A Tale of Two Widows
The title of Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities refers to the Cities of London England and Paris France. This book focuses on the city of Paris, but in doing so it often shines a revealing light upon London. In some ways, Paris becomes a sort of fun house mirror that Dicken’s uses to look at his own country—England. When Dickens points out how Paris is similar to London that changes how the reader looks at London, because she first looked at Paris. When Dickens points to examples of how Frenchmen act differently than Englishmen his English readers are forced to stop and think about that part of themselves.
Today I hope to shed light on our two stories about widows by looking at the similarities and differences we find between our lesson found in Mark and our lesson found in first Kings. So today I wish to tell a Tale of Two Widows. A Tale of Two Widows.
It was the best of times and it was the worse of times, it was the age of powerful prophets, it was the age of smug scribes. It was the book of Kings it was the Gospel of Mark. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we were in Sidon, we were in Jerusalem, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us—in short, the period was so much like today that you could make direct comparisons between this story and your everyday life.
There was a man of God from Gilead named Elijah. His king and queen had committed apostasy, they worshipped other gods, including a god of rain. So Elijah opposing the royal family as well as this rain god stopped the rain, causing a drought in the name of the one true God.
After this he was commanded by God to go into hiding. So he went and hid in a ravine in his home turf. There he was fed by ravens. Now, I know ravens are rather impressive creatures—as long at they’re not trying to kick field goals—but this was an uncomfortable way for Elijah to live. This was especially the case after the drought became so severe that the runnels of water in his ravine dried up and he had nothing to drink.
It was at this point that Elijah left that ravine and left his homeland, for God had given him a new command. He was to go to the hometown of his queen—yes the queen who he had opposed, the queen who was persecuting him. Once there he became a stranger in a strange and dangerous land and he was told to throw himself upon the mercy of a widow there.
In Jerusalem there was another religious figure, a scribe. He was one of those scribes that are always found in the company of the chief priests in Mark’s gospel. He was a high up official connected to the temple. In fact, because of this connection to the temple he didn’t have to pay taxes to Rome. He had, to put it into modern parlance, a tax-exempt status. Elijah may have had to travel from place to place for the sake of his religion, but the scribe had found a permanent fixture next to the seat of power in Jerusalem.
Sometimes scribes such as he were described as a collector of pious opinions instead of dispensers of religious reasoning. On a good day they were theologians captured by the academic ivory tower, on bad days they were pundits—glenn becks, lou dobbs, michael moores, and rush limbaughs.
Despite such characterizations of his profession he was pleased with himself—and enjoyed others acting pleased with him too. Oh how they liked his fine clothing that marked him off as a religious bigshot, oh how they enjoyed tipping their hat to him in the marketplace, and saving him a particular seat in the synagogue. Oh, and his prayers—they were so fine.
Of course, between his tax exempt status, his putting himself above others, and his occasional dabbling in secular law—sometimes making profits off of contracts, deeds, and wills—someone had to pay a little more, someone had to pay for his lifestyle.
Recently an itinerant religious teacher from Galilee, you know the kind, some rabble rouser from the sticks by the name of Jesus, had looked at this lifestyle and called it, “devouring the widow’s house.”
And this kind of accusation was one of those things that strikes at the heart. Even a heart long covered by finery and riches…status and excess. It was this accusation that kept the scribe up some nights. You know those cold and lonely nights when the wind howls against the gates of Jerusalem and your toes just can’t get warm underneath the covers and you get to thinking about where you fit into the wider world.
On those nights he would find himself unwrapped of religious robes, and filled with the sneaking suspicion that he was no different than those widows his life style devoured. Though he had hid it well, despite all that he had brought around him—all he had strived to build up around him—the piety and economic power, the moral clout, and the perceived popularity, despite all of that he was just another beggar before God.
And accusations such as, “you devour widow’s houses,” rightly shakes a person up.
After all being a widow is hard. You have lost the one you love—the person whose life has been so intertwined with your own that you sometimes don’t know where your life ends and theirs begins.
In Genesis we read about two becoming one flesh—well, a widow’s lot is to find wholeness again after loosing a part of themselves.
And in the ancient world, more so than our own, being a widow involved a total loss of access to power and the benefits of patronage. The ancient world was a world in which men unequivocally ruled—and in a society where men rule loosing access to your man means total dependency upon the kindness of strangers.
So, an accusation of hurting someone who is both emotionally vulnerable and socially stigmatized—the lowest on the totem pole, can shake a man, even one such as the scribe.
And then there was also the religious background to this accusation. For the scribe’s God, as well as our own, is a God of creation, the psalmist affirms this, yes. But ours is not some creator who crafted creation and then walked away from it.
