At first glance, today’s Gospel reading sounds like a rousing sermon on stewardship. Give everything to the church! But that’s an overly simplistic reading of the Word, and one that, in truth, is squarely at odds with Jesus’ message.
You will notice that the widow is not following Jesus’ suggestion when she puts her last two coins into the Temple treasury. Jesus doesn’t advise her to part with the little that she had. “Sell all that you have” is something he advises the wealthy young ruler, enslaved by his wealth and his possessions and blind to those around him.
No, what God is up to here is not praising the poor and marginalized widow for giving away her last cent. In the larger context of this portion of Mark, God is up to something trickier and more compelling. In truth, this story that is not about the widow’s mite at all calls into question so many layers of authority that the listener is left with nothing but God – and God’s invitation to each of us.
For several chapters leading up to today’s reading, Jesus has repeatedly been connecting the Temple with corruption. He has gone to the Temple and thrown out those buying and selling there. He has told several parables critical of the scribes and the Pharisees, religious authorities most closely connected with the Temple. And now, sitting in the Temple itself, Jesus begins today’s lesson.
Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace and to have the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets.
The story continues, and Jesus, leaving the Temple, then says that it will be destroyed.
So there’s a problem with this passage, a problem that we unwittingly reinforce every time we hold up the widow as an ideal giver whose behavior we should emulate. Because a closer look shows us that Jesus never once praises her behavior. What he does is contrast it with the scribes, whom he criticizes unreservedly. Beware the scribes, he says. They devour widows’ houses. They will receive the greater condemnation.
So, great. The widow has nothing left, the leaders are corrupt, the Temple will be destroyed. Where is the good news? The good news is that the widow is in the story at all. Jesus noticed her, and he wants to be sure that we notice her as well. He could have gone right on condemning the wealthy and those in authority, the selfish and corrupt, without mentioning the widow. But Jesus has seen her, the way he always does. He makes a point of seeing, of noticing, of being aware of, the widow, the prostitute, the beggar, those who are blind or paralyzed or suffering with leprosy. He notices – and draws them in. You are part of the group, he says. There’s a seat at the table for you. You are my sister, my brother, my beloved.
How often do you and I avert our gazes when a red light puts us next to a person with a cardboard sign? How impulsively to we turn away when we see a prostitute leaning in through a car window? What happens when, instead, we notice them, we see them, and we welcome them to the feast?
A few years ago Tony Campolo flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter.
In walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend replies, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”
Dr. Campolo waits until they had left and then asks the counter guy, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah, that’s Agnes,” he says. “She’s been coming here for years. Why?”
“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Word is out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seems that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She’s stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that’s when she totally loses it. To give her time to get herself together, Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?”
So there at 3:30 in the morning in a diner in Honolulu are half the city’s prostitutes listening to Tony Campolo pray for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation.
When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
So maybe the message in today’s reading isn’t that we should break ourselves for the church treasury. Maybe instead it’s an invitation. An invitation to notice the lost and the lonely, the ones who hover on the fringes, the ones whose whole lives are lived in the margins, and to really see them. To notice them. To invite them to the table. To give them the sort of welcome that Jesus gives to you and to me.