Say Her Name: A Sermon on the Widow of Jersusalem

Mark 12:38-44

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Savilina lives in a rural village outside of Bukoba, Tanzania in a small, traditional Tanzanian house made of mud and thatch. Though she has not been in good health herself, she has primary responsibility for caring for several family members who live with her in that small home: her 75-year-old mother, her two children, and three children of her brother who died of AIDS a few years ago. Our Holy Trinity group traveling in Tanzania met her through a church-based social service agency in the region called HUYAWA, an acronym which roughly stands for “Service for the children.” One of the HUYAWA field assistants introduced us to Savilina and her daughter, whom the organization is sponsoring for secondary school education.

Savilina greeted our group of a half dozen Minnesotans warmly. She offered us homemade mats as we sat on the ground outside her home. She offered us simple refreshments of tea and bread to enjoy while we learned of her situation and her hopes for her daughter and the work that HUYAWA is doing for children in the community.

Afterward, back at our much more comfortable hotel in town, we reflected on how generous she had been to us. Though so poor, she had graciously offered us food when we came to visit her. It was true, but I felt uneasy. I still had questions for Savilina. Yes, she had been generous, but it seemed to me she had more wisdom to share than just a moral lesson on showing hospitality to guests. After reflecting further, I wanted to know more about her life beyond what was communicated through the translator and the lens of the social worker. I wanted to know more about what she thought of us, wealthy Lutherans from the U.S. She was kind and generous, yes, but did she also see us and the organization we were with as one of her few options left for survival? Yet we did nothing. I wish I had asked her what concerns weighed on her during our visit, while we drank her tea and took her picture.

I still have many questions for Savilina that remain with me and unsettle me. In a similar way, I have even more questions for the widow in Jerusalem who gave all she had at the temple treasury. We’re told very little about her life circumstances, not even learning her name anywhere in the Gospel. Generations of sermons and Bible studies have reduced this woman to an object lesson on stewardship. (“If she could give all she had to the temple, how much more can you give to God’s work?”) But I would like to know more about her life and hear this Gospel passage from her perspective. What was on her mind as she went to the temple that day? Was she simply doing her religious obligation and naively gave away what she had? Was she faithfully placing her entire hope in God and God’s people? Or, as a third option, was she shrewdly and prophetically calling attention to an unjust system that took advantage of people in vulnerable situations and had abandoned God’s original intentions?

I have a sense that that third piece could have been at least a part of what was going on for her that day. After all, as a worshipper at the temple, she must have known well the many passages of Hebrew scripture that remind us of God’s concern for widows and orphans and strangers. She had read the many exhortations to look out for members of the community who have no means of income, passages such as Deuteronomy 10, which says:

God is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.

She knew the criticism of the prophet Isaiah, who said:

Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.

They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

And she must have seen that this same criticism could be applied to the leaders in Jerusalem who had turned the temple into a profiteering enterprise for the benefit of themselves and the Romans. She was being asked to give all that she had to live on and then walk away quietly and die alone. Where was the concern of the priests and scribes? Was she thinking of these things that day?

Jesus was watching all of this happen. I doubt that he knew what was on that woman’s mind, either, but he certainly knew the scriptures. That’s why he had been criticizing the leaders for their pompous displays of piety and for seeking places of honor at the banquets while ignoring the needs of others. In the next chapter, he says that not one stone of the temple will be left upon another. So how, then, could Jesus commend this widow in Jerusalem as a model of generosity when the temple system was taking advantage of her and so many others like her?

Well, in fact, he didn’t commend her. He noticed her.

Jesus noticed her. He noticed her because he was accustomed to paying attention to the hurting, the small, the oppressed, the sorrowful. So Jesus noticed the woman. He noticed her dignity. He noticed her courage. And, I think, he recognized a prophetic action because by placing her two coins in the box she was in effect denouncing a whole temple system built on injustice and corruption. She was demanding that people take notice of her situation. How could they ignore this injustice? Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to follow her in what she did; he simply told them to pay attention to her. He affirmed her right to criticize what was going on in Jerusalem, and he helped others to hear it as well.

If we can understand this unnamed widow in Jerusalem as a prophet, then we can understand her to be solidly in line with Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elijah and others who spoke truth at the site of power and authority. She is part of a tradition that also led civil rights activists in 1964 to march to the National Mall and that led the American Indian Movement in 1972 to also travel all the way to Washington on the Trail of Broken Treaties to seek an end to their mistreatment. As a prophet, the widow in Jerusalem had faith in God and a trust that no system of injustice, no matter how powerful, could stand forever.

Jesus took notice. I wonder, of whom does Jesus take special notice today?

This summer, a 28-year-old African American woman named Sandra Bland was arrested in Texas for allegedly assaulting a police officer. You may have heard that she was found dead in a jail cell three days later. In honor of Bland, the African American Policy Forum and others put together  a report called “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.” It discusses Sandra Bland and several other examples of police brutality experienced by women of color. One of the authors of the report says, “Black women are all too often unseen in the national conversation about racial profiling, police brutality, and lethal force.” That is, the experiences of men are discussed much more often in such conversations. The report, then, is an effort to make the women who have been mistreated much more visible. That’s also why many are encouraging these women’s stories to be highlighted on social media. They have put together photos which also read: “Say Her Name: Sandra Bland,” Say Her Name: Kayla Moore,” “Say Her Name: Michelle Cusseaux,” “Say Her Name: Miriam Carey,” “Say Her Name: Tanisha Anderson.” They are asking us all to take notice.

The promise Jesus offers us clearly and passionately is that they and any of us in our times of need are consistently noticed by our God of steadfast love. There are no nameless widows to God, for God knows and values every life of this earth. We know that this is true of God as much as we know that it isn’t always true of God’s people. Through grace, we are set free to listen and learn from the perspectives of one another. Our symposium this week will be an opportunity to continue this conversation, as we seek to re-imagine our church and world from the perspective of those who haven’t always been noticed by those in positions of power and privilege. Our racism discussion groups, which we’ll discuss in the forum, are also an important pathway for our congregational learning. And we’ll continue this work of justice in many other ways, too.

For this week, perhaps it is enough for us to pay attention. Try to notice where your neighbors are hurting in ways that are often kept secret. Try to understand as much as you can. Notice the places where you yourself are longing for connection or justice or compassion. As you do so, you may find the crucified Christ is present there, too.

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