It was Palm Sunday as our congregation gathered around the communion table adorned with a large palm branch. The video screen flashed pictures of Jesus riding into Jerusalem surrounded by a diverse crowd waving palm branches. We prayed and sang and read the Palm Sunday scripture reading. Then our pastor took her seat next to the communion table and read from Mark 12, the story of Jesus in the temple teaching during Holy Week. Addressing the crowd he took aim at the religious leaders who were highly visible as they "walked around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table of every church function." (The Message). And all the while Jesus added, exploiting the weak and the helpless."
Then Jesus turned his and their attention to one of the most weak and helpless in the Temple that day.
As our pastor moved from reading the scripture to preaching a small child about 3 or so climbed up on her lap and laid his head on her shoulder. Seemingly unaffected, the pastor continued on with her sermon. It seemed almost scripted since it was a stark contrast to the behavior of the religious leaders in the Temple and a reminder of Jesus words about welcoming the children. Continuing with her words, the pastor talked about the widow who Jesus pointed out to the people listening to him. She was a poor widow, meek and helpless, who gave her only money to the temple treasury. It added up to about a penny hardly worth mentioning for it mattered little when the offering was counted up later that Sabbath day. Almost everyone who came to worship that day gave more. I was prepared for the pastor to follow the popular interpretation of this familiar story because I had preached on it often. I was ready to be reminded of how much we hold onto when we give when she gave her all. I was prepared to guiltily promise myself I could do better. I was humbled again by her example of the standard of giving ( a sermon title I had used in the past). But, the pastor took a different path through the text. She noted that Jesus didn't tell the disciples to follow her example. In fact, Jesus was probably referring back to what he had just said about the religious leaders "devouring widow's houses." (v.40) Here was one of those widows right in front of them giving her meager savings to God and then heading out to the street to beg for her daily bread. The Old Testament spoke about the priority of taking care of the widows and orphans. Jesus had reiterated that obligation as well. Here was a widow showing God's people how to give even as she fell through the cracks of the temple system. The religion of God in Jesus day was broken. In the next chapter Jesus referred to the literal breaking down of the Temple. However, before the bricks and mortar fall apart, Jesus makes it plain that the Spirit of God had departed the temple religious system. It needed to die and rise again.
How often this joyful story of a widow freely giving what she had to God has left the bitter feeling of guilt over duties left undone in the hearts of the hearers. How can we ever do what she did? One more thing to try to do and fail. But what if it is not about money, the religious enterprises wringing every last cent of out people that it can. The church is always asking for money, people say, and here is a heart felt story that is too easily manipulated to that end. So, what if it is about the grace of giving. We have been invaded by the Spirit of grace and thus graced we give graciously and freely and joyfully. As we can.