God of Power and Mite
In this day and age of text messaging and email and all other
communication that comes by way of a screen, how good are you at recognizing tone?
Inflection? Intent? Who here has ever misunderstood someone’s meaning in a text or
an email or online? It’s difficult to discern tone of voice in a written communication of
any kind. Many a misunderstanding can come from a misreading of tone, I think. Now,
once you know someone really well, you can read a text or an email and discern tone
but that takes time and even then isn’t always accurate. It’s true with Scripture, too.
When we read stories in the Bible we make interpretive choices. We seek to discern
tone of voice, inflection, intent. We prayerfully consider the meaning of the words and
trust the Spirit of God and the community of faith to guide us in that endeavor. Even so,
we bring our own experiences and assumptions along for the ride any time we open up
these texts. It’s a good thing for us to recognize.

We have before us today a story from the gospel according to Mark. It may be
tempting to separate the portion about the scribes from the portion about the widow but
they really do go together. Jesus is teaching here and in verse 37 just before verse 38
where we begin reading it says that the large crowd was listening to Jesus with delight.
Aha, we see, this is a receptive crowd. Eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, open perhaps. At
least for the moment, they are interested and eager to hear what Jesus has to say. As
we, modern day readers, get into this story we will likely make assumptions about
Jesus’ tone of voice, inflection, intent. We may even fill in parts of the story that aren’t
actually present in the text. Let’s find out as we listen to the Word of the Lord from the
gospel according to Mark.

{Read Mark 12:38-44}

It seems obvious, doesn’t it, that Jesus is criticizing the scribes and praising the
widow. It seems obvious that Jesus is making a contrast here and that what we are to
take away is that we don’t want to be like the scribes and we do want to be like the
widow. Good and bad, black and white, no nuance, no questions, no possibility of gray.
That’s what we tend to like because it’s safer. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad
guys? Once I know that, I can decide which I ought to emulate. What’s interesting,
though, particularly in the portion about the widow is that it’s difficult to discern Jesus’
tone. He doesn’t actually praise the woman. He simply notices her and nudges the
disciples to notice her, too. He doesn’t say much about her, at all. “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.” Just the facts which is a very Mark thing to
do. He doesn’t tell the disciples to be like her though we sometimes make that
interpretive leap for ourselves.

Is Jesus’ tone here one of praise or lament? It’s hard to say with certainty and it
can go either way. Is he praising the widow’s act? Look at this woman who gives so
generously. Or is he lamenting her situation? Look at this woman who has been pushed
to the margins, abandoned by society, possibly exploited, certainly oppressed and only
has two coins to her name. Again, it’s hard to say and both could be true. Take note,
too, that Jesus doesn’t actually tell the crowd to not be like the scribes. He simply says
to be wary of them, to be careful around them, to notice them, too. Is Jesus’ tone here
one of admonition or lament? It’s hard to say with certainty and it can go either way. It’s
hard to discern tone of voice. From what we know of Jesus and his teachings, we can
guess about his meaning. Perhaps it is as simple as scribes=bad; widow=good but this
isn’t a superhero movie where the bad guys and heroes are obvious or even necessarily
a morality tale illustrating how we ought to behave. It’s likely more complicated than

I think we get ourselves into trouble when we make the widow into an object
lesson. I think we get ourselves into trouble when we read this text and think, ‘Ok, I’ve
got it. Don’t be like the scribes. Do be like the widow.” We get into trouble because more
than likely we are like the scribes and we don’t actually want to be like the widow. We
are people of privilege and at least some measure of power. We have resources to
share. We enjoy the good seats and the respect of others. We like being decision
makers. We like having options. The widow has no options. She has no resources, no
power, no respect. No one notices her, she has been firmly pushed to the margins, and
is caught up in an oppressive system. We know a little bit about what it meant to be a
widow in the ancient world and it’s not a life any of us desire. If we’re asked to be like
the widow, to give all that we have, all of our lives, we’ll probably pass, thank you very
much. We’re ok with giving a portion but not our all. And if we think by some stretch of
the imagination that we actually can be like the widow, we’re no better than the scribes
with their long robes and long prayers hoping to be noticed.

