I like the Message version of Luke 21's opening verses,
Just then he looked up ask saw the rich people dropping offerings in the collection plate. Then he saw a poor widow put in two pennies. He said, "The plain truth is that this widow has given by far the largest offering today. All these others made offerings that they'll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn't' afford--she gave her all!"
I was raised by my preachers and Sunday School teachers to extol this poor woman for her generosity and sincerity, her willingness to give-up something comfortable to show her devotion to God. Is this not what Jesus is doing in highlighting her deeds? hmmm...maybe...
My wealth and poverty professor told a story of reading this passage with a group of homeless people one evening in an intimate and urban discussion group. Prepared to offer an eloquent diatribe on the woman's gift, one of the more unkempt men in the group blurted out before my prof could begin, "That bitch is getting' ripped off!"
I absolutely think he's right. The text doesn't tell us what she was going to use the money for instead of offering it to the collection, but we can safely assume she wasn't saving for a new luxury car. She was poor and socially isolated. Probably eating a little less bread that evening as a result of her gift. Is that really what God requires of us? To go hungry or neglect our immediate needs in our devotion? She lived in a culture that devalued women, especially widows, and the religious establishment should have served as a place of refuge and acceptance. A place where she not only encountered dignity and respect, but charity and support. Is this not what God wishes for the disenfranchised--to find a home among those who have the means to offer support from communal a system of acceptance and value?
The pericope directly preceding this parable goes a bit like this,
With everybody listening, Jesus spoke to his disciples, "Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preen in the radiance of public flattery, bask in prominent positions, sit at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they'll pay for it in the end.
The pericope directly after the widow parable begins with this,
One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, "All this you're admiring so much--the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.
Okay, so we know in the latter part that Luke is predicting the death of Christ. But I think the point in the former pericope remains in the second as well, what or who are we worshiping? Are we serving our rituals? Our buildings? Our charismatic leaders? Our hope in sounding good, reliance on big words, and our fancy worship services? Awesome that the poor widow enters into the middle of this discussion and is arguably ripped off by all those who say they actually worship the Creator but miss the significance of Jesus' teaching here. And that even today with all of our scholarly approaches to our sacred texts, it isn't until we read and interact with the marginalized people themselves that we see a new point to this story--we continually miss the point of what it means to be a faith community.
Here is my struggle today:
These pictures show Riverside's front doors and outer entryways on Riverside Drive. Check out the detail in the chiseled limestone. They are stunningly gorgeous. The stone carvers were hired intentionally by Rockefeller because they were an impoverished immigrant family from Italy at the turn of the twentieth century.
However, the large wooden doors, that I am very thankful are kept ajar during the day, are dry rotting. So, if for no other reason, should we spend thousands of dollars maintaining the building given the good she represents, who she stands for, and the artists who created her? Or is the $800,000(!!!) that has been budgeted for 2012 to restore the exterior wooden doors serving something or someone other than God and God's people?
I have no idea.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. During our Wednesday evening gospel service the homeless who regularly hang out in the building often attend this service for the community and soup supper. As we were short on ushers one particular evening I was carrying the collection plate from person-to-person. My homeless friend I mentioned at the start of the entry dropped a single quarter into the plate this night. It clinked as it hit the side of the plate. $.25. That's all. That's all that was had. I saw the person digging deep into a pocket for it. I had to pause with the plate for a moment while the paper wrapped around it was removed. The lump in my gut lurched up into my throat. I was glad for the opportunity to remove myself from the service to drop the collected offerings into the counting bag and then into the safe with the escorting help of a security guard. (Yes, we take our offerings very seriously.) The quarter was the only coin, most of the other spontaneous donations were 10's and 20's. This particular individual has been living in the church hallway for several weeks.
All I can think, "That bitch is gettin' ripped off."
P.S. In know way am I accusing Riverside of not caring about her community. I just wonder where we are to draw the line that demarcates the love for our buildings and art more than the needs of God's people. Damn these issues of the heart.