08 November 2015

Caring for Widows in the Lord's House

It seems natural enough to admire what that poor widow does.  She appears to be acting in faith, trusting God and giving all that she has to His Church.  To be sure, Jesus does not condemn or criticize her actions.  By the same token, though, He does not praise them, either.  The fact is that we don’t know what was in her heart or in her mind.  We can’t know, but neither do we need to.

While the story of the Widow’s Mite is appealing and endearing, this Holy Gospel has more to do with what Jesus says about the Scribes than with that poor widow and her gift.  It is an example of what the Scribes have brought to pass with their agenda of works righteousness and outward appearances.  Everything has been turned on its head, inside-out and upside-down in the piety and religion of the Jews.  Not for all of them, to be sure, but in many ways for many of the people.

What Jesus does say about the Widow’s Mite anticipates what He will go on to say in the next chapter about the Temple — the very heart of the Jewish religion — and how He, Jesus, by His own self-sacrifice upon the Cross, will really shake things up and turn them on their head again!

For the time being, though, our Lord addresses the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the Scribes.  Watch out for them, He warns, because their whole aim in life and in their piety has been to impress the crowds and attract attention to themselves.  The Scribes, it should be noted, were not the ministers of the church.  They were not the ordained priests who served in the Temple, nor were they teachers of the people like the Pharisees.  The Scribes were professional theologians and church lawyers, so to speak.  Or, we might say, they were the lay leaders and officers of the church, responsible for the rules and regulations of the church constitution and by-laws.

But it was not their position or profession that was problematic in the case of the Scribes.  It was their own sense of self-importance, and the way they put on airs.  They made a prideful show of their leadership, their attention to the details of the Law, and their outward appearance of superior spirituality.  In all of this, they were seeking the praise and adulation of the people.  In doing so, they also established a religious culture and climate and expectation of self-righteousness.

It was by an extension of these attitudes that the Scribes — or rather, to be fair, some of the Scribes — were guilty of devouring the houses of widows.  But such an accusation is more difficult to understand than it might sound.  Certainly, the Scribes would not have engaged in the outright seizing or stealing of property.  That would hardly have made them popular!  Some have suggested that a Scribe might become the legal trustee of a widow’s property, and in that capacity make decisions and investments or charitable contributions that would not be in her best interests.  In my opinion, however, it has far more to do with the very thing that Jesus here points out in the case of the one poor widow who gave her last penny into the Temple treasury.

In the Old Testament, over and over again, the Lord makes clear that His people are to care for the widows and orphans above all, especially because He, the Lord, is the Husband and the Father of His people, and they are to represent Him in their care and service for others.  Along the same lines, St. James writes that true religion which is pure and undefiled before God the Father is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.  As such, it should have been a distinguishing mark and characteristic of Jewish piety to care and provide for widows.  Instead, the Scribes — by their words and actions, by their standards, expectations, and example — led poor widows to contribute their essential livelihood, even their very last cent, to the care and upkeep of the Temple.

Meanwhile, the wealthier members of the community were more than able to provide all that was really needed.  Indications are that the Temple treasury was abundantly filled and overflowing!

Now, to be clear, it is no indictment of the poor widow in this Holy Gospel that she entrusted all that she had to the Lord’s House.  It likely was an act of faith and trust in God, similar to that of the widow who provided for the Prophet Elijah.  Yet, we have here a striking contrast.  There is the poor widow who should have been receiving help and service from the people and Temple of God, who ends up giving everything she has to the Temple.  And then there are those Scribes who are most interested in receiving the attention, the admiration, and the accolades of the people.

Perhaps a more familiar example of the same sort of problem will help to clarify.  In the Sixteenth Century, the Reformation began as a response to the selling of indulgences in Germany.  Under papal authority, the forgiveness of sins was ostensibly for sale, or so it was thought.  To purchase an indulgence was considered a good work and meritorious, because the proceeds were being used for the beautiful new St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.  Consequently, Dr. Luther criticized not only the whole theological poverty behind the notion and abuse of indulgences, but also the way the poor people of Germany were being pressed into the financial support of a building for the wealthy people of Rome, Italy.  Instead of being served, they were being pressured into sacrifice.

In our own day and age, it has been common enough to become a cliché, the way that so-called televangelists have preyed upon “poor widows” and persuaded them to contribute their life savings in support of some “ministry,” perhaps real or pretend.  And you could probably think of other examples of the many ways that pious, well-meaning, faithful people are led to contribute, even beyond their ability and means, to various religious and charitable causes.  Typically, there is an unspoken premise that, by giving to this or that cause, one avoids or assuages feelings of guilt for not doing something to help.  Instead of guilt, there is supposed to be some kind of spirituality.

