Text: Mark 12:38-44
In September 2011, the Census Bureau reported that in 2010 another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing these figures. The government’s definition of poverty is based on total income received. For example, the poverty level for 2012 was set at $23,050 (total yearly income) for a family of four. The report noted that most Americans (58.5%) will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between ages 25 and 75.
I know it is hard to take in statistics but these are important; and it is important that we hear them.
- The U.S. poverty rate is now the third worst among developed nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
- The number of Americans on food stamps surpassed 41 million for the first time ever in June.
- One out of every six Americans is now being served by at least one government anti-poverty program.
- More than 50 million Americans are now on Medicaid, the U.S. government health care program designed principally to help the poor.
- One out of every seven mortgages in the United States was either delinquent or in foreclosure during the first quarter of 2010.
- One out of every five children in the United States is now living in poverty.
Poverty is real. And not just in Cuba or The Republic of Georgia or Nicaragua. Not just in Haiti or the Congo or Zimbabwe. Not just in places like Sierra Leone or Ethiopia or Uganda. Yes, in those places, the level of poverty is unimaginable to us. But poverty is also real here – in the United States – in the land of abundance and great opportunity. People here, in the United States, are hungry and homeless. Children, here in the U.S., go to bed hungry and wake up hungry. Young people, here in our city, sleep on the streets. They go without healthcare. They have no idea where their next meal will come from or if they will have a winter coat to keep them warm in the months ahead. For so many, living here, in our country and in our state and in our city and in our communities, poverty is real.
Have you ever felt that sometimes it seemed as though Jesus romanticized and idealized the poor? Surely the poor would be the first to object. Life in poverty is what we all want to avoid, not aspire to. No one dreams of growing up poor, of living from government check to government check, of digging through garbage cans or living in run-down apartments with no heat. Can it really be that the poor are praised, that the widow in our story today is lifted up because she was poor and had to give out of her poverty? Is that what it takes to follow Jesus? Really, have you ever wondered why there is this preference for poverty in Jesus’ teaching?
As we think about that question, there are several points that need to be highlighted about the story of the poor widow in our text this morning. The woman at the temple was not a poor widow; she was poor because she was a widow. In the culture of first-century Palestine, there was no such thing as a rich widow. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. To be widowed meant not only losing someone you may have loved, it also meant that you were losing the one on whom you were financially dependent. Widows were forced to live off of the good graces of other male relatives and anyone else in the community who might provide a meal here and a little money there.
The two coins in the woman’s hand were probably all she had. The truth is – and the extremely poor know this well – those coins weren’t going to change her life. When you’ve got so little, a penny or two isn’t going to move you from welfare to work. She could be at peace and joyful in knowing she was able to give to the temple treasury, because with the coins or without them, she was still a dependent person. The widow wasn’t dependent on her money or her status in life; she had neither of these. She was dependent on her neighbors and on her faith that taught her to be dependent on God for the things that really matter. She didn’t have two feet to stand on, she didn’t have bootstraps to pull up. She was totally dependent. And maybe, that is the part of her story that Jesus wants us to think about; that part that nudges us to consider that no matter how independent we like to think of ourselves, the truth is that we are all dependent on one another and on a Source of life and love and being that is much greater than our praised rugged individualism. The widow tossed the only shred of independence she had into the offering plate, but she held on to the wisdom that her enduring independence and freedom were grounded in a dependence on something much greater than anything material. She is our spiritual mentor standing there on the margins of all we hold dear.
What stands out to me in this story of the poor widow is that last verse: “For 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.” Out of her poverty…I wondered, “What is my place of poverty?” I know that my poverty is not economic. I have a home. I have food. I have clothes and healthcare. I have a job that enables me to pay my bills and still have enough to buy the things I don’t need. So what is my place of poverty? What is your place of poverty? For most of us, our poverty is not about money. Rather, our places of poverty are more intangible. We are more likely to be poor in spirit or in courage – the courage to challenge the system that gives us power and privilege. For some of us, time is a place of poverty. We don’t have enough of it or we think we don’t. We lament, “There’s just not enough time…to spend with our children, to take care of ourselves, to enjoy a visit with an old friend, to just sit and listen to the quiet.” And what about those places of poverty where we lack compassion and gentleness, acceptance and understanding for those who are different from us, and maybe, most of all for ourselves? This kind of poverty is real, too. It may not be as devastating to our society as economic poverty. But do these places of poverty not damage us as well?
One of the great things about lectionary group is that the conversation continues long after Wednesday noon. Yesterday morning the conversation continued with this text.
Nancy, I’ve been thinking about the question of, “What is my place of poverty?” and I think it is approval. It’s a very common one. Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” But I have been thinking…although my place of poverty – the need for approval – has been crippling in many ways, it has also made me very generous with approval for my children and friends and co-workers. I think it is problematic to treat this as though it reflected some kind of virtue. Instead, I think it reflects natural human empathy. The gift of my pain is that I am sensitive to the risk of causing this type of pain in others, so I do a lot to try to soothe it when I see someone suffering in this way and I try very hard not to use disapproval as a weapon against people. Could it be that our place of poverty holds our greatest capacity for generosity?
That is a life-changing thought – that our places of poverty could hold our greatest capacity for generosity. This means that our places of poverty aren’t just about money, and they aren’t just places of loss. They are places of opportunity, from which we can practice deep generosity and receive deep healing.
The kind of poverty that leaves people without the basic necessities of life is real and it should never be romanticized or idealized. The kind of poverty that has 74,000 Wake County residents living in poverty is real and it should never be romanticized or idealized. For our church, our place of poverty is not money. Our place of poverty is in thinking that we can’t do something because we can’t afford it. We have idolized freedom and independence and used these to justify holding tight to what we have, and storing up more, because in this culture, not having enough is a sin. And so, while we hold in our hands a multiple of what the widow held, we feel we cannot afford to give any more away. We have embraced the American religion of rugged individualism that says, “I can stand alone. I can make my way in the world. I don’t need handouts. I am an independent, self-sustaining, productive member of society.” Even though we judge others for their disdain of the 47%, we know in our hearts that we are proud to be able to pay our own way. And yet, in one of the most mysterious messages of the Gospel, Jesus tells us again and again that it is that very pride, that very self-sufficiency, that very safety that we are to mistrust most. Because the moment we start to believe that we can do it all on our own is the moment we close our hand and protect what is ours.
Do you have to be poor to be a disciple of Jesus? I don’t know. But it seems clear that you have to at least be willing to be poor. You have to be willing to give in the face of fear of poverty. You have to be free, not of debts, but of the belief that you can have enough when others do not. The question before us is not whether we are poor, but what is our poverty. From what place of need or deficit or pain can we give and grow and heal? The widow who was poor reminds us that our own places of poverty – individually and communally – hold our greatest capacity for our generosity.
On this All Saints’ Sunday here is a closing thought: The poor widow was not a saint because she gave all she had. Rather, like all saints, she was a saint because she had the courage to act out of her own place of poverty with generosity. May we have the courage to follow her example.