This week’s reflection comes from
Rev. Norma Malfatti
Director for Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop
Prayer of the Day
O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Gospel: John 11:32-44
38As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Those poor widows. Those poor widows – we feel for them. Their husbands are dead, they have no rights to his property, and no one to care for them, leaving them destitute.
Yet at the same time, we are awed by them; lifting them up as models of stewardship for they gave when they had nearly nothing to give. The widow of Zarephath just a small portion of her already too little food, the widow in the Temple her last two coins. Yes, we lift these women up as models of stewardship. We lift these women up for giving the very last they had, giving all they had, as models of stewardship.
But is that really the lesson to be learned here? That those who have nothing are to give the last that they have? And that we then are to follow their example?
I don’t think so. I think there’s another way to look at these stories.
First, they are stories of desperation and second, a critique, and not a model, of stewardship.
These women are desperate. They had nothing — the widow who served Elijah was down to her last meal and preparing for her and her son to starve to death; the widow in the Temple gave her last penny, everything she had. When she walked away, she was probably preparing for her own starvation, out on the streets.
These desperate women had so much in common but for the widow in the Temple, we don’t hear about an Elijah in her life…. though we are told of another man who noticed her.
The woman in the Temple, and so many like her, was desperate and out of her desperation she gave all that she had to God, not out of a spirit of generosity, the spirit in which we understand stewardship. No, instead this woman gave all she had, desperate and with nothing to lose because the men in her community, the ones who were supposed to be caring for her, the ones in robes with long prayers, the faith leaders, not just political and economic leaders, though they were that too, these leaders of the Jewish community let this woman get to a point where she was desperate, destitute, and devoid of food.
Who were these men in long robes with long prayers? Certainly not Lutheran, they sat in the front pew!
The scribes were respected, professional interpreters of the Law. They were crucial in the Jewish culture for their job was to define what righteousness was and righteousness is at the very heart of the covenant between God and Israel, so, as skilled interpreters of the Law they helped to maintain the covenant.
We see how important they are, or at least how important they think they are, by their walking around in rich robes and glad handing people in the Temple courtyard. They are showcasing their importance in the community but they are not really living up to the responsibilities that come with being a scribe and one of God’s chosen and holy people. They are not being good stewards of the Law, of their gifts in the knowledge of the Law, of their responsibilities to the community or their money. As Jesus has pointed out again and again to the disciples, the first shall be last and those who wish to be first must be slave to all.
When Jesus challenged the scribes at the beginning of the Gospel reading, it was not because of their interpretation of the Law, Jesus was criticizing them for their hypocrisy of knowing the Law but only pretending to follow it.
The scribes Jesus speaks of knew so well what the words of Psalm 146 state – that God gives justice to those who are oppressed, food to those who hunger, cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and widow. The woman in the Temple, in her desperation, gave everything she had to God, her whole life, for she had nothing to lose and knew the Scriptures promised that the Lord her God would sustain her. The scribes and other leaders of the community were supposed to be agents of God’s justice and caring.
And yet, they failed, they failed this woman who walked away to starve to death on the streets.
Where is it that we fail to be good stewards of those who are hungry, homeless, oppressed? Where is it that we become the hypocrite and not the follower of Jesus? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are surrounded by people who may be just as desperate as the woman in the Temple, or the widow of Zarephath and we are called to be God’s stewards of provision and love.
And we are not just called to be stewards of God’s work done in and through the Upstate NY Synod and the congregations we are a part of; we are called to be good stewards in all that we do; in our relationships of being parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters; neighbors and friends; in our daily vocations whether we are employees, employers, or perhaps self-employed or volunteers; in our consumer practices whether we are shopping for groceries or clothes or cars.
We are called to be the stewards God has created us and gifted us to be, supporting God’s mission in this world – that all might know and feel God’s love and forgiveness and be wrapped in the Good News of the Gospel.
A pretty tall order when you think about doing this by yourself. Thanks be to God that you are not alone – the Holy Spirit has given you all you need to be a faithful steward of your life and the lives of those around you. You have partners in mission through fellow disciples at your congregation, in your conference, in this Synod and across the ELCA. And you have Jesus’ promise that he will be with you always.
As Jesus said in the Gospel reading a few weeks ago, what may seem impossible for humans in possible for God (Mark 10:27). So go and be the child of God and steward you were created to be.