Lessons for Proper 27, Year B: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
When I was a kid (maybe 10 or 11) our family went on a road trip from Melbourne to Cleveland. It was a long drive with a lot of stops on the way. At our first stop to get gas, just as he was getting out of the car, my brother found a penny on the ground right there next to the gas pump. Yeah, I was a little jealous at first but then I found a penny right there on the walk leading into the store.
It turns out that a lot of people drop their pennies and don’t go searching for them. Together, I think we found five pennies at that one stop. My brother and I made little competition for the rest of the trip, seeing who could find the most pennies on the ground.
What is a penny? It’s the lowest amount of money on the totem pole. It’s the smallest unit. It isn’t even divided. A nickel can be divided – there are five pennies in a nickel. A dime can be divined – there are two nickels or ten pennies in a dime. But a penny is all by itself. Only gas stations seem to know how to divide a penny with their 9/10 of a penny added on to every gallon. People almost see pennies as worthless.
But Ben Franklin assured us, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
We are told, “It’s worth every penny.”
In Jesus day, a penny could purchase two sparrows for the Temple (Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?”)
Sir Thomas More asks us, “A penny for your thoughts?” (Four Last Things)
Thomas More was the first to publish this particular saying though was not likely the one to actually coin the phrase. It might be much older. The idea, I think, is very much present in today’s Gospel narrative where the widow offers her copper coins to God through the Temple treasury.
Indeed, the poor widow in the story shows unbelievable and uninhibited vulnerability by offering all she had to live on. Widows in ancient Israel had no inheritance rights and, while a levirate marriage might have been arranged for some, most widows relied on their children or on charity. So giving over her last two lepta (the smallest monetary denomination in circulation at the time) to the Temple was a true sign of sacrifice and trust.
THE WOMEN IN MARK’S GOSPEL
It was, to use the colloquial definition of a sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It was her sacrament to God. It was her outward sign of the inward trust that she had in God her protector. It was a posture of total self-giving.
This is a kind of trust emblematic of the women whom Jesus encounter’s in Mark’s Gospel. There are five episodes of interest.
- In the first (Mark 5:24b-34), there is a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” who reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus cloak. The woman certainly knows that her ritual impurity would make any she touches impure as well. Nevertheless, the woman stretches boundaries, reaching out in faith. She knows, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
- In the second, (Mark 7:24-30), a Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus in Tyre seeking healing for her daughter. In the very act of approaching Jesus, the woman stretches and even crosses boundaries – a landed Greek property owner approaching an itinerant Jewish preacher was unheard of. But she does approach Jesus and when Jesus rebukes her (an expected reply in first-century androcentric society), the woman stretches boundaries even further with her courageous reply. In the end, Jesus capitulates to her enduring faith.
- The third episode is the story heard today where the widow offers everything she has to God.
- The fourth episode (Mark 143-9) comes immediately before the last supper discourse, almost as a prelude to the narrative of Jesus’ passion and death. In it, a woman (again unnamed) approaches Jesus in the home of Simon the leper and pours “expensive ointment, genuine nard” over Jesus’ head. The woman in this scene again stretches boundaries by entering what would have been an all-male gathering and touching Jesus, not to mention the exuberant outpouring of precious and expensive nard. She also stretches boundaries, however, as one who recognizes what is coming in the life of Jesus, showing tremendous devotion to her Rabbi and Lord. This, in other words, is clearly an anticipation of Jesus’ death, the woman seeing and accepting what the disciples did not.
- Finally, there are the women at the cross, among them Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome but others as well. Though they were at a distance, they at least had the faith and courage to be there.
In the end, the stories of the women in Mark’s gospel are all stories of embodied faith.
THE FAITH OF THE WIDOW
The widow in today’s story approached God boldly. “This is all I have,” she seems to say. “So here it is. What do you want me to do now? Here is my penny for your thoughts, God.”
That is the very definition of embodied faith – giving every good gift back to God, trusting that God has a plan.
It’s the faith of the widow at Zarephath who trusted the word of God as spoken by the prophet Elijah.
“Do not be afraid… 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.”
It’s the faith of Jeremiah,
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).
It’s the faith of Paul who wrote to the Philippians,
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13).
It’s the faith of the Angel who spoke to Mary,
“Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
It’s the faith of the widow who broke open the doors of something new, challenging those who said her two pennies were not enough, that they could not do a thing. She paid no attention and entered the Jesus movement, walking with God and trusting in God. Ultimately, the widow understood that it wasn’t about her pennies. It was about herself, about the total giving of herself over to God.
I SURRENDER ALL
American artist and musician Judson W. Van DeVenter, who wrote the lyrics for the classic hymn, “I Surrender All,” once wrote,
“For some time, I had struggled between developing my talents in the field of art and going into full-time evangelistic work. At last the pivotal hour of my life came, and I surrendered all. A new day was ushered into my life.”
Worship is essentially our response to God’s love, generosity and graciousness. What is worship? Is it generous and gracious like the widow’s? Does our worship reflect the widow’s selfless act of vulnerability? The Gospel narrative, once she has given her all, has Jesus saying to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”
The widow’s gift was truly amazing. The gift of the two coins is a beautiful presage of Jesus’ last days: the suffering, the passion, the via crucis, and the final total self-offering of Jesus on the cross. Like the women, Jesus stretches and crosses the boundaries. In his final act of self-giving love Jesus has crossed or, rather, eliminated that proverbial boundary between heaven and earth. The boundary is no longer.
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Jesus has shown us the love of God that awaits us. Jesus has shown us the unmitigated, uninhibited, and endless love of God that awaits us if we but surrender ourselves to it.
Van DeVenter’s Hymn speaks well:
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.