It would be clear to all of us that this passage is about integrity. Jesus takes aim at the scribes who delight in the prestige of their position, yet do not live out God’s justice. They display all the trappings of religiosity, but they do great wrong to the poor. They are all show and no substance. The original wording of the scripture makes clear that their lives are a pretense. Jesus’ warning is that they will receive the greater condemnation.
These people who act a part which is not in the least reflected in their hearts are contrasted with the poor widow, who gave everything she had to live on to the temple treasury. The word used to describe her poverty puts her in the category of the poorest of the poor. She is described in the original words as a beggar. Jesus points out to his disciples that she has, in proportion, put in more than all the rich people combined. They had plenty, she had virtually nothing- but she gave away all that she had.
We could instantly start thinking- “What is this saying to me? Am I supposed to give away everything? I can’t do that!” Let me say this: I am certain that we are meant to think about the value we put on our wealth, and where our true security lies. Is our security in our material wealth, or is it ultimately in God? We know so well that tens of thousands of people in the United States have so recently been rendered homeless by super-storm Sandy. It certainly does make us reflect on how even the things we regard as most stable in our lives, such as our homes, can literally be here today and gone tomorrow. What we counted on for stability in our lives can be gone in minutes. God, however, is never absent.
We can affirm that our stability and safety are in God, and yet still leave that at no more than a platitude, something that only touches the surface. It’s when the foundations of our lives are shaken by some big event that we find it’s true that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It’s when other things we counted on for support have fallen to bits that we find God has not deserted us. In God we really do find our safety and security. It’s not that God quickly makes everything alright. Sometimes it takes years to put the pieces back together, and we find they make a new shape. As this new shape of things gradually emerges, we find that God has been at work, and we and our circumstances are being healed- in what ever way is possible in the midst of our need. The healing leaves us in a better situation than before in our relationship to God and to the people around us. God clearly does not shield us from every kind of trouble, but as the dust settles, we learn the ways in which God has been present for us in the help and support we have received when we needed it.
Let’s look at the story of the widow from an angle that’s not often thought of. Is it possible that Jesus is lamenting the fact that in this world there are the rich who can afford to make a show of themselves whilst cheating the poor? Is he expressing grief that this poor widow is in the situation she is in, because there is such awful imbalance between the rich and the poor? What about the dynamics in our world today? Those aspects are worth pondering, I believe.
To return to what I first said about integrity: How would we define it? I would say that integrity is being the same on the inside as on the outside. Integrity is holding on to what we believe and value in the face of the indifference or even condemnation of others. This is an interesting exercise for Christians at this time when we are getting closer and closer to Christmas. Every time we go into a shop we are encouraged to remember it’s nearly Christmas, and to spend money on gifts, decorations and food. Sometimes we get mail-outs which remind us that there are millions of people who will not have the bountiful Christmas we will have.
For Christians, integrity involves holding that truth in the forefront of our minds, and working out what we may be able to do to help those who have so much less than we do. It’s fundamental to our faith to make some kind of contribution, according to our means, to better the lives of those people.
How can we guard our integrity, in the life of faith? This seems something of a balancing act to me. We need to make our lives an example of behaviour which builds others up, and not undermines them. We need to strive to be pure of heart within ourselves, without giving everybody else the message that we are “holier than thou”. We need to be gentle and peaceable of spirit, and yet not allow others to dominate us or crush us. This is quite a tight-rope walk, don’t you think?
I have come to believe that to walk that tightrope skillfully we need a firm grasp on the love God has for us. It’s absolutely true that “We love, because he first loved us.” The dynamic energy we need to live as an example to others, to maintain a pure heart, comes from knowing that we are loved by God. If we have no knowledge that we are loved, then our lives may descend into a performance- like the scribes of whom Jesus spoke. On the other hand, to cherish God’s love for us is to come to realise that nothing is more important, nothing is more fundamental than God. God is ‘ultimate reality’ to use a phrase which has a very dry ring to it. I would prefer to say that God is creator of all things, and lover of each one.
You will have heard the expression “hold lightly” to the things of this world. It’s true that we love those things which make life comfortable, and it’s wonderful to know that when the bills come in, there’ll be money in the bank to pay them. We can’t deny that we value those things- who wouldn’t? But remember where the breath of our life comes from. Remember the God who formed all creation, from the infinite heavens to the atom. Nothing and no-one is greater than our God. Amen.