The Widow’s Might
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The Widow’s Might
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Did the sermon title grab your attention? Did you think it was typographical error? It’s a pun, of course, but it’s intended as something more than a play on words. It’s intended as a way of introducing the thesis of the sermon this morning, that the widow’s “mite” M-I-T-E— her poverty—is her “might” M-I-G-H-T— her strength; that is to say, by entrusting what little she had to God, the widow came to have something greater than the world could ever offer—the confidence of God’s providence, protection and love.
And this is what I hope you’ll get out of the sermon today: Whether you have just a little or a whole lot of material wealth, the more you entrust to God, the greater your experience of life in all its abundance.
In another Bible story, a Rich Young Ruler once asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said,
“You know the commandments: ‘Don’t commit adultery,’
‘Don’t murder,’ ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t give false testimony,’
‘Honor your father and your mother.’
He said, ‘I have observed all these things from my youth up.
When Jesus heard these things, he said to him,
‘You still lack one thing.
Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor.
You will have treasure in heaven.'” (Luke 18:18-22)
This upset the Rich Young Ruler, just as it upsets us today. We don’t like the thought of giving up what we have, of losing power and control, of being dependent on someone else.
Ironically, this is precisely what gave the widow the advantage in our story today—she didn’t have much to hold on to. She wasn’t encumbered by worldly possessions. Her only real asset was her faith in God, which, when she put her last two cents in the collection plate, made her net worth equivalent to the sum of God’s mercy. Her “mite”—her willingness to offer God everything she had, was her “might”—the source of her strength and self-respect, which the world could never take away.
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Gordon Cosby, founding pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D. C., tells the story of a young woman in his congregation whose husband died, leaving her a single parent with six children. The treasurer noticed that she continued to give $4.00 a week and, judging from all outward appearances, it represented a sacrifice on her part.
He reported this to Cosby, and Cosby visited the woman. He said, “I told her as graciously and supportively as I knew how that she was hereby relieved of the responsibility of giving.” He said he thought this would relieve at least part of her financial burden. But instead of thanking him, she said, “Please, Reverend, this is the one thing that gives my life dignity and meaning.”
Have you ever noticed how those who have so little can be so generous, while those who have so much can be so tight-fisted? Going back to the story of the Rich Young Ruler, this is why Jesus told his disciples,
“For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye,
than for a rich man (or woman) to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)
The more you have, the greater your tendency to hoard and hang on to what you’ve got; while the less you have, the more likely you are to share with those in need.
A friend of mine tells about the Saturday afternoon back in the 50s when he and his dad went over to see about a man who was sick in bed. He’d been laid up for some time and didn’t have any insurance or sick leave to draw on. He was basically out of work and out of luck.
My friend said his father had just picked up his pay for the week—$75.00 in cash. He knew the amount because his father let him hold the envelope on the way over to see the friend, and he’d counted it himself—seven tens and a five.
He said they went into the man’s bedroom and asked how he was feeling. They didn’t know much else to say. They stumbled around for a few minutes, the two men and the boy; then, as they got ready to leave, his father put the five-dollar bill from his pay voucher on the dresser and said, “I hope this will help in some way.”
My friend said, “If we’d had a lot of money, I wouldn’t have thought much about it, but we lived pretty much from hand to mouth in those days, and five dollars seemed like an awful lot to give away.”
And it was. Yet, in the story today, the widow only had two copper coins, the value of a penny, and she gave them both as an offering to God. When you consider the plight of widows back then, that’s remarkable
In biblical days, widows occupied one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder. They lived at the mercy of others. They had no power, no position and no prominence in the community. They depended on others to protect them and provide for their needs. This is why, again and again, we read such admonitions as,
•”You shall not take advantage of any widow or fatherless child. If you take advantage of them at all, and they cry at all to me, I will surely hear their cry (says the Lord).” (Exodus 22:22-23)
• “When you reap your harvest…(or) beat your olive tree…(or) harvest your vineyard, you shall not glean it after yourselves: it shall be for the foreigner, for the fatherless, and for the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-20)
• “Cursed is he who the foreigner, fatherless, and widow of justice.” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
• “Learn to do well. Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Judge the fatherless. Plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
In the Bible, God shows particular favor toward widows and orphans. The psalmist writes, “Yahweh preserves the foreigners. He upholds the fatherless and widow, but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.” (Psalms 146:9)
In the New Testament, Jesus took pity on a widow in the village of Nain. When he saw that her son had died leaving her defenseless and destitute, he raised the boy from the dead and gave him back to his mother. (Luke 7:12-15)
One of my favorite stories is the Parable of the Unrighteous Judge. It’s about a widow who was denied the settlement of her husband’s estate. The judge refused to hear her case, so she went back, day after day, to plead with him until she finally wore him down, and he gave her what she had coming. (Luke 18:1-5)
Widows were among the least in Jesus’ day, yet, when he saw the worshipers offering their gifts to God in the temple, he said,
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow put in more than all of them,
for all these put in gifts for God from their abundance,
but she, out of her poverty, put in all that she had to live on.”
