The drive from my parent’s house to my freshman year college dorm room takes one hour and twenty-five minutes. My older brother told me to clock the trip so we could make wagers about how much of the same advice my parents could bestow upon me, that we heard when we were driving as a family to take him to college five years earlier (for the record, his drive to college was seven hours so the advice came in spurts and didn’t seem as frantic).
In my hour and a half in the car, my parents took turns covering all the basics; Study. Make friends (and the importance of choosing carefully because we are judged by the friends we keep). Keep a clean room. Do not eat ice cream and call it dinner. And so it went for the whole trip. The hurried advice they gave and the frantic nature by which their guidance was portrayed seem to be echoed in the text today from Luke.
At the point in Luke where we find today’s text, Jesus has already done most of the teaching, healing and preaching that he does as part of his life on Earth. Jesus and his followers have had a long journey from Galilee and now finally made it to the temple Jerusalem. Luke uses the temple to mark the bookends of Jesus’ public life.
In Chapter two of Luke’s prologue, we are witnesses to a young Jesus remaining in the temple after his family had left Jerusalem on their way home after Passover. Now, in the terms of Luke’s story, we find ourselves in the last chapter of teaching before Holy Week and the passion narrative begins.
This section of Jesus’ last temple lesson contains a combination of two smaller character studies into one complete notion.
The first character we see is a hyperbolic image of a temple scribe. Jesus critiques the scribes for their desire for public recognition, the exploitation of widows, and having a pretense of piety while praying.
The image given of the scribe in the temple is less than flattering. They are seen walking around in long, ornate robes, passing special greetings to each other so their superior learning and authority is recognized, and enjoying the best seats in the synagogues and at dinners.
The honor they receive and the respect they demand is not based upon their actions and their faithfulness to the community and the church, but it is often from deals made and actions taken at the expense of the others, especially the poor and the marginalized.
In the character of the widow on the other hand, Jesus sets up a model for citizenship in the church and the world.
This widow is the third to be mentioned in this chapter of Luke. We have already read about the circumstances of a woman who ended up being married and widowed by a whole family of brothers and then the people around her began debating about whose she will be at the end of time. We also heard already in our reading today that much of the wealth and power of scribes is built on the backs of widows.
Going into this story, when we hear the word “widow” we are all prepped and ready to go, “Awww, bless her heart.” We have good odds in betting this story is going to be a real downer and that we will once again be shamed for not caring enough for this poor, vulnerable woman.
But that is not what Jesus does.
He points to this powerless woman as a prototype for the ideal Christian. She humbly gives more than what is comfortable, more than what is easy. She gives all that she has.
The money she gives symbolizes the fact that she is giving to a point that she has to live in constant trust of God. She goes beyond thinking of her own comforts and how she is perceived and takes care of the community of the church.
So in these two character sketches we see two distinctive ways of being the people of the church. The goal of showing these two seemingly opposite characters is not to give the disciples (or let’s be honest us) the descriptions we need to point out the characters in our churches. It is here to give us a mirror into our own faith.
We all, at some point, have been the ones showing up to see and be seen.
We balk when guests are in our pews, we go through the motions of a prayer of confession or a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with our mind anywhere but the words we are saying, we spout out the knowledge we gain from reading and watching the news without taking the time to consider the lives that are affected by the violence that seems so distant to us.
At the same time, we all have moments of true humility and giving, like the widow.
We take the weekly flowers, Easter lilies and Christmas poinsettias to members who can no longer make it to our services, we serve each other communion as we pass the trays down the aisle inviting our neighbors to partake of the bread of life and cup of salvation, we reach out a hand of friendship to those around us, friends and visitors as we pass the peace to each other, and we pray and go into the world in service to make our world more like the Kingdom of God about which Jesus told us so many beautiful yet challenging stories.
So what are we doing as members of the Christian community in the pursuit of seeing and helping empower the image of Christ in ourselves and others? Jesus saw and celebrated the genuine faith of the widow. She gave not from her abundance and just enough that she could remain comfortably provided for, but from the very thing that she depended on.
The closer the time came for my parents to leave me, their youngest child, at college, the more important their advice became.
They reminded me that to make true friends, I should be myself and that when school gets hard, sometimes you have to put the books down and go to bed, things may look less confusing in the morning. These weren’t new ideas. This was the same advice that they had been giving me my whole life.
So was the message of Jesus to his followers as they sat in the temple people watching. These weren’t new lessons to the disciples. They had heard a multitude of sermons on care for the marginalized and how (in the words of my mother) actions speak louder than words.
They had heard the story of the Samaritan who helped the dying man when the educated and the powerful had walked by on the other side of the road.
They had listened as Jesus told them that as soon as the rich fool saved enough to live comfortably forever, his life was taken from him.
This wasn’t a new lesson. It was more of a swan song.
One last attempt to convey the same lessons for the nth time.
He was reminding them, through hyperbolic character studies, who they were supposed to be and how they were to live in the world and in community with each other.
As we look at our lives and how we act in the world, how can we be genuine in our faith and focused on what we give and how we live over how we are perceived and how people treat us?
Jesus’ lesson is as simple and as complicated as the mite the widow gave.
Your everything may look like nothing if you hold it in comparison to the gifts of others, but that is not what Jesus said.
He praised the woman’s gift and set her as a model of Christian service.
May we go and give, not comparing our gifts to the gifts of others, but dedicating our lives to serving others and living as a part of a community that in the words of my grandmother remembers who (and I would add whose) we are and acts accordingly.