You see, it’s a remarkable thing the widow has done. She comes to the treasury
to offer her life. She gives all that she has to give not in a figurative sense but a literal
one which will leave her with nothing. And somehow she believes that her two coins
matter. She believes that her two coins will make a difference. She believes that what
she has to offer matters. If she’s given all of her life, she believes that she matters, that
her life matters. How astonishing. I wonder what it would be like for us to believe that
what we have to offer, big or small, matters? I wonder what it would be like for us to
believe that whatever we have to offer, big or small, makes a difference? There I go,
trying to encourage us to be like the widow. We can analyze the behavior of the widow
all day long. We can analyze the behavior of the scribes all day long, too. We can point
out their faults and her virtues. We know, though, that life is more complicated and
being disciple of Christ even more so. For sometimes, on our not so good days, we are
just like the scribes, hypocritical and hoping that everyone notices just how eloquent or
respected or good or generous we are. Sometimes, on our better days, we are like the
widow, offering what we can with great faith that it will do some good; faith that what we
have to offer matters, that the offering of our lives matters.

But what about Jesus? Where does Jesus fit in? Because I think that this story is
about Jesus more than it is about the scribes and the widow. Jesus notices the scribes
and calls attention to their behavior. He wants the crowd to see. Jesus notices the
widow, too, and calls attention not only to her behavior but simply to her life. He’s the
only one in the story who notices her, at all. In a crowded area with people bustling
around the treasury, Jesus sees her. He sees her even though she is invisible to the
rest of the people, even though she is placed firmly on the margins where she belongs,
even though she is totally dependent and powerless and insignificant, though she was
caught up in an oppressive system. It’s easy to take no notice of those placed firmly on
the margins particularly when we’ve put them there. It’s easy to take no notice of those
who are dependent, powerless, insignificant, caught up in systems of oppression. This
is what Jesus laments, I think.

It seems to me we’re afraid to see the widow. We’re afraid to see the widow
because if we truly see her, we may have to do something about her situation. We may
have to help her. We may have to stand for her and advocate for her and share our lives
with her. We’re afraid of the widow because “Once you see, you cannot not see.” “Once
you see, you cannot not see.” It’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from FearLess Dialogues
which comes from Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison at Candler School of Theology. At our
presbytery meeting yesterday, we had a FearLess Dialogues experience. We engaged
in exercises meant to help us see one another, to value one another’s stories, and to
transform our lives. What would happen if we truly saw the widow in the story? What
would happen if we learned her story? What would happen if she offered her life to us
and we offered our lives to her? What would happen if the scribes saw her? What if their
lengthy prayers became actions? What if their good seats were shared? What if their
resources were offered to God and to the world? How might things change, do you

In this story, we are reminded once again that God sees. God sees our stories
and our struggles. God sees the systems of oppression in this world and those caught
in them. God sees and God cares. God sees you, your triumphs, your struggles, your
life. And cares for you. God sees those on the margins and cares for them. God calls us
to do the same. We are called to see one another, to truly see one another, and to care.
Yesterday during our FearLess Dialogues experience we were asked to form pairs and
in our pairs we took a long loving look at one another which meant that for 45 seconds
we gazed upon another person’s face. We weren’t to talk or to avert our gaze. We were
simply asked to see another person. We were simply to behold another child of God.
New worlds were discovered and something sacred was shared. In 45 seconds, we
found connection and invitation, welcome and belonging, curiosity and wonder. In just
45 seconds. It was remarkable. If you were at the presbytery meeting yesterday, will you
raise your hand? I encourage you to ask one of these folks about their experience.
When we open our eyes to see others and the needs around us, we are called to
do something, to be involved, to hear a story, to consider a different point of view or way
of life. That in and of itself is frightening. Once we see others and the needs around us,
what do we do? It is certainly easier to turn a blind eye but that’s not what our faith
teaches us to do. When we are faced with the brokenness of this world whether that
brokenness manifests itself in grief or despair or oppression or marginalization or hate,
perhaps we fear that what we have to offer in the face of that brokenness is not enough.
My voice can’t matter. I’m not equipped. My presence won’t make a difference. I don’t
have that much to give. No one will listen to me. I’m not smart enough or kind enough or
good enough or helpful enough. The world’s problems are so big and I am so small. It’s
all too much.

There’s a saying attributed to the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of
the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not
obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
So, I wonder if we’re able to offer what we can and believe that it is enough. I
wonder if we can open ourselves up to the possibility that the God who created us in
goodness and love might just use us and whatever we have to offer, our two small
coins, our lengthy prayers, to do some good in this broken world. What you have to offer
does matter. Your words and actions can and do make a difference. Though we feel
powerless in the face of all that is not right, our God is full of power and might, grace
and everlasting love. And our God uses us and all that we have to offer, big or small, to
inch us ever closer to God’s kingdom. It is the love of God that opens our eyes, changes
our minds, softens our hearts, transforms our lives, and enables us to make a
difference. Isn’t that good news? Beloved of God, open your eyes. Look around you.
Notice what’s going on, care for those you encounter and with God’s help offer what you
can to help heal, mend, repair this broken world.


Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church