The Mighty Mite

The election is mercifully over. But injustice to poor widows persists.

Note: These weekly blogs, based on scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, are prepared as sermons for North Baptist Church, Port Chester, N.Y. The writer is a Baptist layman, a life long journalist, and a communicator for church denominational and ecumenical organizations.

The modern Book of Common Prayer offers a holy entreaty that could not have been anticipated by the BCP’s 16th century author, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

The little prayer is about elections, and Cranmer – who both prospered and burned advocating the divine right of royals – never heard of this bizarre political process.

And even if he had, it was the sort of thing up with which he would not put. As it turned out, Cranmer was fried at the poles on March 21, 1556 by Queen Mary “Bloody” Tudor, who also never heard of popular elections.

Five hundred years later, the Book of Common Prayer includes this democratic supplication:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Episcopalians may well have prayed those words through last Tuesday, when the interminable presidential and congressional campaign came to a merciful end.

And even now as I leaf with declining digital dexterity through my copy of the BCP, I find other prayers that would have shocked Cromwell and his princes, including entreaties for social justice, social service, education, labor, peace, church conventions, and church unity.

But in my view there is an important prayer missing from this list, and – with all respect to His Grace Thomas – I offer it now. It is a prayer for the day after the election.

Almighty God, we offer deepest thanks that you have enabled us to survive the campaign. Purge our hearts and minds of the speeches, the debates, the negative commercials, the robocalls, the billboards, and the lawn posters that have been inflicted upon us by candidates. And not just the candidates! Forgive and silence our own spurious and puerile tweets, memes, Facebook updates, email appeals, TXT messages, disputes with dim aunties and uncles over Sunday meals, coffee break schisms at the office, cold blooded threats to disinherit our clueless children, and other normal facets of political discourse that have filled our days and nights for, lo! these many months. We thank you, God, that election day came before we could think of a way of voting against everybody, and we pray most solemnly that you would smite with stinging fury any pundit, blogger or politician who declareth that it is not too early to develop talking points for the 2016 debates. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who had no place to lay his head and no hat to throw into the ring. Amen.

Regardless of who you and I voted for, the factor that brings us together again is gratitude that it is over – OVER.

Thank God for that.

It’s not that elections aren’t good. They are, of course, the hallmark of American stature. My heart swelled with prideful agreement when Alan Sorkin, in his HBO series, The News Room, had a character say the reason the U.S. is a great country is that “Every two years we drive to the fire station and overthrow the government.”

At the same time, the divisiveness of election 2012 reminded me of Winston Churchill’s observation that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

For many of us, election 2012 made us wonder if those other forms of government could be so bad. The presidential election of 2012 cost a reported $2.5 billion, perhaps the costliest in our history.

And what do we have to show for it?

Well, not a damn thing, according to Professor Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota.

“Four years ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, and that is still the case,” said Professor Logsdon in a news analysis by the Borowitz Report. “The only difference is that we as a nation are out $2.5 billion.”
(See http://nyr.kr/TLdywQ )

The issue of campaign finance reform is too big to discuss here, and unfortunately it was not the topic President Obama had in mind in his victory speech early Wednesday when he inserted the afterthought, “By the way, we’ve got to fix that.”

But the topic of money – who has it, who doesn’t, and what people do to acquire it – is central to Jesus’ thinking in the passage highlighted in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary.

As the story unfolds in Mark 12:38-44, Jesus is sitting outside the treasury of the temple, watching as people passed by to satisfy their financial obligations to their house of worship. Jesus watched silently as several persons dropped large sums into the till. But when a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins that have become known in Sunday school lore as widow’s mites, he called his followers together.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury,” he told them. “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.”

Jesus made a theological comment based on elementary math. I’m tempted to construct a flawed proof text demonstrating that God thinks millionaire Mitt Romney’s tax rate of 14 percent is unfair to me and working stiffs whose percentage is much higher. But I will resist the temptation, in part because I think Jesus had something else in mind besides percentages.

And to be fair about it, both Governor Romney and President Obama are on record as wanting to support poor widows and others who slip below the poverty line.

Last September, candidates Obama and Romney accepted an invitation by the Circle of Protection to go on the record about their intentions for dealing with poverty. Their video statements be viewed at http://bit.ly/TyQyif.

The Circle of Protection is composed of more than 65 heads of denominations, relief and development agencies, and other Christian organizations representing a wide array of churches in the U.S. The National Council of Churches is a founding member of the Circle.

