of the Widow”

Mark 12: 38-44

11/8/15, Stewardship dedic.

“The proof of the pudding in is the eating…” that’s the famous line from Cervantes, Don Quixote.(1) And although there is no pudding being consumed in this passage for today, there is some “putting” going on. Putting as in P-U-T-T-I-N-G.

Jesus is visiting the Temple this morning, and who should he see but our old friends the Scribes. Jesus witnesses them “putting on airs” so to speak as they strut around in their long robes. They are “putting themselves on a pedestal” by demanding respect in the marketplace. And they are “putting themselves before others” as they claim the best seats in the synagogues and at the banquets. Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” The proof of the Scribes arrogance and selfishness was in the “putting”- the putting on of airs and putting themselves before others.

Then Jesus wanders over to the treasury, and who should enter the picture but an actual widow. The same widow we meet every year in November, the widow with her two mites. Jesus watches as the widow returns to the Temple, as she has so many times before. I imagine her with a smile on her face and a spring in her step as she walks up to one on the thirteen, trumpet-shaped receptacles found just outside the Temple, and she tosses in her two cents, as we would toss quarters into a toll booth.

Perhaps Jesus smiled and chuckled a little as he pointed to this widow and turned to his disciples and said, “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 proof of the widow’s faith and trust was also in the “putting”- the putting of all she had into the Temple treasury.

A complicated story, this story of the widow’s mite. A story we preachers are compelled to address every year in the Stewardship season. On the surface, it appears that this story encourages us to give all that we have – just like the poor widow. Give all we have and live on faith. “Give till it hurts”, as the old saying goes. That’s been the traditional interpretation of this story.

But when we remember that Jesus singled out this widow in contrast to the Scribes, as an object lesson for his disciples – well, the story gets a little more complicated than simply “give all you’ve got.”

It wasn’t the amount of the gift that mattered, how much or how little. It was the significance that the money held for the widow. That money was her safety net, it was her insurance that she would be okay in a time when widows were among the most powerless and vulnerable in society. This widow gave from her source of security – as opposed to the other wealthier people who gave only out of what they would never miss anyway. The widow put her two cents in and proclaimed, “I trust that God will bless me with what I need. God’s grace is sufficient. I trust God, not my money.”

It seems that the important point here is not that we give away all that we have, but where our trust really lies. Do we trust ultimately in God, or do we ultimately trust our financial resources? From this widow we see that true generosity comes from giving away that which comes from the center of who we are, and what we need. Real sacrifice is giving away something that really matters in our lives and in the lives of those that receive the gift and trusting that God will use and restore the gift. The real power in this widow’s gift is not that it deprives her, but that she gives away her sense of security. When she tosses her money into the toll booth, she tosses away her safety net, and puts her life into God’s hands.

Some years ago, a group of business from a tractor and farm equipment company in Illinois were in Japan, looking over sites for a new Asian manufacturing plant they wanted to build. They were photographing a site on the edge of a northern Japanese city and saw something unusual in an adjoining rice field – a father was pulling a single-furrow plow while his son guided it. The Americans were amused by that and took some pictures to show the guys back home how much they need tractors over there in Japan.

A few days later, one of the businessmen was showing the pictures to a missionary in a nearby village, still laughing a little about how they farmed in Japan. The missionary looked at the picture and said, “I know that man and his son, they are members of the village church. They didn’t always farm that way. You see, when we built our church there, they wanted to give something, but they were so poor, they couldn’t. So they sold their oxen and gave the money to the church. Until they can afford another team, they will plow the land themselves.”(2)

This widow and that Japanese father and son have something in common. They understand real sacrifice. They understand where to put their trust. They gave a gift from what was central to their life, a gift that required a sacrifice. That’s giving that means something. That’s the kind of giving that does a soul good.

There was once a pastor who went to the bedside of a 90 year old widow, whose entire pension check went right to the nursing home for her care. After listening to her apologize for not contributing to the church, the pastor responded that it was not expected and that she had given many years of faithful service to the church in her 90 years. When he was finished, the lady raised her finger to his face and gave the pastor a rebuke that he would never forget. “Pastor, you listen to me. I am not talking about the church’s need for money. I’m talking about my need to give. I should not be deprived of the opportunity to give.”(3)

Giving is good for the soul. None of us, no matter what our age, should be deprived of our need to give. It’s good for us. It puts things in perspective. And it actually feels pretty good.

