38As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." 41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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." (Mark 12:38-44)
We support and partner with many ministries here at St. Timothy. One of the ministries we support is Hesed House, a center for ministries providing services to poor and homeless persons. In a recent email from Hesed House, Ryan Dowd, the executive director, recalled an experience of his from a few years prior:
I had to go to the local “food stamp office” to get something signed for a grant Hesed House had recently secured. I found the office easily enough and went inside, heading for the receptionist. The woman at the front desk was typing away dutifully, absorbed in her work. Not wanting to disrupt this hard worker, I quietly waited a few feet back, hoping she would see me at a convenient breaking point. I wasn’t in any hurry, and the day was going well. After a minute or so, she did look up and I smiled at her. When I opened my mouth to tell her who I needed to see to get the document signed, she spoke first.Jesus, teaching his disciples at the temple, says "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."
Actually, “spoke” doesn’t really describe it. It was a yell, maybe a scream. Her face contorted and spit flew in every direction. “CAN’T YOU READ!?!? THE SIGN SAYS THAT WE DON’T TAKE FOOD STAMP APPLICATIONS UNTIL 2 P.M. YOU LEAVE NOW AND COME BACK IN 20 MINUTES!!!”
I explained that I wasn’t there to apply for food stamps. I explained that I was the Executive Director of Hesed House there to get an official document signed. Her face instantly changed to all sweetness and hospitality. “Oh, yes sir. Right this way. Would you like a glass of water while you wait?” Within two minutes I met with the person I needed, had my signature and left.
As I drove back to Hesed House, I thought about the encounter. What if I had lost my job, struggled to pay my rent and put food on the table for my family? What if I had overcome my sense of pride and built up the courage to apply for food stamps? What if today was already the worst day of my life because I had to apply for food stamps for the first time?
There are no natural consequences for treating poor people poorly. Poor people cannot yell back (not if they need food badly). Poor people cannot boycott (again, not if they need the food). Poor people cannot go to a different food stamp office (that isn’t allowed). Poor people can file a complaint, but they then risk retaliation, which puts the food stamps in jeopardy. It is very easy to treat poor people poorly, because there is nothing they can do about it.
Jesus looks around the temple and sees the very thing that Ryan Dowd was talking about: the ease with which those in power take advantage of the poor and vulnerable. The scribes and religious leaders stand, in their flowing robes of hypocrisy, praying ornate prayers and seeking elite dinner invitations rather than offering charity to the poor or seeking justice for the oppressed. The scribes have chosen a life of empty religiosity rather than a life of faith and discipleship. The scribes are even too busy praying their showy prayers to notice what is going on nearby at the temple treasury. In the mist of rich folks who dump large sums into the treasury out of their abundance, a poor widow approaches. A widow who was perhaps swindled and trampled by these very same scribes. While the rich people toss in great sums of money out of their abundance, this widow has no choice but to put the last of her life savings into the box and walk away, penniless after her act of selfless devotion.
We can understand the vulnerability of widows even better when we look at the story of the widow of Zarephath in our first reading. We first meet her outside, where she is collecting sticks to prepare a last meal for herself and for her son. When Elijah asks for food and water, she shares with him the dire truth of her situation: she has nothing extra to give to him, but only enough oil and meal to prepare one last meal for herself and her son. She has no reason to hope. Drought is upon the land, and thus famine for those who are poor and of low status. For a widow such as this, there is no reason to hope that her situation is going to change, and so hunger and death seem like the inevitable outcome for her.
But Elijah insists that she offer him some food first, promising her a miracle if she does. Can you imagine having to make the choice between feeding your son a last meal and feeding a stranger the last of your food? Can you imagine what she would tell her hungry son, giving away his food to a prophet at the door who promised to give them endless food in return?
This past week in confirmation, we focused on hunger and our faithful response to it. Part of our evening was hearing a series of quotes from people around the world facing poverty and hunger. A mother in Egypt talked about how their food had run out. When her children asked her for food in the evening, she told them “the rice is cooking.” She kept telling them this until they fell asleep from hunger. I wonder if the widow would have said a similar thing to her son after their food ran out – if she would have told him “the bread is baking,” over and over again, until he fell asleep from hunger.
This weekend is Sleep Out Saturday, when members from our church sleep outside in order to raise awareness and funds for homelessness in our county. The event is sponsored by Bridge Communities, a new partner in ministry here at St. Timothy. Bridge Communities gives homeless families a place to live and, over the course of two years, helps them find sustainable sources of income, mentors them in life skills, works to reduce their debt, and tries to help move them from homelessness to self-sufficiency.
Nearly all of Bridge Communities’ clients are single mothers. Mothers who, like the widow in our first reading, are living in desperate circumstances. Mothers who have had to make hard choices and hard sacrifices for the sake of their families. Mothers who would give up a meal if it meant that their children could eat.
By partnering with this ministry, we have the opportunity to be an Elijah. We have the opportunity to give hope to desperate and vulnerable families. We have the opportunity not just to address a need, but to change a life. As people of faith, we don’t enter into these opportunities simply because we are good people or caring people or helpful people. As people of faith, we enter into these opportunities because we are called to do so.
We were once people broken by sin, empty, lost, far from God. But through Christ’s sacrifice, we have received everything by God’s grace. And so we are called to be Elijahs in the world rather than scribes. We are called to live lives of discipleship rather than lives of shallow religiosity.
In our baptisms, we made promises to God that we would learn to trust him, and that in faith, we would proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. This means that we reject the people and places in our society that take advantage of the poor, and we reject the powers in our world that prey on the most vulnerable ones in our mist. We are blessed with the chance to do real good in our world, empowered by God’s spirit working in us.
We are nourished with God’s spirit every time we share Christ’s body and blood. At the table, we, like Elijah, receive a meal so that we can go and give hope to those in need. We, like Elijah, eat and drink in the presence of the poor and vulnerable in our midst. And we, like Elijah, take bread and are filled with the power of God, a power that helps us accomplish impossible and miraculous acts of charity and justice in the world around us. The table and the font call us to go out and show Christ to the world. The table and the font call us to be, for the world, the hands and feet of Christ.