The Circle, a unique amalgam of evangelical, ecumenical, Roman Catholic and Christian Orthodox churches and groups, came together in 2011 to protect essential poverty programs from being cut from the federal budget.

The church leaders told the candidates, “We believe that this presidential campaign should include a clear focus on what each candidate proposes to do to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people in the United States and around the world.”

They stressed that God holds nations accountable for the treatment of those Jesus called "the least of these" (Matthew 24:45).

The Circle of Protection leaders said they were disturbed by poverty figures which show that more than one in seven Americans – 46.2 million people – live in poverty, more than 16 million children.

These sad figures pale in comparison to poverty levels around the world, where millions live in daily squalor so crushing it threatens their ability to stay alive each day.

I’m sure both major candidates in the recent and blessedly extinct election campaign are good men of faith who can quote Matthew 24:45 as easily as a bunch of preachers.

But in their feverish campaign for middle class votes, neither candidate gave evidence they were equally concerned about Americans so poor they and their kids live in their cars and fall asleep hungry every night. And neither seemed in the least bit apologetic that the $2.5 billion they raised for manipulative and often dissembling campaign ads rather never brought food to the tables of starving children.

Granted, it’s difficult for U.S. politicians – and preachers, for that matter – to criticize those who are good at raising money and making profits. That kind of preaching shrinks congregations as quickly as poll numbers.

And some money making schemes are commendably clever. When I was researching the history of the widow’s mite, I came across web pages – widowsmite.com and thewidowsmite.net – that sell facsimiles of the bronze lepton and prutah coins the poor widow may have used, embedded in necklaces and jewelry ranging in price from $420 to $25.

The sales pitch seeks to persuade affluent buyers they are investment partners with the poor widow:

“This virtuous woman had demonstrated true Christian faith in God,” the spiel goes. “She could not know from where her next meal would come, but she believed that He would provide for her.”

That’s a heavy message to carry in a $420 bauble dangling from your neck. The poor widow never knew what a bonanza she was carrying around with her.

Even apart from the way she is represented by retailers, there is little question that the poor widow was a virtuous woman who – after she visited the Temple treasury – didn’t have two leptons to rub together.

That, I think, is what brought Jesus to his feet. Many scholars are convinced that Jesus had no intention of using the woman as an example of simple trust and faith.

More likely, he was thinking of the sons of vipers who made it necessary for the woman to give away all she had, and vastly out of proportion to others who supported the temple.

Only minutes before he sat down to watch the widow pass by the treasury, this is what Jesus had on his mind:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” he grumbled to his followers as he accelerated to a rant. “And to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40).

Bob Lotich, who blogs financial advice for Christians (Christianpf.com), is one of many observers who believes Jesus was not praising the widow’s generous spirit but condemning the scribes who insisted she give everything she had left to maintain her good standing in the synagogue.

“The widow’s mite is not an example of how to give,” Lotich writes. “It’s an example of how the scribes were ‘devouring widows’ houses’.”

Lotich continues:

“Scripture repeatedly reveals God’s care for the widow, the poor, the fatherless and the stranger, and also reveals His anger at those who deprive them of what they need to live. If we have read all of our Bible, the story of the widow’s mites, given in context of Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders, should make us cringe. The story reveals the repetition of their abuses and consequential inevitable judgment.”

At first glance, it seems a bit of a stretch from the widow’s mite to the economic issues of 2012. But there are similar issues at hand.

One of the political debates that dominated the campaign was the question of whether rich folks (also known as high net worth individuals to church bureaucrats who wish not to offend them when they beg for their financial support) should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. On that issue I vote yea, not only because it seems more just but because I don’t understand the math that says when rich people keep more of their money the lot of poor people improves.

But another question, raised by the Circle of Protection campaign, is whether it makes moral sense to balance the federal budget by cutting such federal programs as food stamps, free and reduced-price school meals, low-income child care and early education, low income health care, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, shelter and homelessness programs, child maltreatment prevention programs, refugee assistance and more.

What would Jesus do as he watched the rich keep more of their money while poor widows lost more of their needed support?

My guess is that he would do what he did in Mark’s gospel: go on a rant against those “devour widow’s houses” while protecting their own fortunes.

As the debate over the federal budget continues in post-election Washington, let us pray that politicians of both parties pay heed to the injustices that make Jesus angry.

No one, after all, wants to face Jesus on Judgment Day and realize that we have met the sons of vipers he condemned. And they are us.


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