Luke 21: 1-6
And he, looking up, gave his attention to the rich people placing their gifts in the temple treasury. And he noticed a certain poor widow putting in her two cents. And he said,
“I tell you the truth, this impoverished widow has put in more than all the others. All of them have given their gifts out of their abundance; but this woman from her precarious poverty, has given all she had, in fact her life.”
And some were speaking [to him] about the temple, with its exquisite masonry and the ornamentation with which it had been endowed. And his comment was:
“There comes the day when these things, which you behold now, will be overthrown, one stone no longer standing on another.”
We have repeated, again and again, our conviction that Luke invites us to read his narrative in a cumulative way, where one thing leads on to another. We have just heard Jesus warn his disciples:
Be on your guard with the scribes. They love walking about in their dress, their long robes, delighting in the greetings they receive in the market places, the reserved seats in the synagogues, and the couches set aside for honoured guests when dining, collecting the houses of widows as they go, making a show of praying long prayers. At the end, these are due for an exhaustive judgement.
This is Jesus’ considered advice, his command, to be scrupulous in avoiding the religion of show.
He turns to look at what is going on around him.
Luke the story-teller is writing up the results of his field-work, his interviews and tracking of the stories of eye-witnesses about the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
This part of his Gospel “shares data” with corresponding passages in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12-13).
We are also reading an account of a writer who is aware of the limits of his story-telling, and with the account of this seemingly brief episode – how long did Jesus and his disciples sit there watching? five minutes, an hour? a whole morning or afternoon? – Luke reminds us that with Jesus’ arrival there was more going on in Jerusalem than just his teaching sessions and his responses to the questions and confrontations he encountered within the temple precincts.
There was more going on in the temple precincts than his teaching of those who flocked to hear him.
Life went on, as it usually did, as Jesus taught and here, Luke tells us, Jesus continued his teaching. He was attentive to what was going on around him. And he drew this to the attention of his listeners. This made a most decisive impact upon his disciple’s understanding of what is truly valuable in God’s sight.
Now, at this point, some readers may wonder why I find it necessary to say this. Isn’t it obvious? Well it might obvious that Jesus taught in the midst of what we call “everyday life” but sometimes our concentration upon what we are reading can belie the fact. We fall into a way of imagining what was happening that somehow presumes that what Jesus had to say on this occasion is all that we now have to take into account. If we read Luke’s account in that way we may miss something vital about what Luke is telling us.
Jesus continued his teaching, making a decisive impact upon his disciples’ understanding of what is truly valuable, shaping their subsequent life-style, and he did so by giving attention, by directing their gaze, to what in fact was going on around them as they listened to him with such devoted attention. It seems he is not wanting people to get into a “head space” in which only his spoken words are being heard and given attention. Yes, they remembered what Jesus said on this occasion but they also remembered how he taught. They recalled how he was directing their attention to what was going on around them, a context in which they were not merely passive recipients. His deep appreciation for the precarious widow’s generosity in her extremity made a significant impact.
But that’s not all we can say. Luke, the skilful story-teller is not only telling us what was going on, and who was actually living according to the ways of Lord, but he goes on immediately after this to tell us of Jesus’ sense of the precariousness of where he was.
The widow in her precarious state, is given due respect for her faithful generosity.
But the ornate temple, the central symbol of Israel’s wealth, is also noted.
And the way Jesus refers to it might lead us to suspect that it is but minute’s away from complete and utter collapse. The religion of show of the scribes set them on a path headed for an exhaustive examination at the final judgement (20:47). The temple, brings forth a “Wow!” from appreciative visitors, but it is headed for a disastrous end.
Jesus made it plain. The teaching of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law missed the vital ethic of God’s Kingdom. To be so concerned with preserving one’s own status means one misses what is going on.
There the poor-box stood in its place in the midst of this grandly attired temple with all the endowments bestowed upon it by wealthy Israelites, and here they were prominent in its presentation. And from the poor-box widows could draw an income; an income of sorts, an income to get by.
Luke tells us Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about the difference between those who are truly honouring the Lord God – the Giver of every good and perfect gift – and those who fall into the temptation of being in it for show. The religion of show maintains a style of life that pays a kind of respect to the poor box, but then the poor box becomes a showpiece.
But the poor widow, with a weekly poor-box allowance, had an entirely different religion, the religion of a generous heart. She placed her two cents in the poor box to be part of the distribution to those in need. The poor box retained its integrity.
We look carefully and hear her described as richly endowed by God with her sense of holy privilege to help others. Her 2 cents has given more to God’s economy than all the other gifts put together, Jesus taught.
Open your eyes, he says, to how the Kingdom of God thrives only on this kind of generosity, that gives until there is nothing left. The poorbox retains its value because of that 2 cents!
God’s Kingdom stands as a Kingdom of merciful generosity. This reported event was also instructive for Luke. It provided a precedent in Jesus’ teaching for the project in which he later participated. As he tells us in Acts, and so sometime before he wrote this Gospel, Luke travelled with Paul to collect funds from Gentile churches. This was a project that Paul described as showing the mercy of the Lord to provoke his Jewish brethren to jealousy. The overflowing Gentile generosity in the name of Israel’s Messiah (see Romans 11) would keep alive the Mosaic requirements about assisting the poor of the land, alive in that day of famine and distress.
We now anticipate the impact of what Jesus said next. It stirred his opponents becoming part of their evidence at his trial. This was the temple, the place of God’s dwelling, the centre of worship from where He ruled His special people. Jesus had pointed to things his disciples ought to have known from Psalm 84.
For in your courts one day to be
Is better and more blest
Than joys of utmost luxury
A thousand days be blest.
So in the temple of my God
I’d rather keep the door
Than dwell in tents and rich abode
With evil evermore.
The Lord God is a sun and shield
His grace makes all things bright
No good thing has he e’er withheld
From those whose walk is right.
Lord God of Hosts you rule all things
That one is never fussed
Who finds there is no one but thee
In whom to truly trust.