The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

As a preacher, I think that one of the main things I learned meditating on the Gospel every week is that the stories Jesus told are always more complicated than they seem to be at first glance. The famous story we have heard today is no exception – and actually this story could be the perfect example of those passages of the Gospel we think we know exactly what they are about, when in fact their true meaning could be almost the opposite of what we assumed it was at first. This story of the poor widow reminds me actually of this well-known optical illusion of the rabbit and the duck. You probably had been tricked by it once. You have this drawing in front of you and you would swear you see the ears of a rabbit but when you turn the picture around or look from a different angle you realize it’s a duck’s beak.

Well, the story of the poor widow is I guess a rabbit we can easily spot. Jesus criticizes certain scribes and how some of those religious people are only seeking their personal advantages, being seen and acknowledged, feeling important and respected, receiving honor and comfortable material compensations. As he finishes speaking, Jesus notices a poor widow entering the Temple and coming to put into the treasury her last penny. Jesus points out to the widow to his disciples and seems to praise her generosity that contrasts so much with the hypocrisy of the scribes – the woman giving everything she has to live on, her whole life, when the scribes only care about appearances.

This is the story of the rabbit and it’s quite a good story to be told during the stewardship season by the preachers who want to encourage their congregation to pledge generously. Jesus invites us to give all we have, not to give only from our abundance, this extra money we don’t really need, but also to make some sacrifices. The preacher would very unlikely go as far as to say you have to give your “whole paycheck”, but certainly if this widow did this much, we can at least walk the extra mile or give the extra dollar.

Now, the problem is – this is probably not what Jesus is saying in this story. Or maybe he says that, but he also says something else that is at least that important, and this would be the story of duck. To see it, we have to read the passage from a different angle, and this is when it will strike our eyes.

Turning to the first verses of our passage, what Jesus is saying is that the scribes, as they cherish beautiful robes, seats of honor and banquets: “devour widows’ houses” meaning that not only do they steal their real-estate, but they steal until the last penny of the household. And so it seems to me that this sentence “They devour widows’ houses” is really when the ears of the rabbit turn into a duck’s beak and give us a whole new perspective on the whole picture. When we woman enters the Temple and put sall she has left to live on into the treasury, this treasury that will sustain the scribes’ expensive way of living and worshiping, this woman is being devoured by religious authorities. As it turns out, Jesus is not first thing praising her for giving her all, he’s mostly just pointing her out to the disciples as an example – not a perfect example of virtue, but a perfect example of what he is saying. Those women who are isolated and vulnerable, the scribes will prey on them and steal them until their last penny. Look! Just what I am saying.

And so the beautiful story of the poor widow who gave her everything, a story that seems so be told for our own edification, is actually the tragedy of a defenseless woman being preyed upon. Now, we could always dismiss the story as a bit caricaturist and overly melodramatic, but we know those things happen in real life. And it’s not only about those poor and gullible people who send their last savings to fashionable TV pastors who promise them fortune and health. For me, the story hit home when, during a service I was presiding, I saw a homeless man taking off one of his shoes during the offering, and pulling off his sock, putting into the plate all the coins that were in it. Suddenly it hit me that the money he needed so badly for himself was to be the money of my church, the money of my paycheck, this money used to buy those fancy vestments for us priests saying our long Eucharistic prayers, when of course, far from the man helping the church, it should have been the church helping the man.

So what can we do with this Gospel? Is it good news or bad news during this stewardship season? Please, when she comes back, don’t tell Rev Dorota I preached it was not worth giving to the church! Don’t tell her, because this is not at all what I am saying.

What I think actually, is that this text is very good news and should absolutely be read during stewardship season because it tells us everything about what stewardship should be. We too often limit our responsibility to give money. But the most important part of stewardship is to think about the way we use money in the church, what is really important, what is accessory, what are the ministries we really want to support – knowing that for Jesus religion should never be about vain pride and parade, but should be always for the service of the poor and the vulnerable, and this is where our priorities need to be. I think Jesus also invites his disciples to hold the clergy and the leaders of the church accountable for the way they use the money of the congregation. Faith is not about blind trust in our leaders, faith is about building the church together and being invested in what the church is doing to serve God best in our own community and in the world. On a bigger scale, the way we try to live out stewardship at church should also teach us how to live out stewardship in the world. If we pay our taxes, we also need to hold the government accountable for the way they spend our money. Same thing if we give to non-profits or invest in a bank. It is our responsibility to ask ourselves if they will use our money for their own interests or for the improvement of the well-being of all.

Maybe one of the biggest questions of stewardship in general could be: “Who pays the price?”. We are not only in danger of being preyed upon or supposed to defend those who are preyed upon, the sad true is that, without even being aware of it, we can also be the predators. We can be the ones who devour the poor and the defenseless. I often think about that when I put on my clothes or eat my lunch. At what cost have those goods been brought to me? Child labor, animal cruelty, wages that don’t make a living, environmental destruction? I guess our world economy and our social organization have become so complex it’s very hard to be innocent from any system of exploitation, as it is very hard also to avoid completely to be taken advantage of. Sometimes we are the widow, and sometimes we are the scribe: The rabbit becomes the duck and the duck becomes the rabbit. But living the Christian life should be a life where, as Jesus, we acknowledge the tension between those who prey on others and those who are being preyed upon, and we should strive to do our best to reduce the tension.

If we decide we refuse to take advantage of defenseless people, maybe we can start not being like the scribes and live a simple life, renouncing to our places of honor and to our banquets. I am not so sure Jesus asks us to give up everything, because maybe renouncing to those things we don’t need could already be a good place to start with. On the other side, if we ourselves are the ones being taken advantage of, caught in abusive situations, at work or in our personal relationships, maybe the Christian thing to do would be to set ourselves free from this bondage, instead of sacrificing ourselves for something that is unfair. The poor widow gave all she had and, yes, self-sacrifice can always be shown as an example of virtue as it probably is. Yet I think Jesus invites us also to think more deeply about the stewardship of our lives, of our institutions and of our world and how we need to reduce injustices.

And so in the end, and especially today, as we remember those who gave their all for their country, we are invited to see both side of the story when sacrifices are being made. We need to remember that a great number of sacrifices are as beautiful as tragic, and a lot of sacrifices could be avoided in a more peaceful world and a fairer society, when giving your life away would only mean loving and serving – not being devoured and killed, as the widow and as Jesus, and as so many innocent people and creatures. Today, I think that as we salute and remember the sacrifices, we are also invited to work for a world where there is no room for sacrifices because we will have no need that some give their whole lives away so others can thrive. Amen.

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