September 25, 2019
An Unsettling Comparison
by Charles Ensminger
Clergy of Allen Memorial UMC (Athens, TN)
As I read this selection from the Gospel of Luke, I find that I am troubled by it. Not so much from the first part, I mean who doesn’t get it, right? Pomposity is its own reward, and a narcissistic one at that. Of course, for the narcissist, they would only notice the attention, not the condemnation behind it. No, that particular part of the passage seems pretty clear.
It is the second story in this pericope that I find troubling. Mostly because I am a little uncertain as to how it connects with the first story.
It seems that the widow is being lifted up as an example of discipleship in direct contrast to the scribes of verses 45-47. In that line of thinking, the scribes are used as an object lesson by Jesus. He is criticizing those who use their title, position, or power for social or political prominence and, perhaps, even for personal and financial gain.
This isn’t anything new. In the Gospel of Mark, James and John – disciples of our Lord - wish for Jesus to assign them positions of power and prominence: “And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,’” (Mark 10:37). Likewise, there is an earlier episode in the Gospel of Luke in which, “an argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest,” (Luke 9:46). As I said, the desire for prominence is nothing new.
Then, it seems, Jesus lifts up the widow as a model of discipleship in her giving out of her poverty and, perhaps eisegetically, being content in her position of humble obedience.
This is where I wonder if the widow isn’t somehow a further example of the unacceptable attitudes and actions of the scribes. As the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary says, “It is not the size of the gift that gives it value in the sight of God but the sacrificial generosity with which it is given.” Further, the amount given was “all the money she possessed for the purchase of her next meal.”
Addison Wright makes the argument that this story is actually a lament in that her human need was being pushed to the side and that Jesus is commenting on the fact that the scribes offer nothing while the expectation of giving everything falls on the backs of those who cannot give and hope to eat.
What troubles me is that the widow could be an example of faithfulness as well as a lamentable example of double standards. For many of us, she is seen as an object lesson of faithfulness and dedication despite her poverty. However, if we venture back into Luke 20:47, we read that one of the condemnable actions of those who seek the best seat in the synagogues is that they “devour widow’s houses.” This widow may have “put in more than all of them” but what if this is a continuation of the criticism of the scribes? Not only do they seek prominence, they manage to do so off the backs of people who are truly faithful.
The prophet Isaiah says, “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on that day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?” Isaiah 10:1-3a.
While the context of Isaiah is centuries before the days of Jesus, it is the Gospel of Luke that ties Jesus most closely to Isaiah and utilizes Jesus’ reading of Isaiah as a declaration of Jesus’ mission statement. That statement puts me in the mind of Clemet of Rome who, in a prayer written in the 2nd Century, writes for God to “have pity on the lowly, and lift up the fallen. Heal the sick, bring back the straying, and feed the hungry. Release those in prison, lift up those who falter, and strengthen the fainthearted.”
So, with Isaiah, Jesus seems to continue the tradition of offering warnings to those who would seek to gain “honor” at the cost of someone else’s status, well-being, or self-esteem. Jesus’ warning to his disciples seems to be that they are not to seek the same kind of “honor” that the scribes seek: self-serving haughtiness. Likewise, he may point to the faithful widow and, while pointing out her dedication, continue to condemn a system that demands so much from one for whom the people of God should be caring.
We sometimes consider those who seem less faithful than ourselves to be the “fainthearted” that Clement of Rome mentions. I would have us consider the possibility that the fainthearted might very well be the people who have, as Jesus would say, “received their reward” of pride and position. They are likely the ones who would be least interested in hearing what Jesus might have to say to or about them.
Regardless of the specifics, it seems that the passage is a warning: do not be as the scribes, and do not use this passage to equate financial giving with faithfulness. Instead, see it for what it is: she gives out of devotion. Are we as committed as her? Or are we like the scribes, only handing in from our abundance in an attempt to keep our status as high as we can?
Be warned says Isaiah. Be warned says Jesus. We cannot serve God and money. Worried should the church be if we cannot delineate between the two.
Prayer (adapted from the hymn The Voice of God is Calling)
Almighty God, may we hear the call, “Whom shall I send?” and answer “Here are we!” May we be your servants, though our strength is dust and ashes. Save us from ease and plenty, absolve us from pride of place, and purge us of low desire, even if that desire seems mighty and honor bound. Take us and make us holy, teach us your will and way.
Speak to us and may we answer your call to bring Good News to the lowly, the fallen, the straying, and all of us faint of heart.
Through Jesus Christ who calls us in grace,