Look at the scribes who wear the long robes in the marketplace—they pray magnificent long prayers and record the many tenets of our faith. Their prayers are meaningful. These are the words that must cross the chasm of the cosmos to the very ear of God. And Look! Look at the wealthy of our community, giving so much money to the treasury of our faith. They truly bless us with their gifts. Amen. Amen!
This is how the scene in our gospel might look if we were actually there--immersed in the culture of the time. This is the socially-approved perspective. Those who have power and status have the attention, and people pay homage to them. The people who have the focus of the people keep the focus on themselves, and so the people keep focusing on them. The camera doesn’t move.
Did you catch what was missing in the retelling? Jesus caught that, too. Jesus moves the camera to an area that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and says to pay attention there.
In today’s gospel, people are greeting, walking, devouring, praying, and giving. Scribes are praying long prayers and rich people are giving large amounts to the treasury. People greet these scribes in the streets—these scribes who pray long prayers and wear the long robes. People probably also admire these rich ones for giving so much to keep their church going.
What is faithful? In our socially-approved retelling of the gospel, faithfulness is a showy long-winded and fairly empty public display and shallow greetings with popular figureheads. Faithfulness is making sure you keep enough to live in luxury and then ornately depositing the excessive surplus in good causes for all to see.
Jesus shifts the focus, though. Jesus zooms in, underneath all the superficial wealth and words and focuses in on a different sort of attitude. He looks at a couple of practically worthless coins in this pile, and finds for us someone who is never seen, who gives from the take home, not the leftovers, and says this is where it’s at. This is faithfulness.
Jesus shows us the widow.
Read the gospel again as it’s actually recorded:
"As [Jesus] taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They 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. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then 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. 44 For 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."
It would seem to me that it’s about attitude. It’s not that the scribes walk in long robes and are greeted with respect and get seats of honor, it’s that they like doing these things—often at the expense of people like the widow—a person who can barely support herself.
It’s not that the rich people give large sums, it’s that they give out of their abundance, their leftovers, after their luxurious feasts and fancy clothes and whatever else they buy has been bought. How does that balance out?
Now, I have to admit, I felt really guilty as I was going through these texts. I am guilty of missing the point, of investing my time and money in myself from time to time. I am guilty.
I am also guilty, then, of turning this whole thing around and making it about me. Jesus is standing here, highlighting the widow, turning the camera on her, pointing out the good that is going on, and what do I do? I move the camera back on me.
How many times do I—or we—do that? Look at a situation where something amazing is happening and evaluate how it affects us. There’s a ton of good going on and we totally miss it because we’re focused on the big center stage show rather than the sidelines. We throw the weight where it shouldn’t be.
When our focus is self-centered, that is sin. Jesus came to tell us this—to remind us where we need to adjust our perspective, move the camera, widen our gaze. And then, Jesus came to forgive and let us try again. We make mistakes. We are forgiven again, and freed to try again.
Jesus moves the focus to where no one would think to look and points out an amazing person. The widow. If we turn her into an archetype, an example, or a source of our guilt, we start seeing only what the widow represents to us and we stop seeing her.
We can do what Jesus did—move the focus to those places people don’t often notice and highlight the great things happening there. Getting the focus off of ourselves, and lifting up, complimenting, supporting those who are doing well. We are freed to be—in the words of Martin Luther—a servant to all. We can serve all by highlighting all, not just those already in the spotlight.
In today’s gospel, hands are open—in greeting, in prayer, and in offering. One set of those hands is highlighted. The widow’s. Jesus points her out as an amazing person. We can celebrate her open faithfulness and act of charity. If we forget, we remember that we are freed to try again. Jesus renews us every minute to start fresh, change our perspective, our attitude. We can go out with open hands, too—hands open in service.
One of the things I loved about November 6—every voting day, in fact—was that the scales, which are so often unbalanced, are evened out, because no matter what I have—status, time, class, stuff, money, talent—I have one vote. One. No more, no less. Everyone gets that—and only that. You can’t buy more votes, there are no deeds so you can accumulate more like cars or shoes, you can’t take someone else’s from them. Everyone gets the same amount of the spotlight.
Maybe we start in our own lives—celebrating the things that often go unnoticed. Maybe we recognize that all we have—all of us, are God’s, and then treating everything and everyone that way. Amen.