He saw her out of the corner of his eye – a bedraggled elderly woman, dressed head to foot in worn mourning attire, shuffling towards the wall of Temple donation boxes, her threadbare shawl scraping along the dusty Jerusalem cobblestones. He was sure she was breathing heavily, perhaps moaning in pain, but it was impossible to hear anything over the noise of the street vendors hawking their wares, money changers offering exchange rates too good to be true, and the incessant bleating of sheep and lambs packed tightly together in stalls. The woman, a widow for some time, judging by the faded black streaks crisscrossing her dress, stood on her tiptoes for a closer look at the gold-labeled donation boxes. Building Upkeep? Singers and Instruments? Torah and Vessels Repairs? Cleaning and Maintenance? Boys’ Rabbinical School? Widows and Orphans Fund? Staff Support? So many needs…which one would catch her eye, Jesus wondered. He watched her reach deep in her pocket, fumble in its folds, and slowly bring out an offering small enough to fit in the palm of her clenched hand. Closing her eyes, the woman raised her hand reverently to her lips before dropping one coin into a donation box.
A wave of deep sadness passed over the woman’s face as she listened to the coin fall to the bottom of the donation box. Perhaps the woman was having second thoughts, Jesus mused. Perhaps she would ask a tall bystander to help her retrieve her coin. His thoughts were interrupted by a group of scribes bursting through the temple doors and noisily parading through the streets, carefully lifting the fringed edges of their flowing robes to avoid contact with the raised arms of beggars and street children pleading for alms. Jesus saw the woman quickly cover her face with her shawl as the group made its way towards her and the treasury door. Everyone – merchants, tax collectors, snake oil salesmen, moneychangers, foreign traders, worshipers, tourists, curious bystanders scrambled to get out of the way of these dignitaries. Jesus craned his neck just in time to see the woman as she hastily shoved her coin into the donation box before slipping away in the afternoon shadows of the Temple.
The evangelist Luke places this story of a widow hopelessly caught in the grips of poverty who gave everything she had to live on to support the work of the Temple after Jesus’ diatribe blasting the hypocrisy, greed, and smug piety of the religious leaders who ruthlessly exploit the poor. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” Their piety is feigned, he warns, and the institution they serve is corrupt.
They love to quibble over minute matters of the Law while piling more and more draconian restrictions on the people already shouldering yokes too heavy to bear. Indeed, in his final week, caught in a mind-boggling, heart-rending whirlwind of political, religious, and economic corruption, Jesus is reduced to tears as he weeps over his beloved city, Jerusalem. “If only!” he cries before sweeping clean the Temple marketplace of those daring to desecrate God’s house of prayer for personal gain.
Why did the evangelist bookend this bare-bones story of a poor widow’s gut-wrenching generosity in an inclusio of critique? Corrupt religious officials. A costly edifice devouring the last coins of a faithful Jewish woman struggling to stay alive. Are we to understand the poor widow and her actions through the lens of Jesus’ righteous indignation and anger over Temple leadership and cultic practices? Are we to see her as one more hapless victim exploited by the Powers-That-Be-Whose-Greed-Knows-No-Bounds? Jesus does not praise the widow. He does not applaud her self-sacrifice. He does not invite us to follow in her dusty footsteps.
Luke tells us that Jesus sees the woman; he notices her while his companions, the disciples who have stuck by him through thick and thin for close to three years, pay attention to the rich people putting their gifts into the Treasury donation boxes. The crowds milling about on the Temple steps are too busy, too preoccupied, too caught up in their own worries to notice the poor widow. The band of scribes rushing to get to the Temple treasury before the doors close are too self-absorbed, too aware of the eyes upon them, too spiritual to see the huddled figure backing into the shadows. So what does Jesus see when he looks at the poor widow?
I think first and foremost Jesus sees someone who reminds him of his mother, a poor widow living hand to mouth in an inhospitable society that privileges gender, wealth, and status. Though he may not see the poor widow’s care-lined face, he is intimately acquainted with the stories that etched those lines across her forehead and down her cheekbones. He remembers his mother’s grief and the taste of her salty tears and imagines those same tears running down the face of the poor widow, falling on her black mourning dress, bleaching it with streaks of dull gray. He recalls the sound of his mother’s stomach rumbling as she divided the bread and scrapings of the stew pot into his bowl and the bowls of his sisters and brothers, and he winces when he notices the poor widow unconsciously clutching her stomach after dropping her last coin in the donation box. He considers the way he used to pretend to be asleep while watching his mother’s worried face as she counted and and re-counted the coins she collected in a clay jar wondering if she would have enough to pay the tax collector, and he groans as the poor widow frantically fingers the empty cloth purse hiding in the folds of her dress. He thought about the many nights he spied his mother in a dark corner of their home crying from sheer loneliness, and his heart ached as he watched the poor widow’s shoulders shake as she left the Temple, utterly alone and heavy-hearted.
Those memories open wide the eyes of Jesus’ heart. Growing up, he used to catch his mother looking at him the same way, and he would tease her and ask, “What are you pondering in your heart?” He loved the way she would tell him that one day he would understand, her face lighting up with the biggest smile. Little did she know the depth of pain that would one day pierce her heart like a sword. But the poor widow knew such pain, Jesus thought as he watched her walk away with great dignity, her back ramrod straight, her arms swinging ever-so-slightly, her head held high, like Potiphar’s wife ascending the throne. Her faith in her God – the God of Moses and Abraham, the Widow of Nain and the Persistent Widow, the God of indifferent religious officials, the God who seeks shelter in the Holy of Holies in corrupt institutions – is all that she has, and she walks with courage knowing that she does not leave empty-handed. In life and in death she belongs to this God.
Some nights later, while praying in a grove of olive trees (Luke 22:39-46), Jesus sees a reflection of a face in the tears that have fallen like drops of blood to the ground around his prostrate body. It is a familiar face, a face that looks for all the world like an angel come to minister to him in this dark hour when all seems lost. “Father, if you are willing,” he agonizes as the familiar face reappears. An angel…who is she? Is his mind playing tricks on him? Is he dreaming? Grief and exhaustion can do that, he knows. Stricken, it dawns on him. The Temple steps. A crowded, busy marketplace. A cacophony of noise. A parade of laughing scribes. His gossiping disciples. A poor widow dropping her last two coins in the Temple donation box. Her eyes meeting his as she retreats into the shadows of a world that does not see, REALLY see, her. An angel come to comfort him with the hard truth she learned as her last coin fell to the bottom of the Temple donation box; the truth that in life and in death he belongs to the God of a poor widow.
Rev. Rindy Trouteaud is a retired Presbyterian minister living in Tucker, Georgia. She writes a weekly blog, Epilogue: a weekly e-letter for those considering next chapters. If you would like to receive her blog, please email her: email@example.com.