Text: Mark 12:38-44
What was her name? I wish I knew. I wonder if anyone in that sanctuary knew it or if she was just one more of the nameless poor who wandered in and out, barely noticed, if at all.
In Mark’s Gospel, she holds titles rather than a name – Woman. Poor. Widow. Her titles cast her among the nameless crowd of people prayed for by the supposedly More Fortunate at each Sabbath service.
What was her name? I wish I knew it.
I wonder if Mark did? If so, he never tells us. She moves about the Jerusalem Temple wearing the invisibility cloak of the poor. So, who notices when the plate passes by and she drops in her last coins, the only money she had left to buy food for the day? Not one of the religious leaders worries a whit about what will happen to her when she leaves the temple, when hunger hits hard at home later tonight. She has given extravagantly, some would argue, irresponsibly, and it is as if she is not even there. It is as if no notices.
Jesus notices. He is the one person in the sanctuary teeming with people who notices an easily unnoticed widow. If anything is true about the Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel, he is a person who notices. He notices what others miss, notices people others never see.
A desperately ill, wealthy woman touches his robe in the middle of a bustling city street, and no one notices, but Jesus does. A blind beggar shouts out in a large city crowd, and for everyone else his cry is just more urban street noise, but not for Jesus. A wild maniac is chained outside of town because no one can manage his madness so they put him outside the range of their notice, but Jesus notices him nonetheless.
Looking around the Jerusalem Temple, I imagine the disciples’ eyes were fixed on the rich and famous pouring large bags of coins into the offering plate with a flourish, making sure that everyone noticed how much they were giving. Instead, Jesus notices an unnamed woman, a widow, a less fortunate one who pours out her two pitiful coins into the collection plate. Jesus notices her act of extravagant generosity and then he preaches the shortest stewardship sermon on record.
The sermon Jesus preaches does not begin with a funny anecdote and it does not close with a poem. It is not one of his mind-bending, puzzling parables. It is short and sweet, right to the point. Jesus gathers his gawking disciples around him and asks them to notice this widow. He then preaches this pithy sermon: “Truly I tell you: this poor widow has given more than all those giving to the treasury; for the others who have given had more than enough, but she, with less than enough, has given all that she had to live on.”
I would be interested to know what the disciples “noticed” as the point of Jesus’ sermon or did they “notice” anything at all. Was it a point as invisible to them as the widow was to everyone except Jesus? I wonder if the disciples ever got it that not noticing the widow is the first step in sacrificing the poor.
It was not just the ancient temple in Jerusalem that sacrificed a poor widow on the altar of institutional financial stability. The poor, especially poor women, especially the poor who are widows and who are mothers, have always been easy targets not to notice. How many women in the world today find themselves as destitute as the widow in the temple or as Ruth, gleaning for their daily bread, sorting through the discarded abundance of their middle-class and well-to-do neighbors, clinging to children in a caravan in search of safety; women who go uniformly unnamed and unnoticed?
The Jesus we meet in Mark invites us to slow down, look around, and notice. Carol Howard Merritt tells this story about noticing: “Here in Chattanooga . . . the city recently emptied a hotel. It was a desolate place, with harsh lights and hard concrete. But it was also the sort of place that didn’t require a background check, credit record, or down payment, so poor residents could live there. A person could go there if he had just gotten out of prison. A mom could take her children there if she was trying to leave her abusive spouse.
“The city condemned the building and gave everyone a couple of days to collect their things and move out. Our city, with its already threadbare social structure, had a sudden influx of 1,500 homeless people. The Methodist church took in 30 people. The Baptist church housed five families. But there were so many more, and the needs seemed too heavy to bear. We live in the buckle of the Bible belt, but this doesn’t stop us from sacrificing the poor on our altars of gentrification.”
I have listened to political candidates of every stripe in the recent election season and I did not hear a single candidate speak her name or speak to her condition. It is not because we cannot know her name. We can. It is because that to know her name is to know her story, to know that she is a fellow traveler on this sometimes confounding and lonely path of life. To know her name means that we can no longer lump her, name unknown, into our convenient, stereotypical categories: “poor,” “woman,” “widow,” “homeless.” It means that we cannot dismiss her out of her humanity as someone unworthy of our notice, because even if we do not notice, God does.
In whatever church I have served, just days after the pumpkin is carved and only weeks before the turkey is served, the church has asked people to pledge their financial intentions for the coming year. How else can the Session build a budget for the coming year, after all, if they do not know what people will pledge to give for the coming year?
I always feel some ambiguity about this annual stewardship rite knowing that what others give will end up paying my salary. That is certainly true and for your gifts today and in the future that provide for me and my family, thank you.
I want to tell you, though, not why you should pledge and give, but why Jennell and I do. Though we give with nowhere close to the extravagance of the unnamed widow, we pledge and give because of her, because Jesus invited those would be his disciples to notice her and those like her, to notice what we can learn about giving from her and her kin.
So, Jennell and I give praying, that along with all the gifts of this community, our resources will expand our collective ability to notice, to notice that widow, that abandoned child, that person living on the streets, that refugee miles from their home, that person just out of prison, that frightened soul escaping a house of abuse, that teen falling behind and into trouble at school, that person about to make a choice that she will forever regret. We give, praying, that our collective gifts will help us to notice, to learn their names and their stories, and to refuse to walk by them as if they did not exist.
The church I served in Atlanta housed and was surrounded by a large homeless population. One Ash Wednesday, a couple of my young colleagues and I dressed in our pulpit robes and headed to the streets to make a sign of the cross on any interested passer-by. We hurried back to church just in time for the evening Ash Wednesday worship service and were stopped by several of the guys waiting in line to enter our shelter for the night. One man whose face but name I did not know said, “Hey Pastor, how about blessing us?”
I wish I knew his name.
I wish I knew her name.
We can, you know.
It all begins by noticing.