Now, to be honest, I don’t know what the widow was thinking when she put in her last two coins, nor do I know how she felt. But I do know, from my own experience, what it’s like to make an offering to God, and I’ve often heard others talk about what it meant to them.
Marshall Steele said it best. Marshall Steele was pastor of the Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas for years, and, in talking to a group of us at breakfast one morning, he said, “You know, I’ve spent a lot of money over the years—paying the bills, buying clothes, going out to eat—and, for the most part, I don’t have anything to show for it. The shirts and pants and suits I’ve bought have long since worn out and been discarded; we’ve traded cars a dozen times or more. But the money I’ve given, here and there, to further the church’s mission—to help feed someone who’s hungry, for example, or build a modest home for someone in need of shelter, or send a deserving youngster to college—these are the gifts that continually put a smile on my face and bring me some measure of satisfaction.”
I left the breakfast that morning thinking to myself: In the end, the only treasures you get to keep in this life are those you give away. If you’re shrewd, you can amass a fortune in stocks and bonds and real estate and collectibles, but you can’t take it with you. When you’re gone, the government will get its share, and the kids will split up the rest.
Even while you’re living, your riches won’t bring you the lasting happiness you’d thought they would. But the things you give away, in a sense, are yours to keep forever—the joy of knowing that someone was blessed by your generosity, that others were cooled by the shade of trees you planted.
The widow gave everything she had, and, in so doing, she laid claim to everything God had to offer. She became part of something greater than herself—the kingdom of God. As such, she walked away with something more than those who still had money in their pockets. Her “mite” was her “might” —her devotion to God, the source of her strength and self-respect.
Thinking of the story of the widow’s mite reminds me of Mary James, though Mary James was anything but a widow. She was a young mother, happily married, with two young children. Her husband worked for a manufacturing plant and she made extra money as a hair dresser.
It was the mid-70s, and the little church where I was serving as student pastor thought it was high time they asked a woman to serve as a trustee, so they asked Mary, and she accepted. It was a good choice. Mary was sharp as a tack when it came to balancing a budget and making good business decisions; plus, she was quiet-spoken and willing to take a back seat to the men.
As it happened, there was a vacant lot across the street from the church that the trustees thought the church ought to buy; if nothing else, to keep someone else from buying it and putting in a junk yard, or something. The asking price was $8,000, which was a tidy sum in those days for a small church like ours.
It came up at the trustees meeting, and, of course, the question was, “How are we going to pay for it?” They decided to ask the members of the congregation to make pledges over and beyond their normal giving, over a three-year period. To get it started, they would make their pledges up front. One of the men passed out little slips of paper and another collected them in his hat. Then he proceeded to tally them.
There were nine trustees in all, and all but one pledged a hundred dollars a year. Mary’s pledge was different. It didn’t contain a dollar amount; instead, it read, “One haircut per week.” The trustee counting up the pledges wanted to get a firm bottom line, so he asked her, “What do haircuts go for these days, Mary?” She said, “Five dollars.” He made a quick mental calculation and wrote down, “$260.” The men looked at each other, but didn’t say a word. Her pledge was more than two and a half times theirs. They went on with the pledge campaign, bought the property, and paid off the note in just over a year.
In just a moment I’ll invite you to come forward and make your pledges to the budget for next year. I trust you’ve given serious thought and prayed about what you plan to offer, so I won’t say anything more than this: What you give is between you and God. Though it’s in the form of money, money is secondary to your faithfulness and devotion. It reflects your priorities and your willingness to put God first and trust God to meet your needs.
Just know this: When you do— when you give, not out of your abundance, but out of your living—God will bless you in ways far greater than you can never imagine; what’s more, you’ll have treasures in heaven.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.