Ours is not a creator only, ours is a Sustainer, a lover of His creation. Our God is a God who executes Justice for the oppressed. Our God is a God who gives food to the hungry. Our Lord is a Lord who sets the prisoner free. Our Lord opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the stranger and orphan, and Yes! Yes, ours is a God who upholds the widow while ruining the ways of the wicked. And so that’s the kind of accusation that keeps the Scribe up at night.
In both Sidon and Jerusalem these faithful women give out of their poverty. At Jerusalem the widow “gives her whole life.” She had something like 94 cents to live on, and she threw it in the collection plate!
And at Sidon the widow is literally preparing her last meal. She is wandering about to find sticks to create a fire to cook her last meal, a meal of a cake of oil mixed with rough grain.
Now anyone who has tried to replicate this recipe knows you end up with a melted spatula and some dry tasting goop. Hardly a wealthy feast or a decent last meal.
Then this stranger, this Tishobite man comes upon her, a Sidonese woman, and asks her for all she has, for her last handful of dry tasting goop. And she gives it to him!
These two women give their all. The rich young man that Jesus told to give away everything he has couldn’t do this, but these widows—like Nike—just do it! The disciples are willing to do this, but then get caught up on reward and greatness and glory, but these widows just do it! Jesus talks about giving to caesar what is caesar’s and God what is God’s—that is give your whole self! And all these religious folk just stand there scratching their heads befuddled, but these widows just do it!
As Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, because she gave out of her poverty.”
Both these widows gave out of their poverty. In that we find similarity between the two. But listen as well to the differences.
The widow in Jerusalem likely would have heard the teachings of this new holy man who recently showed up. She may have heard that this Jesus is a man who supped with strangers and sinners, filled the hungry with good things, healed the sick, hung out with the destitute.
She may have heard that he loved people more that piety. That he said, “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” That he put healing above rules about holiness. And that he quoted liberally from the book of Hosea, “God demands mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.”
And perhaps she knew that he smashed up the temple saying, “my house should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” She probably heard him denouncing the temple scribe for devouring widow’s houses.
And yet she gave.
And this holy man Jesus pointed this widow’s actions out to his disciples. And I believe that he lauded the widow. I believe that commended her. I believe he, like his father in heaven, is a lover of widows in general and this widow in particular. At the same time he also lamented a religious system that destroys widows. A system in which those that practice false piety get tax breaks and faithful devotion ends in poverty.
In Sidon, on the other hand, we see Elijah coming to the widow with a word different than that of the temple scribe. He brings a word of promise and a word of comfort.
“Do not be afraid,” he said.
“The jar of meal will not empty and the jug of oil will not fail,” he said.
And it is said that the widow’s jug and jar did not fail. In fact, it fed her and her household, and Elijah too.
The clear difference between the Scribe and the Widow in Jerusalem and Elijah and the Widow in Sidon is that the Widow and Elijah are in the same boat. They are two hungry people kneeling at the same city gate. Elijah is a persecuted foreigner looking for a bite to eat and the widow is on her last legs preparing her last meal. Both are sustained only by the never-ending bounty of the Lord’s unfailing cup and all sustaining meal. In a real sense both are widows.
And when we look at London in light of Paris, Jerusalem in the light of Sidon, Park Heights in light of the Gospel, we see some interesting things.
In the tale of Two Widows we hear afresh a warning about practicing a piety that is only as long as our robes. I was recently at Sinai hospital—I was wearing my collar of course—and was about to get onto the elevator when a woman asked me to stop and pray for her mother. I have to admit I was in a hurry and my first inclination was to get on that elevator and back to my office to prepare this sermon. But when you’re dressed up like a Christian you should expect to be called on to pray, otherwise you’re just wearing long robes.
In the tale of Two Widows we are reminded afresh of the focus of our faith, for ours is a God of the Widow and our Messiah is the one who observes and takes note of the widow’s situation! The Park Heights Community-wide meeting was this last week Thursday, and there was a general sentiment amongst the local politicians that budgets are tight and some of their promises to lift our community out of her Widowhood are going to be once again postponed. And that’s why St. John’s is here—it’s the third line of our mission statement—to serve our community—for ours is a God of the Widow.
In the tale of Two Widows we are reminded that we are all beggars. No matter how much time, talent, or possessions we present to God—be we pastors or council presidents, on internship here or people planting their butt in a pew for the first time—we are all beggars.
In the tale of Two Widows we hear the prophetic words of Elijah even as we make them our own, “Be not afraid.” The economy improves, but jobs don’t seem to be coming back, the gun violence so common here in Baltimore has popped up on an army bases and in an Orlando office building. “Be not afraid!”
In the tale of Two Widows we are reminded that it is God who sustains us with our daily bread. In fact today the confirmation class will be learning about God’s love present to us in the sacrament of the altar—holy communion, that all sustaining meal and unfailing cup that we shall partake of shortly. God sustains us with our daily bread.
And so ends my tale of two widows.