There’s a story of a life insurance salesman who visited a woman who had recently been widowed. For forty-five years, her husband had sacrificed much in order to keep up on his substantial life insurance policy. The agent said to the woman, “Your husband often told me how determined he was that you be well-provided for after he was gone. So I’m glad to present to you, as sole beneficiary, this check in the amount of 1.8 million dollars.” The widow tearfully accepted the check, wiped her eyes, and said, “But nothing can replace that wonderful husband of mine who left me this fortune. But I can tell you this. I’d give at least half a million to have him back again.”
Both our Old and New Testament lessons today tell of widows, but on a more serious note. One thing which we should recognize is that the stories of the widow who fed Elijah, and widow and her mite [as that small copper coin was called], reveal more than what they appear to be on the surface.
One thing which might escape the modern-day hearer which would not have escaped the original audiences to the widow’s mite parable, or to the story of the widow at Zarephath, is that widow served as a powerful symbol; a symbol of someone in the direst of need; a symbol of someone at the rock bottom of the Hebrew social and economic scale. In a society which had no such things as life insurance, Medicare, social security or two income families, to lose one’s husband was to quite literally lose one’s livelihood, and even one’s identity; to become marginalized, and to be at the mercy of religious, economic and sexual exploitation. So they who would devour a widow’s meager savings – who would prey on the helpless – as Jesus puts it, deserve the harshest of judgment; perhaps a warning to some of our leading television evangelists.
Another thing we may not catch on the first reading is that although the gospel story presents a virtuous woman, it’s not primarily about virtue. Although the widow is generous in her poverty, it’s not primarily a story about generosity or poverty. The widow receives no reward we are told of. Jesus doesn’t even directly praise her. We wait, and even long, for Jesus to go up to the woman, place his hand on her shoulder, and say something like: “Truly, truly, I tell you woman, your reward will be exceedingly great in heaven.” But He doesn’t. Rather more to the point is what Jesus does. He notices her. He notices her.
Let’s for a moment see what Jesus likely saw that day as he casually sat along a wall in the treasury. Many well-to-do, well-scrubbed, well-dressed people were depositing grand sums of money into the collection box. But Jesus’ seasoned eye didn’t zero in upon the high and the mighty; the Gates, the Zuckerburgs, the Rockerfellers, the Trumps, the Waltons, the Timkens of the day; those whose very presence captivated most everyone else. No. His spiritually-sharpened eye landed upon someone everyone else had overlooked. He observed this small-of-stature, non-descript, almost invisible human being hanging on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Jesus noticed her quiet act of fidelity, kindness, and sacrificial generosity; those acts which make a difference in this world. He noticed that, and He commented about it.
I believe this is ultimately the sharp point of the story in its 1st century Palestinian context, and a point for us to ponder two millennia later. Jesus notices. Jesus notices we who are the uncelebrated of this world. Our deeds – small as they may seem from a worldly point of view – are observed….. cherished….. remembered. No one else may know of them or comment on them. But Jesus notices. God notices.
I recall visiting a particular family whose patriarch was a widower and was suffering dementia. His daughter, who was widowed herself, took care of him at home on resources which were quite limited. Many of us here can empathize with the daily struggle she lived. Following my visit, she walked me to the car and said, “You know pastor, it’s getting harder each day to look after my dad. I don’t know how much longer I can handle this. He wanders out at all hours of the night, believing he’s back in the city where he grew up looking for a bus. Lately, he wants me to help him bathe, and help him into and out of his chair, and I’m having back problems. And he’s becoming more verbally abusive. I’m getting so tired, and it never lets up.”
As I drove away, leaving her to her father who may have been entirely unable to comprehend the depth and degree of his daughter’s devotion and sacrifice, I couldn’t help but think of that poor widow in Jesus’ parable. She was giving all that she had to give, and nobody seemed to even notice – let alone comprehend – the degree and depth of her devotion and sacrifice. Nobody noticed….. except the One who counts the most. Jesus noticed.
At a continuing education event I attended in Pittsburgh some years ago, several of us less-seasoned pastors were having lunch with a long-time pastor from Pittsburgh Presbytery who was greatly admired. He was known as a top-tier scholar, an extraordinary pastor, and a giant in the pulpit. We were discussing how we had all discerned our respective calls to vocational ministry. When we got to Rev. Bryce, we were itching to know how this great minister got his start. He began, “I’m a minister because of Widow Brown.” “Who’s she?” we asked. Was she a woman of great influence in the city who helped finance his education? Was she a treasured teacher who encouraged him to follow his call? Was she the chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee of the first church he served? “No, she was none of these,” Rev. Bryce answered with a smile. “She was a little old church lady who always sat in our pew on Sundays when we went to church. During service, when I would settle in with my folks, trying to get through another boring sermon, Mrs. Brown would smile at me, quietly reach into her ragged purse, and pull out a piece of Double-SSmint Gum. She would pass it to me. She was always there, and she always had a piece of gum for me. And each Sunday, that was the most tangible, most visible, most sacramental expression of love I had ever experienced. I’m a minister today, you might say, because of the ministry of Widow Brown.” He went on to tell us more. Widow Brown blended into the scenery; long black coat with an uneven hem; a hat which looked like it had been worn twice too many times. No one ever seemed to notice her as she entered and exited so very quietly. And her offering: only a few coins from her little red coin holder (the kind that you squeeze the ends and it snaps open), and a stick of gum to a restless youngster. But two did notice a discreet and nondescript expression of grace. A little boy who grew up to become a great pastor. And Jesus. He notices. Jesus noticed this woman’s Doublemint Mite.
A final story. A newlywed couple was caught in a sudden thunderstorm and became lost on a remote country road. Their car bogged down in the mud, so they got out of their car, took a suitcase, and waded through the mire to an old farmhouse in the distance. An elderly couple was waiting at the front door with a kerosene lamp. Drenched to the bone, the newlyweds stepped up on the small porch and explained their predicament. “Could you possibly put us up until morning? Any place on the floor, a mat, anything would be just fine.” As the husband was speaking, a few pieces of rice fell from the little hairpiece the bride was still wearing. The elderly couple exchanged knowing glances, and the woman said, “By all means, you may certainly stay the night. You can have the guest room at the top of the stairs.”
So the exhausted newlyweds slept comfortably on their first honeymoon night under a beautiful, old handmade quilt. The next morning, they got up early and got dressed, not wishing to disturb their elderly hosts. The husband left a twenty dollar bill on the dresser. As they came down the stairs, there sleeping on the couch was the old husband, and crumpled up in a chair was his wife. It was then that the newlyweds realized: this poor couple had no guest room. But they had given freely what little they had to strangers in need. The young couple knew this now. So did Jesus. While the rest of the world may have been tuned into Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, Jesus was tuned into this simple, yet profound, act of kindness; not offered out of abundance, but out of scarcity.
All this comes full circle to our original point; a key point in this simple gospel story of the widow’s mite which Biblical tradition has preserved for us. It is a great story; not about the widow as such, nor about virtue as such, but about noticing; noticing even the least of these; noticing the little ones of this world who seem to count to nobody; noticing those whom the rest of the world discounts. So I would suggest in closing that this story is one of encouragement; a little lesson plan with three simple truths:
- Truth number one: we count.
- Truth number two: what we do counts, even the smallest of acts which no one seems to notice.
- Truth number three, the greatest truth of all: even when no one seems to notice, Jesus notices. God notices.