Jesus and the Widow's Mite
Proper 27B 2003 I Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44
Oseola McCarty is one of the saints of our time. Her story may be familiar. She died four years ago at the age of 91.
She was an African-American woman from Mississippi, who earned a living by washing and ironing other people's clothes. McCarty,
who never married, was in the 6th grade when she had to leave school and take over her mother's laundry business while she
cared for a sick aunt.
"All my classmates had gone off and left me so I didn't go back," she said. "I just washed and ironed."
She never had a car. Only in her eighties at the urging of bank personnel, did she buy a window air conditioner for her home.
McCarty's arthritis forced her to retire in December of '94 at the age of 86.
McCarty scrimped and saved, however, until she was able to leave $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to
set up scholarships for other needy African Americans. Contributions from more than 600 donors have added some $330,000 to
the original scholarship fund of $150,000. After hearing of Miss McCarty's gift, Ted Turner, a multi-billionaire, gave away
a billion dollars. He said, 'If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.'
"I want to help somebody's child go to college," Oseola said. "I just want it to go to someone who will
appreciate it and learn. I can't do everything, but I can do something to help somebody. I wish I could do more. But what
I can do I will do." (from Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, by Paul Nuechterlein & Friends, at textweek.com)
The two Bible stories we heard today, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and the story of the widow's mite
-- these stories illuminate several things about faithfulness and miracles, and, of course stewardship.
Zarephath was a town belonging to the great pagan city of Sidon, and was in the heart of the land of the worshippers of
Baal the fertility idol. The setting of this story is irony in itself -- a killing drought in the land of the fertility idol.
The prophet Elijah finds the widow scrounging the barren earth for enough twigs to prepare the last meal available for
her and her son. She will go home, build this fire, bake a small piece of bread, eat it, and die, she and her son. But Elijah
tells her to give it to him instead. When she answers him we know that she is aware of the Living God that Elijah serves:
"As the Lord your God lives," she says.
Elijah promises that if she does as she says she and her son will not starve to death, that her jar of meal will not run
out, and that her jar of cooking oil will not be emptied until the drought is broken.
She believes him and does as he says.
It's a let go of the bush, cut the rope story, isn't it? The mountain climber who falls, clinging to a bush or dangling
at the end of his rope, and calling on God to be saved. And God says, "Let go of the bush; cut the rope." And the
widow of Zarephath did. She gave Elijah the last of everything she had.
We must be careful of making too much of this story. First Kings is silent about the rest of the people struck down by
the drought. It may well be that they were not given meal and oil like the widow of Zarephath; that they starved to death;
and that there were widows and children among them.
The story of the widow's mite is, not so oddly, in the lectionary during the period when churches conduct the Every Member
Canvass and stewardship campaigns. About the Canvass and Stewardship I need only say this: The standard for giving is the
tithe. If we are truly tithing, that is a good thing. If we are not, moving smartly toward tithing is a good thing. We all
know what we are supposed to do and it is a good thing to get on with it.
Jesus and his disciples had left the Court of the Gentiles where he had laid down the Great Commandment in his response
to a scribes query. In our reading for today, Jesus severely condemns the scribes. Scribes were mid-level community, synagogue,
and temple officials. Their duties seem to have been primarily administrative rather than sacramental. They were empowered
to teach and interpret the Law. In Mark's Gospel, they seem as a group to have been opposed to Jesus and his teachings. Of
course they were; his radical Good News ran contrary to much of what they taught about the Law.
Perhaps tiring of dealing with Scribes, Jesus and his disciples may have moved into the Temple Court of the Women to rest.
The trumpet shaped collecting boxes of the Temple treasury were located there. These boxes were of metal and bystanders could
judge the size of the donation by the sound the coins made as they tumbled down through the long stemmed funnels. A lot of
heavier coins made one loud and longer sort of sound. The two coins of the widow must have made a small insignificant little
tinkling sound as they went in and down into the boxes. Sitting where he was, Jesus could tell a lot about the attitude of
the person giving. He still can.
At first glance this story seems to be only about giving. Like the widow of Zarephath, this poor widow gave everything
she had. Everything. When she left the Temple she had nothing with which to buy oil and meal for her supper. She had given
everything. There was no prophet to rescue her. Or was there?
But is it really only about giving? Consider Mother Theresa. Robert Fulghum, who wrote "All I Really Need to Know
I Learned in Kindergarten," says that he placed by the mirror in his bathroom a picture of a woman who is not his wife.
Every morning as he stood there shaving, he looked at the picture of that woman.
The picture? The picture is of a small humped-over woman wearing sandals and a white sari and headdress with blue stripes.
She is surrounded by important-looking people in tuxedos, evening gowns, and the regalia of royalty. It is the picture of
Mother Teresa, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize! Surely she deserved it.
Fulghum said he keeps the picture there to remind him that, more than a president of any nation, more than any pope, more
than any chief executive officer of a major corporation, that woman has authority because she is a
servant. (in Brett Blair and Staff, eSermons Illustrations for 9 November 2003)
Like the widow with her mite, Mother Theresa gave her all. They both gave because they loved the Lord with all that they
had and all that they were. And clearly Mother Theresa, with her work with the wretchedly poor of Calcutta and the rest of
the world, with her love for those dying in the city gutters, she loved her neighbor. For these two women it wasn't about
money. It was about loving God and following the Great Commandment.
Not that Mother Theresa minded money. She knew that it was essential to the work she had been given to do. There is a
story about one of her visits to the Chief Executive Officer of a large American corporation. She was begging money to expand
her order into other parts of the world where the need was as great as in Calcutta.
This man received her graciously but he said that his corporation could not give as generously as she asked. Mother Theresa
then said, "Let us pray." The man still said no, but very politely. Mother Theresa said, "Let us pray."
After about ten repetitions of this the CEO realized that she was NOT going to leave until he did what she asked. And he couldn't
throw her out it would be a terrible publicity and public relations disaster.
And so as she said, "Let us pray again," he said, "You know, Mother Theresa, I think you've got a point.
I'll do it."
A modern parable: You may have seen it come across the InterNet. It's been around for several years.
A Professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, without saying
a word, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with five or six large rocks. He then
asked the students if the jar were full. They agreed that it was.
So the Professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook he jar lightly. The pebbles rolled
into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They again agreed that it was.
The Professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar and shook the jar again. Of course, the sand filled
up everything else. He asked once more if the jar were full. The students responded with a unanimous "Yes."
The Professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively
filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed.
"Now", said the Professor, as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents
your life. The large rocks are the important things: your faith, the people you love, your children, your health, your friends,
your favorite passions - things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full."
"The pebbles are the other things that matter-- like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else
- the small stuff. If you put the sand into the jar first", he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the
large rocks no room for the more important things."
"The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the
things that are important to you."
"Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical
checkups. Take your friends out for dinner or invite them over. Enjoy the glories of the Creation. Help with the work and
mission of your faith community. There will always be time to clean the house, cut the grass, and fix the disposal. Take care
of the large rocks first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand."
When he had finished, there was a profound silence. Then one of the students raised her hand and with a puzzled expression,
inquired what the beer represented.
The Professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's
always room for a couple of beers with friends." (from an InterNet email)
When things in life seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the parable of the
mayonnaise jar. Remember Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Remember Jesus and the Widow's mite. Remember to love God with
all that we have and are. Remember to love our neighbors as ourselves.