Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Poor Widow

Then he said to them, ‘How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

- Luke 20:41-21:4

Jesus here continues his disputing and teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, as we have continuing passages throughout the past few days after the point at which he arrived in Jerusalem. In yesterday's passage, we read that some of the scribes were impressed with Jesus' response about the resurrection of the dead to the Sadducees' questioning of him. Today Jesus poses a new riddle of interpretation: How can David call his own son "my Lord?" The answer, of course, is in the understanding of authority, and of what confers authority, and I think this goes right to the heart of Jesus' teachings about himself, and the nature of the spiritual reality he addresses.

Then Jesus goes on to comment about the scribes themselves. According to commentary I read, the scribes were a professional class of teachers and experts in Mosaic Law; their roles in the society very influential. "In the hearing of all," we are told by the evangelist Luke, Jesus very pointedly criticizes the scribes. This is a kind of criticism that to my mind pulls no punches whatsoever. If we are to assume this is in the temple and in full hearing of everyone in the temple, then Jesus is indeed going on the offensive here. At least, that is the way I read this. He criticizes their hypocrisy in the fact that they make for themselves a tremendous appearance of piety and influence in the temple circles, while in practice they harm those who can least afford it.

Once again, our evangelist Luke is placing great emphasis on fair dealings. Over and over again (especially here in Jerusalem) we read passages that condemn the use of money and financial practices that are unfair and unjust to those who are the least able to afford it, the "little ones," the humble. This is in poetic juxtaposition to the questions with which the authorities try to trap Jesus regarding payment of taxes to Rome. Jesus' first act in Jerusalem was the cleansing of the temple, the attack on the money changers and sellers - and he has gone on from there to make a point about how we deal with one another, whether or not we are fair in our dealings and in the ways in which we approach the use of money and our relations with others. Here he does not spare the scribes for a moment, very pointedly calling them hypocrites in their behavior, their outward appearance, and their dealings with those from whom they acquire wealth. Once again, we are in a question of what confers authority: the outward behavior, dress and appearance of the scribes speaks of authority - but what of their behavior? Where does religious or spiritual authority come from and what truly conveys it? This seems to be the theme of this passage.

Finally, Jesus compares the scribes and their outward appearance of piety and importance in the religious sphere to the poor widow, who is casting two copper coins (the smallest denomination, like a penny) into the temple treasury. Jesus tells us that in her poverty, this widow gives far more in her love for God than do the scribes and all the rest of those who have great wealth, because her gift is generous beyond the measure of their own. In the Orthodox Study Bible, I read the following comment: "The value of a gift derives from the spirit in which it is given. A gift that seeks recognition loses spiritual value; a gift made from the heart gains immense value." So it is that we are to understand what confers Messianic authority in the quote from David's scripture, in Jesus' criticism of the scribes, and in his praise of the widow. The value of a gift derives from the spirit in which it is given.

We are gifted through grace with a Teacher; the widow gifts the temple with her love and her heart. The amount, we know, is irrelevant. It is the internal spiritual reality - as Jesus teaches over and over again - that is our true measure of value, of truth and of meaning and of worth. We have been told to "clean the inside of the cup," that we should "put out an eye" if it offends us, that "adultery in the heart" is still measured. The emphasis here is on the reality of the spiritual state of our souls, and not on the outward appearance we make to the world. The pointed, caustic criticism in this passage is Jesus' most harsh attack he'll make on anyone - and this sort of criticism for this purpose and meaning is consistent in the gospels. We remember the phrases "whited sepulchres" and "wolves in sheep's clothing." It is important that we practice our own vigilance in seeking to understand the reality and importance of the spirit in conferring value, in teaching with truth and authority, and in the value of any gift.

Can we remember and carry with us this internal value structure Jesus shares with us? Do we develop it for ourselves as fruits of the spirit? Are we vigilant in practicing the true measures of the heart, and what makes a person someone who carries with them "life in abundance?"

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