There’s a moment, not long after the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus and the disciples are watching the rich and the powerful make extravagant offerings to the Temple coffers. And yet Jesus isn’t impressed with them; rather, his attention turns to a widow, tatty-clothed and hungry, who places two small copper coins into the collection. “Look,” he says, “She’s put in more than everyone else; that’s all she has to live on.”
I’ve always heard this taught as an example of great faith, and maybe it is – after all, no-one can say that the widow’s offering isn’t sacrificial. She gives everything she’s got to God, trusting that he’ll look after her; frankly, she’s got more guts than I’d have in that situation. Problem is, if we leave this story as one of an individual’s trust in God, we miss the prophetic anger that drives the scene. Because this is all about inequality.
The widow appears in verse 42, four verses after Jesus excoriates the religious leaders. These so-called “Men of God” demand respect and honour and make a great show of their piety, but they’re all surface – underneath, they’re the sort of people who “devour widows’ houses” and they’re heading for a fall.
This pretty brutal summary comes immediately before the widow makes her offering, painting the whole scene in a harsher light. Suddenly her story falls within a great prophetic tradition – look at how Isaiah and Amos rail against religious observance coming at the expense of justice. It’s clear from the Old Testament Law that the widow shouldn’t have been in such dire straits – the community should have been protecting her, along with orphans and immigrants. Instead the very men who should have been defending her cause were pushing her deeper into poverty. We’re seeing piety without justice; doctrine without jubilee. No wonder the very next passage is a prophecy of the Temple’s destruction.
So, what does this mean for a world in which the richest 10% hold 86% of the wealth, in which the wealthiest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion? I live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet we’ve seen a 163% increase in the use of food banks over the last twelve months. It feels like inequality has been sequenced into our society’s DNA.
The frightening thing is, I know the answer starts with me – or rather us. I like blaming the 1%, until realising that I’m in the next 9% just by benefit of being born in a European country and having a decent job. That’s a sobering thought, forcing me to count my blessings and check my privilege. But even when I realise that I still do more tutting than acting. And the houses of widows still get devoured.
I can’t fix global inequality. But I can vote with an eye towards justice, I can make my voice heard, I can donate, I can use my democratic right to hold power to account. I can see people not as shirkers or skivers but as individuals with there own stories and circumstances and histories that I need to be aware of. Because, in the face of naked displays of avarice and hypocrisy, Jesus, the Son of God, was most interested in a starving widow.
In the face of food banks and ambiguous percentages, I think that’s a lesson for us all.