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Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday before Advent
York Minster, Sunday 7 November 2021 by Canon Victoria Johnson
The Widow’s Offering
Our Gospel passage begins with Jesus’ ultimate criticism of the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisees and Scribes – that they were hypocrites. That is, they said they followed the will of God but, in fact, did otherwise. Jesus uses the image of the actor to say they were not who they appeared to be. Yet, the Pharisees were serious about God and the Torah, enough to kill, but their hypocrisy was that even while they claimed to be experts of the Torah, they violated it. This matter of hypocrisy is significant, as we shall see. Something of this too connects with the reading from Hebrews; ‘For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.’ Jesus cuts through any pretence or play and goes to the real place as he truly is.
We are meant to notice that our Gospel passage begins with this criticism and then tells of a widow putting in all the money she has into the alms box at the Temple. Widows were supposed be given particular care in the Jewish community and yet are the victims of the hypocrisy in the religious leaders Jesus is so critical of; ‘they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’ Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and Scribes is serious indeed. It is no coincidence that our Gospel passage today begins with Jesus’ criticism and proclamation of judgement on these groups, as he then relates the action of a widow in sharp contrast to the actions of those who are said to prey upon her. Jesus’ telling of the widow’s offering is connected to his condemnation of the Pharisees and Scribes.
This hypocrisy in the religious leaders gets to a serious spiritual matter for all of us, for every Christian. There’s a reason why repentance, of turning back to God, is at the heart of our journey with God. We die to sin and rise to new life with Jesus. We can be very serious about God and believe we are doing his will, and yet, if we do not make a daily offering of our heart to God, we very easily devise rules of our own, and like the Pharisees, can actually go against the will the God. We can end up play-acting. Being a disciple of Jesus is tricky and not always straightforward, it involves all of us, and every bit of our lives. There has to be a continual openness to God and a desire for a deeper listening and noticing.
I wonder what you think being a Christian is all about… Do you think it’s about being a good person? Well, you might find yourself making more ethically-based decisions [of sorts] as you seek to live faithfully, but being of faith for the sake of being good is not what it’s all about. In fact, if we do think this, we’re likely to be rightly accused of living under a guise of hedonism.
We are, first and foremost, above and before all else, to love God. In the same chapter as our Gospel passage this morning, it’s significant that we hear the first commandment, ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And the second, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12.30) There is a hierarchy here. God first, and we see this in the widow’s offering. In loving God, she wants to give all she has. She is wholehearted in her response to the generosity of God.
We are to notice the contrast of amounts in the account of the widow in the Temple. Many rich people put in large sums and the widow two small copper coins. They give out of their wealth, out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, out of her need, out of her scarcity. When giving from poverty, you have to really think about it as you are personally on the line, your very security; but when giving from wealth, your very self and security are not in jeopardy or at any particular risk. Yet, in one way, all of this is not about amounts of money, it’s about making an unreserved response to God’s generosity, which also isn’t about amounts, but rather that he has made us a new creation in Christ and has set his seal upon us; that he has given us a new heart. God’s outflow is from his love, ours – an outflow of our worship. The words often used at the Offertory in the eucharistic liturgy, All things come from thee O Lord and of thine own do we give thee, have particular meaning here.
What we see in the widow’s offering is her wholehearted response to God’s faithfulness, to his generosity, and we can reflect on this ourselves in how we respond to God, in all areas of our lives. In the widow’s offering, we see an expression of the first commandment, to love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. We are to love God and in this we want to give everything we have. What does this look like? And who is this like? [Jesus]
As we are drawn daily to make this wholehearted response to God’s generosity in Christ, we can find our prayer to God each morning and throughout each day in the words of the psalmist,
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51.10)
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