William Allen White, the successful newspaper editor, once gave his town of Emporia, Kansas, a public park of 50 acres – requesting that the park NOT bear his name. When he privately handed the deed to the mayor, he said: “This is the last kick in a fistful of dollars I’m getting rid of today. I have always believed that there are three kicks in every dollar – the first one when you make it, the second when you have it, and the third kick comes when you give it away. The big kick is in the last one.”(4)

As Jesus sat at the Temple that day, watching the parade of people come to the Temple and “do their duty” of putting money in the Treasury, he saw only one person who was getting a “kick” out of giving – this poor widow with only two coins.

Every year when the widow returns, we are reminded that we give in proportion to our faith – NOT out of a sense of duty or obligation. We discover in this story that God’s grace is sufficient. As Maude Royden, a British social worker once said, “When you have nothing left but God, then for the first time you become aware that God is enough.”(5) This poor widow fleshes out that idea.

In this story we are also reminded that God measures our gift not on the basis of it’s amount, but on the level of the sacrifice involved.

Dave Simmons in his book, Dad, The Family Coach, tells about taking his 8 year old daughter Helen and his 5 year old son Brandon to the mall to do a little shopping. As they drove up, they saw an 18 wheeler with a sign on it that said “Petting Zoo.”

The kids nearly jumped out of their car seats, “Can we go Dad, Can we go? Please, Please, Please?”

“Sure,” said Simmons, and he gave them each a quarter before walking into Sears to shop for a new drill.

The petting zoo consisted of a portable fence put up in the mall with about 6 inches of sawdust and a hundred little furry baby animals of all kinds. Kids paid their money and stayed in the enclosed area while their parents shopped.

A few minutes later, Simmons turned around and saw his daughter Helen walking along behind him. He thought maybe she decided the hardware store sounded like more fun that furry, little baby animals, but recognizing that was not the case, he asked her what was wrong.

She looked at her shoes and said, “Well, Dad, it cost 50 cents. So I gave my quarter to Brandon,” Then she said the most beautiful thing that Dave Simmons could hope to hear. She repeated their family motto – “Love is action.”

She had given her brother her quarter as a form of “love in action.” No one loves furry, little creatures more than my daughter Helen, says Simmons, but she had seen Mom and Dad seek to live according to the family motto, and now she was trying it on her own.

Maybe you’re thinking that the next part of the story is that Dave Simmons gave his daughter the 50 cents she needed. But not so fast. As soon as they were finished shopping, father and daughter went back to the petting zoo and stood by the fence watching Brandon go crazy petting and feeding the animals. Helen stood with her hands and chin resting on the fence, just watching her little brother – and she had an enormous smile on her face, knowing that her gift had brought that much joy. Dave Simmons had 50 cents in his pocket, he would have given it to his daughter in a heartbeat – but she never asked.

She never asked because, as Simmons says, “she knew the whole family motto. It’s not just love is action. The whole motto is “Love is SACRIFICIAL action.” Love always has a price. Love always costs something. Love is expensive. When you love, benefits accrue to another’s account. Love is for you, not for me. Love gives; it doesn’t grab. Helen gave her quarter to Brandon and wanted to follow through with the lesson. She knew she had to taste the sacrifice.”(6) It would have been unfair to rob her of the pleasure of giving.

As we wrap up our Stewardship season and dedicate our offerings today, I invite you to return to this widow. Consider her sacrificial gift. Consider her trust and confidence in God’s grace being sufficient to meet her needs. Consider your own need to give and what kind of a kick you might get in return. Consider what love in sacrificial action means to you. And consider the you joy you will feel as you watch what your gift can do.

Return to this widow and consider what your gift could be.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Lection Aid, 4th Quarter, 1997, retrieved 10/28/15.

2.    Ibid…

3.    Ibid…

4.    Ibid…

5.    Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XVII, No.6, pg59.

6.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXI, No 4, pg 45-47.