Sermon Mark 12:38-44
One fine day in April of 1872, Gerard Manley Hopkins hypnotized a duck. Hopkins, you remember, is the prone-to-scruples 19th century High Church Anglican-turned-Jesuit poet and author of such memorable poems as “Pied Beauty”—“Glory to God for dappled things”—and “God’s Grandeur”—“the world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out like lightning from shook foil.” As a close observer of the splendors of creation, Hopkins was deeply concerned with the process of perception. Why is it that sometimes the world seems charged with God, and other times seems lifeless and dead? Why do we feel God’s presence so strongly one day, and sense only God’s absence on others?
One way Hopkins answers that question is by examining how enslaved our perception is to habit. And that’s where the duck comes in. On that day in April 1872, Hopkins conducted a rather strange, proto-Pavlovian experiment. He held a duck by the neck with one hand and drew parallel chalk lines on the table in front of the poor duck’s beak with another. Hopkins continued to grasp the duck by the neck staring at the chalk lines for few minutes. Later, he discovered that even when he removed his hand, the duck remained frozen in place, mesmerized by the parallel chalk lines. Questions of method (Why a duck? Why parallel chalk lines? Did it work the next day?) and animal cruelty aside, Hopkins hit upon something crucial for the life of discipleship. More often than not, we don’t see freshly. Our perception of the world, and our encounters with one another are automatic, habitual, routinized, and stuck in the same old ruts (or the same old ducks if you’ll pardon the pun).
I like to joke that the passage from this morning’s Gospel should be called not “The Widow’s Mite” but “The Widow’s Pledge Card.” Coming as it does each year in the middle of stewardship season there is a way in which we have become, perhaps, a little too cozy with this poor widow. Like Hopkins’ mesmerized duck we are likely to nod our heads at first glimpse of the widow and conclude we have exhausted her meaning—“Oh yeah, I’ve got to get that pledge card in.” I’d like to suggest, however, that the poor widow serves a far more radical and challenging function. Rather than reduce her to a pesky nag, can we shake off our habitual ways of relating with this woman and hear Jesus’ teaching afresh?
It’s important to understand the very dire situation widows found themselves in during the time of Jesus. In a patriarchal culture (then as now), women have no inherent worth; their value is measured solely by their relationships with men. Married women, and particularly married women with male sons were highest on the totem pole. Single women, and women whose husbands had died were very much at risk. Similar to our own society in which being a single mother is the most reliable predictor of poverty, the widow of 1st century Palestine was someone on the very margins of society, someone without a shred of power. She was an at-risk, despised nobody.
Contrast the widow’s imperiled, teetering-on-the brink, outsider status with the privileged, time-honored, insider status of the scribes and you begin to understand the powerful contrast Jesus is trying to drive home. We all know the scribes. They’re us. It’s easy to demonize them and turn them into social-climbing caricatures—Gordon Gecko types hell-bent on power and control, winning at all costs. In reality, the scribes are emblems of an all-too-ordinary human life centered on itself. They show us that to the degree we rely on ourselves, exactly that much do we participate in the kind of blind self-sufficiency Jesus condemns so harshly.
The poor widow, on the other hand, has no truck with looking good in the eyes of others, with gaining power and esteem, with self-aggrandizing displays of generosity. If the scribes’ behavior can be summed up in the images of long robes, wordy prayers, and ostentatious displays of giving, the widow’s can be summed up in the gesture of an open hand. She is the epitome of humility. Hers is a gift, not of measurable units of currency, but of self. The widow gives herself completely over; she surrenders herself and depends utterly on God and God alone. The following lines from a hymn of St. Symeon point us in the same direction:
In my foolishness I tried to grasp it,
And I closed my hand, thinking I held it fast:
But it escaped, and I could not retain it in my fingers.
Full of sadness, I unclenched my grip
And I saw it once again in the palm of my hand.
