It’s been over forty years since conscription officially ended and a volunteer military was instituted in its place. However, it has now become clear that this “all-voluntary military” is really just a draft with a different name. One that targets and feeds off of the desperation of minorities, the poor, and other individuals with limited options. Today many counter-recruitment activists call our system a “poverty draft.” It is a system which manipulates and exploits the bodies and the lives of the lower classes in order to keep it in motion.
As I read article after article this week about the poverty draft and its inner workings, I found myself surprised, and I’m not sure why, that our government doesn’t even try very hard to cover up that it is happening. I bet you cannot guess the state or territory with the highest rate of military enlistment … American Samoa, where not surprisingly, unemployment is almost 25%. The territory of Puerto Rico isn’t far behind. Here recruitment is more than four times the rate of the contiguous United States.
Our government spends billions of dollars each year on recruitment; launching campaigns specifically focused towards enticing minorities, campaigns like the Army’s “Hispanic H2 Tour” or the “Takin’ it to the Street” urban street team which focuses on recruiting African Americans. The overwhelming majority of Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp programs are located in low-income high schools serving mostly minority populations. So it should be of no surprise that the poor, women, and minorities are disproportionately joining the military. Nor is it shocking that these individuals are the least likely to be given the chance to be officers, and thus, the most likely to face combat and be put in harm’s way. The fact that more than three-fourths of the combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were soldiers who came from towns significantly below the national income average, only further sheds light on this injustice.
A veteran said it best not too long ago at an antiwar rally: “The Pentagon supports our troops the way agribusiness supports hogs.” We now have in place a system that devours individuals who come from economically deprived families and towns, a system which targets those who lack alternative options, an institution which persuades young teenagers with large signing bonuses. And then, after their service is complete, the system does very little to support those who risked their lives. Often sending people back to their lives with very limited options, without the resources needed to process and heal from the traumas encountered.
Our nation is not the only nation in the world which operates this way. Most countries with voluntary armies are predominately made up of people who have limited economic options. And for most of human history it has been the underprivileged who have served and the wealthy who have profited. That is the way the system operates. Though today, we may have to change the saying to “ it is a rich man’s war and a poor man and woman’s fight.”
I mention the poverty draft because it is an illustration which helps us grasp our Gospel passage for today. Now usually, we think of our text as two separate little stories. The first a condemnation of the greedy scribes; the second and exaltation of the poor widow’s generosity. I mean what would stewardship season be without the widow’s mite? It would be like Thanksgiving without turkey, Christmas without presents, Easter without eggs. The story of the widow’s mite has been treated as the all-time great story of Christian giving, the story of a poor woman who gave everything she had to the church. The one who did what the rich young ruler could never do, and did it without even being asked.
But really, are we supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution? Was it right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she? What if she were someone you knew, someone of limited means who decided to send her last dollar to the 700 Club? Would you see her action then as admirable, or scandalous. Would you consider it a good deed or a crying shame? I have a hard time believing that Jesus would declare these actions as a beautiful act of devotion.
If we read our text closely, nowhere in this passage does Jesus praise the widow for what she is doing. He never applauds the woman for her generosity. He never says she has done a good thing. All Jesus comments on is the excessiveness of her contributions. All he says is that she gave more than they; she gave all that she had to live on. And I can’t help but imagine Jesus saying this while being completely exasperated. It is a lament which broke him inside.
For this reason, I believe these two seemingly separate short stories are really, one slightly longer story. The account of the widow is actually a continuation of the prior verses where Jesus condemns the scribes, insisting that they are devouring widows’ homes. The story of the widow’s mite, is Jesus trying to show us exactly how the scribes are abusing their power.
Now how are the scribes devouring widows’ homes? They are not bullies. They aren’t landlords evicting the widows. They aren’t bankers initiating foreclosure proceedings. They aren’t robbing by loaning money at extraordinary interest rates like the short term shops which are set up all over town. She is giving her last few pennies, out of her own free will. No one is twisting her arm. Those scribes aren’t standing over her shoulder, making sure she doesn’t hold back. Why would they for a measly penny?
In many ways, the way they devour widows’ homes is similar to how our government devours the lives of minorities and impoverished people who give their lives out of faith and service to an organization that sees them as dispensable. They were making an already vulnerable population feel obligated to support a system that was abusing them. All the scribes’ recruitment pitches, all their sermons, all their speeches which proclaimed that God desires such an offering. Instead of caring for the well-being of the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the scribes cared more about the institution, about sustaining the Temple system. They allowed, and it appears even encouraged, people without a safety net to give what they shouldn’t. The Temple was originally created to protect and provide for individuals like this widow. And now it was manipulating them to give away what little they had left.
