I’m often tempted to sort podcasts by title and ignore those that are not immediately attractive. That’s a mistake more often than not. Those pods that seem least relevant to me are often the most informative. Humility training is usually free and frequently available.
The latest illustration of this principle is the current episode of It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders (Episode 253, 11/19/2019, 33:40). Let me quote a bit from the show notes.
“Journalist Alicia Menendez has noticed a problem: in the workplace, and in many aspects of their lives, women are forced into becoming inauthentic versions of themselves in order to be likeable. Her new book, ‘The Likeability Trap: How To Break Free And Succeed As You Are,’ examines how to avoid these traps. Menendez and guest host Elise Hu talked about creating more fulfilling personal relationships and a better workplace and how likeability plays into politics.”
The pod is worth the time on its own, but it caused me to reflect more on this past Sunday’s gospel reading. When we get the Lukan Little Apocalypse in chapter twenty-one, it is tempting to preface it with the small story labelled in some study bibles as “The Widow’s Offering.” It’s much more satisfying and productive to preach on the generous widow than to proclaim about wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plagues and persecution (at least that’s true for me). I have made that homilietical choice several times over the past decades.
I am reminded now that this is not a helpful choice. Not that pushing out a good stewardship sermon in Novemer is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But portraying the widow in Luke 21:1-4 as a stewardship heroine is not a good thing. This is not news for folks, but it’s good to remind myself of this reality in my own reflections.
Typically I and others have protrayed the widow as a model of faithful and courageous generosity in contrast to the rich people as all gave their temple offerings. The widow gave her last two coins, “all she had to live on.” Even though her gift was the smallest, it cost her the most. Sometimes I then have made the point that the size of the gift is not as important as the size of the heart of the giver (although I would always hope that rich members might have proportionally big hearts).
I am sorry for all the problems this perspective causes. It’s easy to valorize generous poverty when one has enough and more. It’s easy to use this text as a scaffold on which to build a shaming platform to prick the consciences of well-off Christians. It’s easy to leverage our expectation that women are givers and to thus assume that the giving is the point Jesus wishes to make in seeing the widow. In that regard, I refer you back to the podcast that led off this entry.
In fact, I see something else happening here. The text is preceded by warnings about the scribes who “devour widow’s houses.” The text is followed by the long apocalyptic discourse on the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem. What is the throughline in verses one through four?
The political and legal system was being used to oppress the poor and those without legal standing, such as widows. It appears that the temple system, wittingly or not, was participating in that systemic oppression. The poor widow’s gift was an example of how the temple system had been coopted not only to sustain existing power differentials but also to deprive the poor of the few remaining resources they had. Instead of protecting the widow, the orphan and the sojourner, the temple system had become “a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
So I no longer hear the story of the widow’s offering as an example of heroic stewardship. Rather, I find it a challenge to the church and our ministry. In what ways do we participate in the system that oppresses the poor and transfers their meager resources to the rich? More than that, what are we doing to oppose that system–which has now produced the greatest top vs. bottom disparity in income in human economic history?
How do I participate in a system that valorizes the “niceness” of women to the exclusion of other qualities? For centuries, the church has lived off the free labor of women who did not work outside the home. Female pastors live with more double standards than can fit on a page. Our evanglical sisters and brothers are once again tying themselves in knots trying to prove that women are somehow inherently inferior to men and thus cannot be preachers. And let’s not get started on the modernist gender essentialism in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities that underwrites the ongoing oppression and abuse of women with the blessing of the Church. In that regard I would refer you to the latest essay by Bryce Rich on the publicorthodoxy.org site.
Sometimes I like to think of this widow as the same one who parabolically threatens the judge in Luke 18. I know that’s an imaginative reconstruction, but what if? What if those two copper coins are her final, biting challenge to the God who seems to have left her bereft and an object of pity? Perhaps this is her heroism–the crabby courage that won’t settle for niceness in the face of nonbeing.
If a good sermon makes one think of the text during the week, then I heard a beauty on Sunday.
Oh, and be sure to listen to that podcast! In addition, don’t miss out on the discussions at workingpreacher.org. That site will be one of the places I support again this year on “Giving Tuesday.”