Giving as Resistance

1 Kings 17:8-16 (NRSV)

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’ Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.”

Whenever a widow shows up in the Bible, you know the writer has a point to make about those on the margins of the margins. Widows were representational of the most vulnerable in society in the Ancient Near East. In a patriarchal society, the loss of one’s husband meant social and economic hardship to say the least. With little rights to any inheritance, the severing of family ties that depended upon a woman’s relationship to her husband, and one’s social standing in peril with no male head of the household, widows were in a precarious position in life.

It’s no wonder that James – one of the writers of the New Testament Epistles most attune to Jesus’ call for justice – says emphatically to his readers, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27), or that, in the book of Acts, the twelve disciples themselves appointed seven additional disciples, “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” who would see specifically to the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-3). If you cared at all for those on the margins of society – or, as Howard Thurman says, those “with their backs against the wall” – then you had to care for widows.

So when a widow shows up in the biblical text, you know the writer is about to make a point about the disinherited and the disposed. And today, the lectionary offers us not one, but two, widows! If a preacher can’t make something out of that, then that preacher is in trouble.

            And on a day like today, the first Sunday in a series of three, culminating in our Ingathering celebration when we make our pledges toward the 2016 budget, these particular passages of supremely giving widows should be low hanging fruit for any preacher – a fortuitous gift from the lectionary on a day like today! How did they know our stewardship emphasis would begin on the Twenty-Forth Sunday after Pentecost in the season of Ordinary Time! But it isn’t quite that easy…

            For one, it’s not that easy for a preacher to preach about money and giving and all of those things that preachers on television have a bad reputation for preaching about so irresponsibly. Televangelists have been taking money from poor widows the world over to fund the purchase of their mansions and private jets and it’s put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth when it comes to preachers talking about money.

            And these passages don't make it any easier. They seem like softball texts for a preacher on a stewardship Sunday, but today’s texts have quite a problematic history of interpretation, in my estimation. Preachers have, for centuries, extolled these widows as paragons of sacrificial givers – both the widow at Zarephath who feeds Elijah with the last of her bread and the widow in the Temple who places her last two coins into the treasury. They’ve been touted to many congregations as the models to which we should all aspire when we give our offerings to God and Christ’s Church.

            I suppose I could just leave well enough alone and let these widows continue doing their job of coaxing folks into more sacrificial practices of giving. It wouldn’t be a bad outcome for a sermon on a day like today. But it doesn’t seem quite right.

Take this passage from Mark… You may remember in the chapter before this one in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus enters the temple enraged, turning over tables and driving out all those who were buying and selling. From that point on, those who benefited from the system sought a way to destroy him because they feared how his teachings might affect their bottom line.

            And then in this passage, Jesus and the disciples are back in the Temple once again, sitting opposite the treasury when Jesus utters the very last thing Jesus publicly said before he withdrew to be with his disciples before his arrest: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

And from the midst of the bustling crowd, along comes a widow – so you know to pay attention. And she places two small coins, worth no more than a penny, into the treasury, already filled to the brim with the wealth of the Temple. And Jesus said to them the last words he would ever speak publicly, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 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.”

And we’ve always said, “What a woman! So sacrificial in her giving. We should all be more like that!” And maybe we should. But I’m not so sure that’s really the point of the story, given the whole context.

            It’s what Jesus didn’t say that seems important on a day like today – a day of focus on stewardship and giving. He didn’t say what he often said when illustrating the way of discipleship to his followers: “Now go and do likewise.” He didn’t preface the statement with what he usually said when he was about to make a major point about the ways of God: “Now, this is what the kingdom of God is like…” And, as Alan Culpepper notes, “Jesus does not praise the widow. Rather, he points her out as a victim of the temple system, one whose house the scribes have devoured.”[1] Culpepper is helpful in getting the context here, saying,

The temple was the major industry of Jerusalem. Pilgrims came to pray, to offer sacrifices, and to pay their tithes. In a sense, temples functioned like national treasuries. They were also similar to banks in that the treasuries included private deposits, and the temple in Jerusalem, like other temples, had been raided for its wealth on several occasions.[2]

The widow in the Temple that day was caught up in a system that didn’t serve her needs and had actually become a detriment to her survival. Yet she came and put what she had into the treasury and Jesus looked at the poor widow giving her last penny and turned to his disciples and said, “See, this is what I’ve been ranting and raving about =. This is why I made such a scene in the Temple the other day. This is the very picture of what’s wrong with the system…out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

But the widow at Zarephath…now she’s a different story altogether.