This is why Jesus, in our text, acts as a teacher. We are told that he calls his disciples over to them, he does so to help them see the hidden inner-workings of the contemporary Jewish religious order so that they can bring about change. He enlightens his disciples on how the scribes are devouring widows’ houses so that this injustice need not be continued. Maybe this is why the early church saw providing and caring for widows as one of their most important callings.
It is important to remember that the story of this widow occurs during Holy Week. Just days after Jesus entered into this same Temple, overturned the tables and drove the people out. And in the passage immediately after this one, you can feel Jesus’ anger and frustration when he says: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When we hear these words, it is hard not to recall the actions of the widow. To become sad and think that not only did she give all that she had, she gave it all for nothing. To a system that would soon be destroyed. It is even tempting to write her off as a silly old woman and perceive her as naïve.
It is easy to think that way isn’t it? I often find myself directing my frustrations in the wrong place. In a way, blaming the victim. Perceiving those who are the victims of injustice as foolish people who are only contributing to keeping the corrupt system in place. I get upset with those who fall for the recruiters’ pitches, lies, and promises. I get angry when I see people visit Speedy Cash, and accept loans at ungodly rates to pay off an emergency bill. If I’m not careful, I can easily find myself saying: “Don’t you know that this will only further enslave you to the beast of debt?” I get sad when I see people giving away the last of their money to some prosperity ministry promising a blessing of a hundredfold return. But these thoughts only perpetuate the problem. And the reality is, I know that I too am often participating in, even promoting systems of oppression which are only trapping me and others in systems of bondage. Sometimes I just don’t realize it. And other times, I just don’t see any other choices.
That is why Jesus doesn’t just educate his disciples on the inner-workings of the Temple’s system of oppression. The most remarkable thing about Jesus in our passage is that he makes the widow real to us. He personalizes her. He forces the disciples and us to direct our gaze upon her and her actions. Widow in Hebrew translates as silenced one. For most of her life, she had been one of life’s minor characters, one of the invisible people who come and go without anyone noticing what they do, or what they have on, or when they leave the room. She was one of the extras who ring the stage while the major characters stride around in the middle. But Jesus in our passage refuses to let this woman remain silenced. She was the one who he was watching that day.
It is hard to know how she caught his attention. She didn’t catch anyone else’s, that’s for sure. To everyone else, she was all used up. But out of the hustle and the bustle of the crowd, he noticed her as she walked up to the temple treasury to give up her two coins. Something about the way she did it – the length of time she stood there, maybe, or the way she cradled them in her hand like her last two eggs – something about the way she did it let him know that this was the end for her, that it was everything she had, so that when she surrendered them and turned to go, Jesus knew that she had nothing left. So he called over his disciples so that they could witness it: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The reality is that we simply do not know why the woman did what she did. For all we know, she could be some silly old, naïve woman. But then again, it’s quite possible that she wasn’t. Maybe she had attended this Temple her entire life and someone there had always helped her when she needed it most. Or maybe she had a son or a relative who was one of those scribes. Or maybe, her sacrifice is an act of protest, like one of those self-immolating Buddhist monks in Vietnam.
Are we willing to find out? Are we willing to put ourselves in her presence? Will I go out of my way to see her? For more than likely, she is one of the people I try hardest to not see. Will I take the time to find out why exactly Mary is joining the army, perhaps even though she doesn’t actually want to. Or why Adam has to sign over the title of his car, in order to care for the needs of his family. That’s the question Jesus tries to stress today: “Are we willing to see her? Are we able to let her change the way we see and live our lives?”
For Jesus could have taken his disciples aside, he could have explained the inner-workings of the temple system which the scribes constructed. He could have taught them how they were manipulating widows into devouring their houses and showed them how outrageous this deception truly is. But all that would have been abstract. It doesn’t make those being exploited real people, at least not real people to the disciples. Instead, they are merely one more example of the injustices of the world.
But by taking the disciples to the Temple, to the scribes’ court, and by noticing this widow, Jesus makes flesh this injustice. He makes us notice her. He makes us care about her. He makes sure that we can no longer keep her silent. We are forced to enter into her story. To put ourselves into her presence and learn how to hear this woman. What Jesus does that day is make her real to us. Now to ignore her, we must make a conscious choice. Jesus points the widow out to his disciples because he knows that change only begins when we notice people individually. When we let their stories, their sufferings and struggles become a part of us. And when we let them make us a part of their lives.
As Christians, our greatest gift is offering our presence to one another. To make your need, my need and my need, your need. To embrace the gaze of another for long enough that we grasp a glimpse of another’s soul. It’s this gift of presence which we celebrate at the Table. At the table, we obtain the presence of God – the body and blood of Christ. The one who became human because he cared about us so much that he came to rescue us all.
Here at this table, Christ becomes present to us, so that we might be more present to each another. Here we learn how to risk exposing ourselves, sharing life, and seeing others. In other words, here we become human.