November 11, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”
Widows certainly are not the most prominent class of people in society. Yet, each society has them. They exist because of the death that plagues and afflicts all who are born of woman. Throughout the centuries, widows have been noted for the hardships that they face, especially in societies where economic livelihood is dependent upon individual physical work. That is the setting for the two widows mentioned in the Scripture Readings for this day: the Widow of Zarephath in the Old Testament Reading and the Widow of Jerusalem in the Gospel Reading.
What do these two widows have in common? Not only had both lost their husbands to death, they also were economically strapped. This is made clear in the texts: the Widow of Zarephath has just enough flour and oil to make one more loaf of bread for herself and her family; the Widow of Jerusalem has a treasury consisting of two ha’pennies to rub together. That is what the Scripture writers want you to know. But they also mention what these two widows do in the face of their economic distress. And that is where these women give testimony to people miles and years removed from their settings.
The incident with the Widow of Zarephath is important within the life of Elijah the Prophet. As he executed the duties of his office, Elijah was the instrument through which the Lord spoke judgment against His people Israel. The idolatry of Israel, from the house of King Ahab down to the lowest class, brought divine judgment against it. The Lord promised that no rain or dew would fall on the land: a message that Elijah was compelled to bring. Yet, the Lord determined that His prophet would be cared for. So He speaks to Elijah: “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” This is how this Gentile woman enters into the knowledge of the Lord’s people for generations.
Coming to Zarephath, Elijah asks for water and bread from this woman. Her response indicates that she is suffering from the afflictions that the Lord’s drought had brought: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” The widow’s statement spells out the starkness of her situation: she has nothing to give Elijah, no matter how much he may ask; no, she has enough for one more meal, then death by starvation awaits.
But it is precisely into this situation of impending and certain death that the Lord’s promise is spoken. The prophet opens his mouth and reveals what the Lord’s promise is for both himself and this woman: “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” The divine calling of this widow is made clear: she is to be the provider of support for the prophet, and as she fulfills that, the Lord will provide what she needs so that she may live.
So the widow does as the prophet declares: “And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the Lord that He spoke by Elijah.” The widow’s faith drives her actions. She believes the promise that had been extended to her by the Lord. She believes the promise that is spoken mediately through the mouth of the stranger who comes from Israel. As she believes, so she acts; as she believes, so it is done for her. The impending death of starvation is removed by the actions of the Lord.
The same pattern is seen in the Widow of Jerusalem. The incident with her is not done in a foreign land, but right in the heart of the Lord’s city, even in the courts of the Lord’s house. The widow who comes to the Temple brings her offering alongside all the others who come to fulfill the Lord’s Law: “[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.”
As Jesus watches this widow, He comments on her offering: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on.” Jesus’ words indicate the starkness of her situation: the Widow of Jerusalem has no more in her purse than the two mites. That is the extent of her wealth. It is all the purchasing power that she has.
So why does this widow toss both coins into the offering box? What causes her to put in everything that she has to live on? It is her faith that drives her actions, faith in a promise that has been made to her. This widow believes the Lord’s covenant promises that have been extended to her. She believes what the prophets declared about the Lord’s work for her salvation. She believes what Moses taught concerning the Lord’s commands. She believes what the psalmist wrote regarding the Lord’s watchful eye: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; He upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked He brings to ruin.”
The faith that the Widow of Jerusalem has brings blessedness to her: “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.” She has made the Lord her help. She has done so, even when the words of divine promise were given through the mouths of the scribes—those “who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” Her heart is not set on men, in whom there is no salvation, but on the Lord who reigns forever. And that causes this widow to give even the last full measure of her earthly wealth, as the Lord commands. This is why Jesus praises her and calls her two mites a greater offering than all the bags of coins that the others had brought to the Temple treasury.
These two widows stand as examples of the faith that the Lord is pleased to see among His people. It is what He desires to find in you, His people. He wants to see your trust in Him and His actions done for you. For He does not perform some generic actions for you. No, He brings answer to what afflicts you. Your sin, your death, your poverty: these trouble you. But the Lord reveals Himself as the remedy and answer to them. It is the revelation that He has given through the prophets, evangelists, and apostles, just as He revealed Himself to the Widow of Zarephath and the Widow of Jerusalem. What has the Lord promised? He has promised salvation for those who trust in Him. He has promised life everlasting for those who rely on Him. He has promised forgiveness for those who turn to Him.
This is what the Lord speaks to you. He declares what He has done for you, what He has done about your sin, your death, your poverty. The action has been performed by Christ: “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sin of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him.” The giving of Christ’s life, His offering of the entire abundance of His life in sacrifice in the holy places of heaven, has brought redemption for you, answering your afflictions. This is the divine act that opens forgiveness, life, and salvation to you. These are the exceedingly great and precious promises given to all who place their trust in the Lord.
So what is your response? What drives your response? Is it the same as seen in the two widows? Do you take the Lord’s words spoken to you through the prophets, evangelists, and apostles and cling to the promises made? Or have you disregarded them? There is a dependence to be found among the Lord’s people, a dependence that is shown in the actions of coming to where the Lord provides His benefits and the faithful act of receiving what He gives. This is what characterizes the life of the Lord’s people.
Since you are present here to hear the proclamation of Jesus’ work for your salvation, to be washed in the baptismal waters, to hear His words of absolution, to receive His life-giving body and blood in the Sacrament, you are acting like the two widows. Your faith in the divine promises have driven you here, even when they have been spoken through the mouths and administered by the hands of people who came from different places to here, as sent by the Lord. These are the acts of faith, acts rooted in your trusting what the Lord promises.
The examples of the two widows are not only to show that they had faith in the life the world to come that the Lord bestows. No, they show how reliance on the Lord’s promise of watching over them leads to giving for the support of others in this life. That same belief that you have in the Lord’s provision of eternal and temporal needs also leads you to open your hands and supply the physical needs of others. So many loaves have been taken from your kitchens and many mites taken from your purses that you have given to others. Not that you seek to gain something from the Lord by doing so, but because you believe in His words about opening the hands to others. You believe the divine calling that the Lord has given to you.
These are how you follow the blessed examples of the two widows. Like them, you may not be from the most prominent classes in society. You also face the afflictions that come in this earthly life, even the death of spouses and loved ones. But you also believe in what the Lord provides for you, putting your trust in Him who acts to delivers you from need to fortune, from curse to blessedness, from death to life. May that faith never be wanting, as you eagerly wait for Him to bring your salvation.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.