As she was gathering sticks to make a fire, Elijah called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink…[and] a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

And the great prophet Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not fear!

That’s a familiar phrase isn’t it? A phrase on the lips of the prophets throughout the text of scripture – from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. From Genesis when the Divine Presence was made palpable to Abram, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield” (Gen. 15:1), all the way to the Revelation of St. John who was caught up in the Spirit with a vision of Christ so profound that he fell at his feet “as though dead.” That’s when John heard the words, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one.” Do not fear. Do not be afraid.

It’s another one of those indicators in the biblical text that should make your ears perk up a bit – a sign that it’d be a good idea to pay attention to what’s happening. The famed Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, calls this little phrase, “do not fear,” the “salvation oracle.” He says,

This ‘salvation oracle’ is a characteristic formula whereby an utterance of powerful presence alters circumstance. It is spoken against death in order to assure life. It is spoken against exile to assure homecoming. It is spoken against despair in order to assure hope…In a circumstance of extreme scarcity, the prophet speaks lavish abundance.”[3]

The widow said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” And the great prophet Elijah said to her, “No, no, no…Do not be afraid. Do not fear!

            Commenting on our culture’s prevailing attitude toward money and security, Henri Nouwen says “The pressure in our culture to secure our own future and to control our lives as much as possible does not find support in the Bible.”[4] If ever there was a story in the Bible to illustrate this, it would be the widow of Zarephath, gathering sticks to prepare her last meal before she dies of hunger, hearing a call she doesn’t understand at first, sensing a summons from a powerful presence promising to alter circumstances beyond her control, offering the pure gift of her last bit of bread in the midst of great insecurity, living into the words, “Do not fear. Do not be afraid.”

            So what, if anything, do these passages have to say to us on a day like today – when we begin three weeks of focused attention on our own practices of giving, when we prepare to make our pledges of money and time and energy to a faith community that helps us to live out our sense of call as followers of Christ?

Both widows’ gift bespeaks something of their sense of the presence of different way than that offered by the status quo – a way Jesus often described as the Kingdom of God. Henri Nouwen describes it as “the realm of sufficiency where we are no longer pulled here and there by anxiety about having enough.”[5]

One widow offered all she had because she was following a sense of call toward the possibility of a future yet unknown. In resistance to her fear of scarcity, she offered what she truly believed was her last morsel of bread to feed a prophet from God when she and her son were on the brink of death. It was pure gift without expectation or anticipation of return.

            One widow offered all she had because she knew that the system was stacked against her anyway – the riches of the Temple system overflowing while widows like her lost their houses to men with long robes and flowery prayers. In resistance to a system that monetizes self-worth, she offered her last two coins as if to say, “This economic system may destroy my body, but it does not own me.”

            These widows invite us into the practice of giving as resistance to an unrelenting economic status quo that seeks to define our identity and worth based upon our monetized value.

            They invite to practice giving as spiritual resistance to a culturally induced fear of scarcity, so that a spirit generosity might just prevail over a culture of dehumanizing greed.

            These widows’ acts call us toward a practice of giving that still responds to an utterance of powerful presence that alters circumstances, to the palpable presence of one calling out to us, “Do not fear. Do not be afraid” – words spoken against death in order to assure life, words spoken against exile to assure homecoming, words spoken against despair to assure hope. In a culture of extravagance that deeply fears scarcity, in an economy that relentlessly monetizes our value and worth, in a systemic status quo that still destroys the widows among us and wreaks havoc upon all those on the margins of the margins, the practice of giving bespeaks a different way, guides us to a new path, renews a vision among us of lavish abundance and humanizing generosity, and births anew the very Kin-dom of God in our midst.



[1] R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 427.



[2] R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 428.



[3] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. R. Scott Nash (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwis, 2000), 211.



[4] Henri J. M. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Fundraising (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010), 32.



[5] Henri J. M. Nouwen, A Spirituality of Fundraising (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010), 24.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • November 8, 2015