Summary: Have you ever thought of what difference a word of compassion, encouragement, or affirmation can make in someone else's life? This sermon calls us to recognize others' needs and to show our love for them in the appropriate love language.
[Sermon preached on 26 August 2018, 14th Sunday after Pentecost / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Somehow, widows have been on my mind this past week. Last Tuesday, I was contacted by a woman whose husband had just died. She asked me to arrange the funeral.
That same day, I read the Bible readings for this Sunday. The story from the Old Testament is about three women, who had just lost their husbands: a father and his two sons. When you read the whole story, you realize how hard life could be for those women who lost their husbands or sons, and with them lost their social security. These three women each try to work out their own strategy for survival. Naomi goes back to Bethlehem where she has relatives, Orpah goes back to her family in Moab, and Ruth decides to follow her mother-in-law.
Being a widow in Bible times wasn’t easy. Except for the emotional loss and grief, there was also the economic burden. In those days there was no widow’s pension, no social security. When a woman lost her husband, she lost everything. If she was young, she might have a second chance by remarrying. But older widows were entirely dependent on their relatives and neighbors and on the charity of the rich. And if they failed to show mercy, the widows would be doomed to poverty. Think of this when you read the story about the widow in the temple.
But I want you to think of something else as well. Think of the context. I have said it before when we were studying the Gospel of Mark either in the sermon or in the Tuesday Bible Fellowship. When the evangelist Mark writes about encounters like this, he always sets them in context. We need to know what has happened before and what happens next, in order to appreciate the point of the story.
When we look back a few verses in Mark 12, we see how Jesus teaches about the Great Commandment. A teacher of the law asks him which of the commandments is the most important. Jesus answers:
“The most important one, is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
And the teacher commends Jesus:
“You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
But when the guy has left, Jesus turns to his disciples and to the common folk standing around him with a word of warning:
“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
And then comes the story about the widow in the temple.
So now we know what preceded the event. But we still need to know what happens next, in order to catch the full meaning of what Jesus is trying to teach here. As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, the disciples admire the huge and massive stones that were used for the outer temple walls. When you go to the old city of Jerusalem to the so-called Wailing Wall, where the Jews go for their prayers, you can still see some of those immense stones there today.
But how does Jesus react? He answers,
“Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
So, do you see the flow of the story? Love God. Love your neighbor. No greater commandment than these. Love is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus and the teacher of the law fully agree on that—at least in theory. But Jesus warns the people that how the lawyers and the religious leaders live in practice is quite a different story. And he also prophesies how the temple would soon be destroyed—within forty years to be exact. Neighbors in need of their love would always be there, but the place to bring ritual sacrifices would soon disappear. There would be no more offering boxes where the rich and righteous could show off their generosity.
In this little anecdote about the widow in the temple, Jesus deliberately takes a seat opposite the place where thirteen offering boxes are placed in a long row. They are called the “thirteen trumpets”, because they have an opening in the shape of a trumpet. That way, you could hardly miss when you tried to throw your offering into the box.