by Erika Dornfeld, Seminarian
I had seen it before, but this time, there was a live duck.
And a live chicken. And freshly cut bunches of bananas.
I sat in the old wooden pew and watched the goods pile up in front of the altar. It was part of the church services that I had begun to recognize as common throughout the east African country of Tanzania. It was the time where members brought up goods and foodstuffs for offering if they too poor to give cash. But especially in this tiny, rural church, it seemed like quite a lot of things. Besides the rowdy poultry and bananas, there were woven mats, traditional clothes and linens, a poles of purple sugar cane and a gaudy pink tea set, There were several bags of cassava, a kind of root vegetable, all shoved together in the front of the altar. After service ends, the people gather in a circle to bid on the items in a sort of live auction. And that money also makes its way to the offering plate, so that way, everyone contributes, and no ducks are left wandering the aisle after the lights are turned out.
Today, the first story is of the widow in the story with Elijah. Then, there was no Temple, not priests. She fed this wandering prophet, Elijah, out of her meager supply of bread and oil. Many of you may know that this is where our own Elijah’s pantry takes its name, from this very story. This is no mere hospitality she shows to the prophet. She gives away what gives her and her son life. A cup of flour and oil is all that she had. And it was more than enough.
In Mark, we again hear of a widow and her offering. Now instead of food, she offers 2 copper coins. Like the 1st widow, this widow is also poor. At first, when we picture her dropping her two coins into the temple coffers, we admire her. Her sacrifice and devotion to God are amazing!
The first part of this morning’s gospel, though, really confuses me. It seems like a really scary thing to do! I want it to be admirable, but the widow’s act, to me, feels a little crazy.
Surely the widow must have also been at least somewhat aware of the danger here. But this does not stop the widow from putting her money in at the Temple. But should she risk it?
Isn’t this all she has?
I just want to tell her “No don’t do it!!! You’re being naïve!” That in fact those scribes who feast in the greatest halls in the best seats in the nicest robes are poised to devour your house?
I do. I feel I know what might happen to her as a result of such ravenous consumption. Why can I imagine this so well? We still see this today don’t we? One does not need to wander far from this building to see it. The houses of our neighbors are still being foreclosed upon. And even if we don’t face a sub prime mortgage in our home or community, we still see it.
Today our own houses of worship bend with old age. Church paint is peeling, ceilings are creaking. Stairs are tilting. At the congregational meeting a few weeks ago, we heard that our fellow neighborhood Lutheran church, Zion Christo Rey, has closed its doors for good.
Even more recently we have heard that poverty has expanded into suburbia. Our partners in Elijah’s pantry, their names can be seen on that banner behind you on the wall. Their neighbors, maybe even they themselves, have pantries a little more than scarce.
So is Jesus, in letting the woman give all she had, is condemning her to a similar fate? Well, I think Jesus makes pretty clear how he feels about devouring widow’s houses. And yet, he doesn’t seem to be too worried here. I’m not sure that Jesus agrees with me in thinking she is silly or naïve.
But Jesus goes on to describe her gift as “all that she had.” The Greek word for “all that she had” is Bios, or, life. Bios. Biology. She did what Elijah had commanded the widow to do back in Zarapheth. Give me the rest of your food. The widow of Z didn’t need a degree in economics to know the price Elijah was asking her to incur.
Jesus goes on to say has “given out of her poverty.” One translation I came across read “she gave out of her scarcity.” Scarcity to me is a confusing term. Nowadays it’s an economic term. It means the problem of having humans who have unlimited wants and needs in a world of limited resources.
When I act out of scarcity, I don’t give things. I feel fear. I get anxious and I definitely do not want to give more. I want to snatch up more than I need because I have this nagging voice saying there isn’t enough, that I need to look out for me.
And I wonder if this isn’t how a lot of people feel sometimes? Black Friday is in a couple of weeks, and swarms of us will go out and snatch up the great sales, the mark downs, the deals. Time and budgets are tight, they are limited. And after all we want a nice Christmas.
But Jesus says the widow gave out of poverty. She is poor. But she is not motivated by her poverty, her scarcity. Jesus doesn’t see the widow as someone making an incredible donation. No. He sees a life. A woman facing real limits that refuses to let her poverty overcome her trust in God and God’s people.
And when we act, despite our limits, what happens? We begin to see the abundance.
Where is the abundance of this congregation? Where and how do individual, small resources—like a little bit of food or a little bit of money, become a faith community’s abundant offering?
Back in that wooden pew, in that rural church in Tanzania, I watched as a young man bought one of the heaping bags of cassava root. Then someone else bought a bag and gave it to him. And another person did the same thing. And another. So now one man had 4 bags of cassava—way way more than he could possibly consume. Cassava is a startch. One bag would last him several days. And then, the joke became to get this man to bid on lots of things, or for people to donate their purchased item to him. It was hilarious, and I laughed along, even though it was in a different language.
I learned on the way home that all this cassava-buying and merriment was sending a singular message that everyone one else was in on but me. The message was to that man: get married. At first I was confused by this connection. By buying and giving this one man almost all of cassava, his church was saying to him, “this is for your family.” It was a family that wasn’t there yet
But that the community was actively preparing for. They saw the man, and saw the empty seats in his dining room and maybe his meager pantry. And so with the offering of the church, they were able to prepare a full table for those still on their Way. So that when they do arrive, there will more than enough.