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Luke 21:1-19

There is this whimsical story in Luke 21 that preachers have long used (along with Malachi 3) as sort of “go to” tithing sermons. In the Luke text, the scene is set with a poor widow placing two copper coins into the Temple treasury. Jesus took note of this scene and said, “ this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Our reading of this – especially in light of preachers looking for stewardship source material – is to praise this woman for sacrificial giving. We think of our own offering plates, and testimonies of sacrificial giving where God blessed the giver, and assume she was giving out of her heart. This may be true, but there is also another way to see this text. Perhaps our privileged lives give us spectacles to imagine this money coming back to her. Perhaps, though, she was compelled to give to the Temple as a tax and Jesus’ words were not words of praise for the widow, but words of frustration at the operation of the Temple.

See, for example, the text that we have been handed by the lectionary this week. This text, Luke 21:5-19, is Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple and warning about signs of the end times. But Jesus’ words are birthed out two things: (1) what he has just witnessed of this lady placing her last coins – all that she had – into the Temple treasury and (2) the disciples riffing on what a beautiful building the Temple was. The disciples see beautiful stones and elaborate gifts of God, and Jesus may just be seeing a widow squeezed out of the last that she has in order to maintain the facade of the Temple.

Walter Brueggemann, in his brilliant book The Prophetic Imagination, helps us see that while Solomon built the First Temple – a vision that his father David had, but was asked by God not to complete (2 Samuel 7:5-7) – he also removed the sense of justice and fairness for the people by filling that Temple with wealth, foreign women, and political power. Solomon, Brueggemann argues, utilized God for his purpose by instituting, along with the Temple, a religion of immanence, anchored by the economics of affluence and the politics of oppression (Cf. Bruggemann, 30). This, sadly, becomes the Temple tradition that Jesus lives amongst.

But, in our Gospel lection for this week, we see that Jesus is not as impressed by the Temple as the disciples are. Jesus is able to see through the well adorned structure to something that is not fulfilling its purpose. We may be well reminded that the Gospel of Luke takes great concern for telling its readers to care for the poor: whether selling your possessions to give alms to the poor (Luke 12:33), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), or blessings on the poor and woes on the rich in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20,24), plus others. Therefore, we may need to readjust our hermeneutical ears in order to hear that Jesus might not be praising the woman, but cursing the Temple that needs to adorn itself with beautiful stones at the cost of the last that a poor woman has.

Jesus affirms that the Temple has outlived its usefulness with his retort to the disciples awe: “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down (Luke 21:6).” The Jewish imagination was that the Temple was the center of religious, political, and economic life. Their identity and civic pride was tied to that place. Jesus does not seem so worried about foretelling its demise.