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.
The disciples want to know when and how this will take place. Jesus gives us an apocalyptic prophecy involving earthquakes, war, and persecution. We know that the Temple was indeed sacked in 70 A.D. and these disciples were indeed persecuted in the name of Jesus by the Romans, as well. These warnings of Jesus come true.
But the promises found within come true, as well: “And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” and “Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” These words only make sense on the other side of resurrection and the hope of life that comes with our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, but the disciples, on the other side of Pentecost, believe in power of the resurrection of Christ and risk their own comfort and safety in order to tell the good news of Jesus Christ to the poor, the ill, the Gentile.
So, it should be unsurprising to us that, as Luke continues his writing project in Acts 4 and 5, that people are bringing all of their money to the church for the sake of justice and caring for all who are in Christ. This is a better representation of the Kingdom of David that pleased God. The poor are cared for, and not used. Sadly, it took destruction of Temple, an unleashing of God from the Holy of Holies, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the persecution of believers to see this happen. But Jesus’ terrifying prediction is not solely to be seen as warnings of wars and violence and cautions of terror. It can also be seen as good news for the poor, like the widow who proceeds our lection. Things need to change in order for the justice of God to reign. Jesus gives his body to those who kill it in order to institute this new Kingdom of justice, fairness, and fellowship. The disciples do the same. But risking the persecution that is to come is not bad news if we read to the end: “stand firm and you will win life.”