An old, poor woman. There’s a snapshot of her at the end of Mark 12, in an album of Jesus’ Jerusalem days. He saved her in that picture, he framed her in his lens and wrote the caption The Best on the back.
She is barely visible in Mark 12. If Jesus hadn’t called attention to her in the long line of temple donors, she would have passed by unnoticed. But he made that snapshot of her with his words. And in churches everywhere, she is remembered.
If you want to find old women, church is a good place to look, there are far more of them there than anyplace else in America. They try not to let on how very reduced their income is. I’ve seen quite a few tear up with thanks when I asked if they would like to receive a basket of Thanksgiving food from the church that year. Twenty years into retirement their teachers’ pensions have grown pitifully small, or their 2/3 (widow’s) share of their dead husband’s social security check just doesn’t cover much.
A year ago, when her husband died, I found a widow living in a house without hot water – the heater had died four years before, and there wasn’t any money to buy a new one, so they’d been heating water on the stove. And all the while they gave a bit of money each week to the church, fulfilling and renewing their annual pledge.
Widows experience continual dispossession – loss is followed by stripping away – their IRS checks and their credit card limits are drastically lowered after their husbands die, and things wear out and cannot be replaced. They begin to look raggedy. Their social life ends.
Jesus, at the end of Mark 12, warns his friends to beware of those who devour the houses of widows. This happens not in theft by night, but in broad daylight, fee after fee after fee, for things that take from their possession whatever cushion of security they had.
The worst of their dispossessions may be the death of the roses of hope, all the flowering signs that theirs was a good life, despite the awful struggles. The children, long grown into adults, are not as happy as the mothers hoped they would be, nor as kind, as attentive, as nearby. The house, so hardwon in younger years, fades, leaks and needs replacements of things in the cellar the widows do not understand. The husband, who for all his faults was there, is no longer. Vacations, evenings out, Sunday drives, are postcards from another time.
To be poor, and alone, and old, in America, is to be undesirable and in important ways, invisible. This Sunday is Veteran’s Day, and it is the widows who will bring into the churches folded flags that represent men who once loved them, and whom they still remember, though the men died in wars that were thirty, fifty, even sixty years ago now . . . fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles. Who can say whose sacrifice was greater, the young soldiers, or these old women, in the loss of those lives?
When times get tough many stop giving, so they can buy a little more. Arguments about buying power have filled Mark 12, arguments about taxes and social issues, where your investments go. And then this woman comes, and puts her coins into the church.
Widow’s gifts are an investment in hope. Not their hope of heaven, though goodness knows they have that. They give their money to a different hope: a hope that their lives still mean something. That their increasingly tenuous connections to others are somehow not all there is in this world. That the kingdom of heaven is really a world established in kinship, a kin-dom of relations between all living, the old, the poor, the alone, as well as the young, the strong, those who have a world of BFFs; kinship between people and creatures, the loved and the lonely, the living and the dead. Widows give because their sorrow is also their treasure, as it is their hope and their wisdom. And it is to this huge hope in them, that Jesus says Amen. It is for this that Jesus writes The Best on her picture.