In an age of “financial planners” and calls for “fiscal responsibility” this kind of behavior likely strikes many of us as too “high risk.” What on earth is she thinking? Hasn’t the poor widow heard Franklin’s old saw that, “a penny saved is a penny earned?” Doesn’t she know that this is not the way to get ahead, win friends and influence people? The widow’s gesture, her display of self-emptying trust in God’s mercy is profoundly counter-cultural in an era when accumulation, appearance, and accolades are the order of the day.
It’s all too easy for us to derive our identity from the standing and position we enjoy in the various communities of which we are a part. This week in particular we might be feeling elated (and perhaps rather smug) about the election results. Or, we might be depressed looking at the prospect of the next four years. This parable is a reminder that in either case the game of trying to “look good” in the eyes of others is an endless game. That is what our reading from Hebrews so powerfully demonstrates. The “year after year” of the priestly sacrifice never arrives at completion. It never fully satisfies. There is no end to the amount gratification our egos can derive from trying to be the center of attention, the one everyone notices.
The widow, by contrast, presents us with another way of working—God in Christ’s way of working. She embodies the way of humility, self-giving, and service. Unlike the year-after-year sacrifice of the priest in Hebrews, or the endless round of self-display in the guise of giving by the rich people in the temple, the widow’s gift of self is complete, once-for-all—a perfect sacrifice to the end of the age. Indeed, seated opposite the treasury Jesus recognizes himself in the widow’s sacrifice. Just as she gave her life to the Temple, so Jesus will give his life on a hill outside Jerusalem to build a temple not made with hands.
We are called to emulate the widow’s self-offering, and by extension, to put on the mind of Christ. Jesus reminds us that following Him means letting go and resting in the assurance of His already completed work. Jesus reminds us that we can release all the different ways we try to build ourselves up in the eyes of others—seeking approval, looking good, not making mistakes—and finally know our identity in Him instead. Habitually, we try to find fulfillment in the fleetingness of worldly identities—status, security, esteem, approval, power—rather than in God. We make the mistake—like the scribes—of thinking happiness comes from something of our own making, that the Kingdom of God is a self improvement project, a game of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers with the ever-triumphant ego always center stage
Again, the widow’s open palm, her self-emptying gesture of release and letting go, shows us that such thinking is an empty charade. As Jesus pointedly reminds us, it’s one that ultimately ends in prideful self-enclosure and death. Giving herself away, relying only on God, the widow offers us a way out of the endless cycle of getting ahead and looking good. As the portion of the psalter appointed for today echoes—
Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the LORD their God;
This, ultimately, is what we mean when we speak of “spiritual poverty.” Over the past few months, Fr. John has been leading us through an exhilarating sustained meditation on the life of St. Francis through the scenes depicted in the stained glass of the Mary chapel. At one point in Francis’ discourses with Lady Poverty found in the Sacrum Commercium, we find the lines, “Possessing nothing he belonged entirely to God.” For Francis, and for us, poverty is not simply a program of self-denial for its own sake. Nor is it a technique we can employ to earn God’s grace. Rather, becoming poor is a doorway to learning to rely on God in all things. It’s a practice, moment-by-ordinary-moment of turning away from self towards Him in whom we live and move and have our being.
The parable of the poor widow, and the life of St. Francis serve as potent reminders of how easy it is to fall into habitual and automatic patterns of self-seeking that prevent us from seeing the world as crackling with God’s holy fire. Like Hopkins’ mesmerized duck, we often become enthralled and entranced by the paltry chalky lines of our own efforts, failing to acknowledge and give thanks for the bountiful riches of God’s glory in all things. Each moment presents us with a choice—either to cling tightly to our ideas about God, the world, and ourselves, or, by dying to self, to open our hands and receive the free gift of God’s transforming grace.
May God grant us the widow’s gift of opening our hands in the hope that as we empty ourselves of who we think we are and who God should be, God might reveal to us who we really are and who God really is.