1 Kings 17: 8-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44
Two of our three readings this morning feature a widow. In biblical times – and well beyond then – women who had been widowed found themselves in a very vulnerable position. They had no obvious means of support; they weren’t able to be financially independent; they were possibly perceived as a burden by members of their extended family; unless they had a male child, the future held nothing that was likely to change their situation. In both of this morning’s stories, the widow represents the most marginalised and isolated members of the community, people with little personal agency.
The thing about widows is that they are people whose status within society has changed – they are outsiders who were once insiders. They know what it is to be accepted and acceptable and then for that to change.
And the change is dramatic – from having a voice, having a place at the table, a purpose and a focus, to scrabbling round in order to survive. We are thinking about women who have no value or agency in their own right, but who are only included in society in relation to a man who in some way has responsibility for them. When the man goes, so does the status.
We know that there are places where, in the 21st century, women’s lives are restricted unless they have the permission and oversight of a male. Invisibility, second class status, these are not things of the past; they are the ongoing experience of women, young and older, in many parts of our world.
Of course, that experience of not being seen or heard is not restricted to women. Some of the most interesting interviews that I have heard from the COP attendees have been from people representing the smallest and most vulnerable island communities. They are people who are doing, indeed who have already done, all that they can, and they are now pleading with the richer, more powerful nations, asking them to take seriously their responsibilities. They may normally have little personal agency, and yet, they speak with voices that carry significant weight; voices that it is hard to dismiss, voices that prick our consciences and demand that we see things through a wider lens.
These are people who challenge our ideas and perhaps assumptions about who is vulnerable. We tend, I think, to imagine that vulnerability is about people with particular needs, whether that is to do with their health or their background or their living situation. We focus on people who are clearly more vulnerable than we perceive ourselves to be, people to whom we might be able to offer a helping hand in one way or another. Those people in positions of leadership within, for instance, Pacific Islands, don’t have those stereotypical vulnerabilities, but it doesn’t make them any less vulnerable. They are within the international structures and simultaneously finding that those structures don’t really serve them.
Not noticed; not important – values turned on their head. Those who thought they had agency have less than they imagined; those who were ignored now demand the attention and the ears of the world.
That seems to me to be a bit of a summary of what Jesus was teaching in today’s Gospel story. The story is remembered for its second half, the widow’s mite – I want to begin by focussing on the first couple of verses which begin:
Jesus said, beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…
Jesus is giving a clear message that when we look at people, we see how they present, not who they are. There are those people who swan around in their swanky clothes and who put their energies into how they are perceived and how they are greeted. Jesus is reminding us that those things are unimportant. Those are not the values of the Kingdom; those are not the values that bring us closer to God. The designer clothing or the flashy jewellery might make people feel as though they will be respected and therefore help them to feel better about themselves, but those are not the things of God.
It’s easy, if you have surplus money, to give some of it away – to a favourite charity or to the church or to a loved one. Giving from a plentiful resource doesn’t require too much heart searching – the generosity of the wealthy philanthropist is wonderful and gratefully received, but is unlikely to impact on their day to day choices.
However, the generosity of the widow, the generosity of the marginalised person who has little and is constantly aware of what they have and the choices they need to make – that is a different kind of generosity. That’s about sacrificial giving; that’s about faithful giving, about giving back with gratitude.
Thinking back to the COP and the marginalised peoples whose plight is most severe, they are the people for whom our sacrificial giving could make the biggest difference. And those of us who have more than we need, those of us who are called by Jesus to care less about how we’re perceived and more about what we are able and willing to give – we are the ones who can make a difference.
The strongest voices advocating significant change within our communities and our civic structures are those of young people. They are the ones who are calling out the hypocrisy; they are the ones who have lost patience with blah, blah and who are demanding that something happens. Young people – those whose voices are often ignored. Those who, like the widows, don’t normally have agency or authority. And yet, they are speaking with authority. They are telling it how it is. They are not ready to settle for easy giving, for change that comes at little cost. They know that what is needed is sacrificial change – and that the change needs to be made not by those who are most vulnerable and most affected, but by those who, at the moment, perceive themselves to be less vulnerable and less immediately affected.
They know that they need to beware of those who walk around in fancy robes and like to be greeted with respect. They know that to be window dressing – game playing that our world no longer has the capacity to entertain. They know that unless we, as national and international communities, take seriously this morning’s teaching, a sustainable future will be an even more distant dream.
We are the people who are still in a position to make choices. We are the people who have the opportunity give sacrificially. And we will do that when we find ways to give, not from that which we won’t miss, but to make those changes that we would prefer not to make. We need to make sacrifices whilst we still have options; we need to make them from a place of love and respect for humanity, for our planet and for our God.