But let’s not dwell on the sins of others.  For we fall into the same sort of trap, ourselves, when we become focused on the preservation of our church building for its own sake, for example, or when we focus on our congregation as a human institution, as a social fellowship of like-minded people, instead of fixing our entire faith and focus solely on the Lord Jesus Christ and on His Word and Ministry of the Gospel.  Sadly, it’s far too easy for us poor sinners to be distracted and misled.

How often don’t we get worked up and focused on what we’re doing and what we ought to do; on what we’re giving and what we need to give; on what we have accomplished, or what we’re going to accomplish?  Or, conversely, we get wrapped up in our failures of the past and in our fears for the future.  And then it’s all about “our” church, “our” congregation, “our” programs and problems, and “our” building.  But that kind of superficiality — that religion of outward appearances and human structures — is the same self-righteousness that Jesus criticized in the Scribes, which led to a situation in which a poor widow would give up everything she had to support the Temple.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The Temple and its sacrificial Liturgy were the very means of grace, established by God Himself, whereby He served and provided for His people with forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  But that, precisely, was the key.  It was the Lord’s means of grace, and His Divine Service, whereby He provided for His people.  It was not something the people did for God, much less for themselves.  Their necessary financial support of the Temple ought to have been understood and offered as a sacrifice of faith and of thanksgiving, in grateful appreciation for and in confident support of that which God by His grace continued to do and supply for them.  And the focus, by all means, needed to remain on the Word and Sacrifices of God, not on the outward beauty and adornment of the Temple buildings, and not on the gifts and sacrifices of the people.

The same thing is true for us in our day, in our own circumstances.  You do have an obligation and responsibility to support the Church on earth with your time and talents, and yes, also with your treasures, in proportion to the measure with which God has blessed you.  And your congregation does need your support, including your financial support, if it is to continue as a part of the Lord’s Church on earth.  So, do give what you are able.  But not for the sake of preserving this building in this place, nor even for the sake of preserving Emmaus Congregation as such.  Give what you can for the sake of the Gospel–Word and Sacraments; for the sake of the Ministry of the Gospel in this place; for the sake of what God is here doing in Christ Jesus for you and for your neighbor.  Give what you can, not to purchase some advantage, but as a sacrifice of faith and thanksgiving.

Guard yourself against the strong temptation to focus on the human structures and their outward appearances.  And don’t kid yourself that you can easily tell the difference and keep things sorted out.  Even the disciples of Jesus were caught up in the impressive beauty of the Temple buildings, as we shall hear next week.  Their eyes went from that poor widow giving everything she had to that beautiful Temple, and they were no doubt thinking how noble and how good and right it was that everyone should so give in support of that proud monument of the Jewish people and religion.

Just as we might easily stand back and admire our beautiful church building, inside and out, which certainly is, in many ways, a tribute to the piety and devotion of the people of God who have gone before us on the corner of Milton & Dale.  But we must also be given that sobering reminder which our Lord then spoke to His disciples, namely, that the Temple would be destroyed, and the entire city of Jerusalem along with it, not one stone left upon another.

And what then?  Would the destruction of the Lord’s House and of the Lord’s Holy City on earth be the end of His Church, as well?  Would that be the end of His Gospel and the worship of His Name?  The end of His forgiveness, life, and salvation?  The end of His people and their hope?

No!  A thousand times, No!  First of all because the Lord Himself and His Word remain forever.  But also because the Lord Himself — in His own Body of flesh and blood — by His sacrificial death upon the Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead — has become the new, divine, eternal Temple of the Living God, in heaven and on earth.  His Sacrifice has accomplished once-for-all the forgiveness of sins, so that no other sacrifice remains except for the sacrifice of faith and of thanksgiving in response to His gifts of life and salvation.

That Temple of His Body, and His gracious gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, are here for you — not because of this building, nor even because of the faithful members of Emmaus past and present — but because of the Lord and His faithfulness.  Because of His grace and mercy toward you and all His people.  Because of His Word and Holy Spirit.  Because of His preaching of the Gospel, His baptizing and absolving of poor, miserable sinners.  And because He here feeds you with His own holy Body, and He quenches your deepest thirst with His holy, precious Blood.

The Lord uses your gifts to provide for the place and the pastors and the people to make all of these things happen.  But do not ever suppose that the Lord is left depending upon you to support Him.  And do not ever suppose that His Gospel and His gifts are in any way contingent upon you and your sacrifices.  Rather, live by faith that He who created you and all things and still preserves them; who has suffered and died for you, so that you might live with Him in His Kingdom forever; who has caused His Word and Sacraments to be faithfully preached and administered for you and many others in this place — and all around the world, in all times and places, from the fall into sin until the final judgment — He will also, for the sake of His own love and faithfulness, continue to strengthen you and keep you steadfast in His Word and faith unto the life everlasting in Him.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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