Let’s begin at the time when the ancient Hebrews suffered under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. Egyptian society at that time was based on a pyramid. At the bottom, most of the people were peasants and slaves, who served the overseers and land holders. Overseers and landholders served the commanders and bureaucrats. Commanders and bureaucrats served the priestly class. Priestly class served Pharaoh, one man at the top, who claimed to be able to trace his genealogy back to the sun god Ra. So he was a kind of a god himself.
It was said that the gods willed things to be this way, that it was the intention of that glimpse of divinity that we catch, moving beneath existence and life and breath, that people serve those in power. This was how it had always been, and how it would always be.
Then a crazy guy named Moses showed up, who said “No. Slavery and superiority, dominance and submission is not the divine intent. The divine intent is that you let my people go.”
This was a crazy god, who was constantly overturning people’s ideas about who was most important. This God chooses David, Jesse’s youngest son, not his eldest, to be king over Israel. God lifts up the great judge Deborah to lead the people and inspire their courage in the face of overwhelming opposition. This, in a deeply patriarchal culture where men wrote the histories and manipulated the power. Crazy God.
This God led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, into the desert, into freedom. But God does not just leave them there to do whatever they want. Doing whatever you want is not freedom. It’s just another form of slavery, to our own whims and will and desire, to our own prejudices and ignorance, what I know and want to know and don’t want to know. I don’t ever grow beyond me. Instead of being enslaved to Pharaoh, I am enslaved to myself.
God does not just leave them to do whatever they want. God gives them the Ten Commandments, the social structure within which people can build healthy relationship, respectful connection. Now, I may not expect it or even want it particularly, but because I am close to someone else and regarding their well-being in addition to my own, I might be touched by their wisdom. I might be surprised. I might learn something beyond myself. I might be exposed to someone else’s point of view, someone else’s way of looking at the world. I might not agree with it. I might not want to hear it. But I am challenged and I see some of its truth, and I grow beyond myself.
That’s freedom, to live in respectful community, healthy connection, to grow.
People set up traditions of scholarship and ritual to help them remember what God had done, what real freedom is. Eventually, they built a vast temple to remind them of God, how this community and freedom can reflect God’s absolute and awesome glory.
People did remember God on a number of occasions. They lived in healthy community for the lifetime of the great judge Deborah. People had enough to eat, they had a place to stay. They had relationships of wholeness with God and others. They lived well during most of King David’s reign, most of Solomon’s reign, most of Hezekiah’s reign.
But there were bad times too. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Elijah lives in a time when King Ahab has turned to idols, which do not care in the least about freedom or community. In the book of Judges, some of the most disturbing and terrifying passages in all of Scripture are introduced by the words “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
Things were not going well at the time of the Gospel lesson for today. The traditions of scholarship and ritual were broken. Jesus says “Beware of the scribes, for they like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect on the street, and take the best places at banquets, but they devour widow’s houses.” Temple is also problematic. It has been rebuilt twice, and quite beautifully. But it was rebuilt by Herod, the ruler of Judea; Herod, the puppet of Rome which held ancient Palestine in the iron grip of its coercive power. Anything but free. Herod, who had killed members of his own family in order to secure his grip on power. Anything but community.
I suspect this widow would have known that. She would have known that the temple was built by Herod the tyrant to display his own glory. She would have seen the scribes strutting around in their self- important robes and making it abundantly clear how profoundly they had forgotten her. The traditions of scholarship and ritual had broken down.
And yet she still puts her two copper coins into the plate. Why?
I hear people say again and again, “Why should I give my time and money, the system is broken, and even if it wasn’t broken my little contribution wouldn’t be enough to do any good anyway. Why should I change my attitude? Other people won’t change theirs. What good will it do? What possible difference does my life make?”
I would submit to you the wisdom of this widow. She puts her two copper coins in the plate, probably what she was going to use to buy something to eat that day and the next. Probably not going to eat that day or the next because she gave it to this temple. It’s that important to her, because the God of freedom and community is bigger than our brokenness, bigger than Rome’s iron fist. And she wants to be a part of that redemption. She wants to be a part of that hope.
We offer up every aspect of our lives, what we do with our time, our bodies, our money, our work, our relationships, our dreams, as a way of celebrating that hope, that freedom and connection which God brings about now, and will bring about in its fullness some day.
We choose to give our time, even if it doesn’t seem to be very much, our money, even if it doesn’t seem to be enough, our attitude, even if it’s hard to change, our lives, even if we don’t feel very important, because God does things with them that we cannot see.
God’s math is different from our math. God’s eyes are different from ours. For God, our two tiny copper coins that we drop in the plate can be worth more than all the gold in the world.