Why are the poor in poverty?

A sermon on Mark 12:38-44, with a nod to Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Delivered at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, November 8, 2015

When I meet someone from another denomination who asks me about what I do in the church, the title “Honorary Assistant” usually confuses them. I explain it by saying that I’m a retired priest who hangs around the church, helping out as needed and as I’m able. Retirement has its benefits, not least the freedom from some of the duties that full-time paid ministry entails.

Over my years in parish ministry I built up an archive of sermons. There have been times when I’ve simply pulled something of the shelf, touched it up a bit, and used it here or elsewhere. I confess to being tempted to do so once more for today.

However…

Another benefit of retirement is the opportunity to reflect on past deeds, and in some cases, to repent of them. Today, I repent of most of the sermons I have preached on the Gospel story from Mark known as “The Widow’s Mite.” For a variety of reasons, I have almost always connected this to the theme of sacrifice and faithful giving, using it as the text for both stewardship and Remembrance sermons. Particular contexts pointed me in that direction and I failed to take account of what I have come to see as the story’s main point.

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in that scene in the temple. Jesus is talking to his disciples, watching a stream of wealthy people deposit their offerings. We see these folks dropping bags of coins noisily into the treasury boxes, making sure that others see them. Then we see a poor woman approaching the treasury, and dropping two tiny coins in, with an almost inaudible tinkle. Who else might be watching? Maybe she came with a friend or two, and maybe they’re saying something like, “What are you doing? That’s your last coin! Now how will you live?”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t actually commend her, but notes the same thing—she has given “everything she had, all she had to live on.” What might have led her to do this? What would it take for one of us to give everything—every last cent!—to a religious institution? And why is she so destitute? Why does she have nothing left but two small coins?

Jesus has already answered the question, in the first part of the story:

Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses …

The people who were able to pour bags of money into the temple treasury were able to do so because they had made a great deal of money, very likely at the expense of the least able in the community. They participated in a system backed by the religious authorities which worked greatly in their favour. The widow was likely giving her two coins to the temple out of a sense of obedience to the dictates of this same system. God requires that you make your gift to the temple, but does God also demand that you leave yourself with no means of support whatsoever? I think not—and I believe this story suggests that Jesus also thought not.

Clearly the temple and its economic underpinnings had become corrupted in Jesus’ time. The story stands not so much as an affirmation of the widow’s sacrificial giving, but rather as an indictment of a social, economic, and religious system that abused those on the margins of society.

Throughout the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible, care for widows and orphans is one of the signs of the age to come. Widows and orphans had no standing in the community, having to rely on the generosity of others. The book of Ruth, from which we heard two excerpts, revolves around the plight of two widows, Naomi and Ruth, who use their slim resources (and some “feminine wiles”) to come under the protection of Boaz, who becomes Ruth’s husband. It is a story that moves from desperation to a renewed life, quite the opposite of the widow’s situation in the Gospel.

If Jesus challenges the religious and economic system of his time that has led to the utter poverty of this nameless widow, surely we are bound to challenge the systems of our world that conspire to keep many people in poverty. The fourth of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion, now enshrined as part of our Diocese’s constitution, acknowledges this:

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

The church is thus committed to challenging the ways of the world, seeking to live into the peace and justice of the Kingdom of God. It’s not always going to be popular. Dom Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who was widely known for his work among the poor, famously said

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

The Diocese’s Social Justice Committee held a “Day on Poverty” just over a week ago. In the morning, we participated in the United Way’s poverty simulation, followed by an afternoon of theological reflection on poverty, including a presentation by Bishop Jane on the work of the Task Force on poverty which she co-chaired with the Mayor.

Another speaker spoke of the types of social ministry: relief, individual development, community development, and structural change. There is a role for the church at every level. It is fair to say that most church work in the area of poverty is on the level of relief. Relief work is necessary, but it will not by itself eliminate poverty, which is deeply rooted in society. Structural, systemic change must happen in order to make any real progress towards the elimination of poverty.

Some will quote Jesus, who said to Judas “The poor will always be with you…”, as if this somehow absolves us of responsibility for the poor and the hungry. However, as a Bible study we did at the Day on Poverty showed us, the out-of-context quote from Jesus refers to a passage from Deuteronomy which first states that there should not be any poor in the land, going on to say that because the will always be with you, you should never miss an opportunity to help them.

The Mayor’s Task Force has challenged us to work for the elimination of poverty. It’s a big goal, but it’s a goal that comes with Jesus’ own blessing. When the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, there will be no poor in our midst. May God give us the grace to work towards that day.

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About robinw48

Retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, living in Edmonton AB, and serving as an Honorary Assistant at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona.

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