1 Kings 17:8-16
As a kid I really didn’t know much about Remembrance Day, not because I was never taught about it, I think it’s more because I just didn’t pay attention. Being who I was in terms of ethnicity and immigrant parents, I didn’t know anyone or even anyone who knew anyone who fought in the war, so honestly I didn’t really care that much. Remembrance Day didn’t have much to do with video games, comic books, and Saturday morning cartoons, so I was good just not knowing. And, as one of those Saturday morning cartoons so regularly taught me, “knowing is half the battle.”
This cartoon of course was GI Joe, one of my absolute favourites growing up. In case you don’t know, GI Joe is the codename for America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose, to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organisation determined to rule the world. It was all really good stuff, and one thing they did at the end of each episode is have this really short moral lesson, here is a random example:
And they would end off each one with one of the kids saying, “now I know!” and the particular GI Joe character would respond with, “and knowing is half the battle”. In case you didn’t get it, here is a pie chart explaining it in great detail:
See GI Joe didn’t fire bullets that go bang bang, that would be too violent for the kids like me who watched it, so instead they shot lasers that went zzt zzt and were colour coded red for the bad guys and blue for the good guys, kinda like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s light saber colours. Now, I don’t want to go on a full blown commentary on this cartoon from my childhood (although I can later if you want to chat more about it), but I wanted to highlight this “knowing is half the battle” thing they had every episode. What I remember that was cool about it was although the GI Joe characters were the regular characters like Duke, Flint, and Roadblock, the kids were always different random kids. Yet somehow, each of these celebrity mission force operatives would know the kids by name. That made the lessons more relatable, as you knew that they saw the kids, knew their situations, and cared enough to teach them a lesson about it.
Today’s gospel lesson sort of does the same thing. While Jesus never actually names the widow, but he does see her and her situation, which is one that was likely long covered up or perhaps even ignored. We know this story of course, of the poor widow who gave all that she had to the temple. We have heard the lessons around stewardship and generosity. We, along with what we think Jesus is doing, praise her for her faithfulness and we tell others to do the same. Unfortunately all that doesn’t actually get to the heart of what Jesus is telling his disciples here. I’m not saying that those aren’t good lessons and that we shouldn’t be generous or faithful, I’m just saying that isn’t what is going on here.
Look at how this passage starts, how Jesus brings up this lesson. It doesn’t start with “hey guys, y’all need to be more generous” or “hey check out this widow’s faithfulness” or even “hey can I borrow some money to put in the plate?”
No, Jesus starts with “beware the scribes.” Now out of context it might sound like the scribes are these villainous villains who are out plotting villainous plots and that we need to watch out for. But Jesus continues with their dress code of fancy robes, their demanding respect, and them sitting in places of honour. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I mean, if you think about it, I’m wearing a fancy robe, most of you call me the more respectful “pastor” and not just “Nate Dawg” like my homies do, and I have that pretty sweet chair reserved for me up there where all the action is. That doesn’t sound all villainous, does it?
But there is more. Jesus also says that the scribes devour homes of widows, and for the sake of appearance they say long prayers. And really, long prayers doesn’t sound all that bad either, but devouring widows’ homes? What is that all about? For appearance? We sort of get the idea of what might be going on.
As you probably know, at this time in history, women didn’t have much power or influence or respect. A woman would have to rely mostly on her husband for basically everything except for household chores and caring for children. That was really a woman’s only job, and so if and when a woman in those days couldn’t have children for whatever reason, she is seen as less useful. Basically, she can’t even fulfill one of her only reasons for existing.
I know, it sounds awful to be born a female in those days. But that is the way it was and it didn’t seem like anyone even gave it a second thought. When a woman loses her husband and has no sons to care for her, she basically would be seen as wholly incapable of doing anything to care for herself and her estate. How could she? By the world’s standards at the time, she wasn’t even able to have kids so how would she be able to care for a house or even any money?
In come the temple scribes to save the day. They act as trustees of the widow’s estate and perhaps set up a type of fund or something so she won’t have to worry about all that money. But of course, they have to take a bit off the top to pay for their expenses, their time, and also help pay for the temple renovations. She can live on what she has left.
Which, in this case, was two small copper coins. They took everything. Perhaps they were the ones that were dropping bags of money into the temple treasury. Perhaps they were flaunting their own generosity, showing others how much they have “contributed” to the temple renovations. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally that the widow put more in the offering plate than everyone else, because everything that was going in was her money to begin with.
Now, does it sound like Jesus was praising her for her generosity? Or was he lamenting the horrible truth of her situation? I admit that I’ve always thought the former but the more I learn about the context of this passage, the tone of Jesus’ voice changes for me and I now believe the latter.
And knowing is half the battle.
Notice that Jesus here doesn’t do anything for the widow. He doesn’t jump up right away and rebuke the scribes and give the widow her money back. He doesn’t tell his disciples that they need to be advocates for social justice and woman’s rights. Instead, he informs them of the dreadful systems of the world. He instructs them to be aware of the truths of oppression and injustice that often go hidden or ignored. He inspires them to not be silent, but to stand up for those who may not be able to stand for themselves and for what is good and right. Essentially, Jesus instills in them their role as God’s hands and feet in the world, acting for the sake of the gospel, welcoming the stranger and outcast, revealing to all the truth and love of God for all people.
As with us, that while we learn more of the truth of the injustices of the world, while we hear the stories of oppression and marginalization of the underprivileged and outcast, while we see more clearly those in our midst those who suffer and are taken advantage of, may we be empowered to act, to protect, to proclaim God’s love to the ends of the earth.
And through it all, may we trust in the truth that God also knows our situations, our names, wherever we may be, our unspoken hurts and pains, our brokenness and ways we are torn down, and picks us up, leads us out of darkness, and fills us with peace. For as invisible we might think we are, as unnoticed we might think we carry on, as unremembered we might think we have become, God sees us, cherishes us, and welcomes us into God’s eternal and borderless kingdom, free of worldly systems and hierarchies, abounding in God’s blessing and grace, full of God’s truth of love and mercy.
It is in this light that my appreciation for Remembrance Day has grown, that while I don’t know the names of those who’ve died, I know their situations. I know the brokenness felt by the families who mourn. I know the feeling of hopelessness that could come from war. And so knowing their story instills in me compassion, igniting in me a need to stand up for injustice.
And in Christ, our stories have become part of God’s story. A story of love, brokenness, redemption, and community that will be told again and again for centuries, that as we are all part of the eternal body of Christ, joint with all the saints of all times and places, we will be known for all eternity graciously by God and each other. We can confidently trust in the truth that we are seen and known by the God who informs us all about compassion and companionship, and lean on the collective strength and resolve of the community to which we are welcomed.
This Remembrance Day, this 100th anniversary of the end of the first World War, this day that we remember those who have died standing up against injustice and fighting for freedom, may we reject the selfish power mongering ways of the world, rely not on what the world tells us to be true about ourselves and our communities, and look to God’s truth of love and welcome, trusting in God’s promise of peace and justice, and acting as God’s hands and feet bringing God’s hope and good news to all people. For knowing of God’s blessing and presence in the world and in our communities is half the battle. Thanks be to God. Amen.