I wonder if you have come into this room today with feelings of guilt or remorse. If not today, maybe another day: maybe you came to church at some point in your life with a heavy burden on your shoulders. Maybe you carried regret, or the kind of inconsolable sadness people sometimes feel when they made a big mistake, or fell short of expectations, or just got way off track.
The good news for us is that almost every week, when we come into this room, we get to confess all of those things before God. Imagine this room as a courtroom, and God is the Judge. Each week, we come before the Judge and enter our plea: guilty. “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” we say. Some weeks, it may feel rote, even ho-hum. But every time we say these words, the Judge hears them, hears our real remorse, renders a verdict, and pronounces the sentence. The verdict is… guilty. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But the sentence is… full pardon. Absolution. We are released, we are free to go, we get to go home. And we can rest assured that this Judge made a fair and accurate judgment. After all, this Judge sees and knows everything. So if God says we’re guilty, we’re guilty. And if God pardons us, we are pardoned.
This is lovely, wonderful good news.
But the pardon has one small asterisk next to it. We are not just free to go; we must strive to do better. “Go and sin no more,” Jesus tells various people as he travels the countryside offering free healing, free consolation, free forgiveness. Next week, we should try to be a bit better. Yoda was wrong when he said “Do or do not; there is no ‘try.’” There is ‘try.’ And then, no matter how well we do, no matter how hard we try, we get to come back into this courtroom, be judged guilty, and once again be pardoned, with another encouragement to do better.
I like this Judge. I get the real sense that in this courtroom, restorative justice is done.
And this time, today, we catch up with Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, and find him taking a seat opposite the treasury. He takes a seat and begins watching people. He watches them, and he makes a judgment about what he sees. This seat he takes, then, is a kind of judgment seat. By walking in and silently taking a chair opposite the temple treasury, Jesus turns that treasury into a courtroom.
And here is what he sees. Wealthy people are lining up to place “large sums” in the treasury. These are bedrock donors, the ones with the best pledges, the ones our vestry could count on to fund all the vital ministries of the spiritual community. Maybe some of them were showing off by generously donating in such a visible way; only Jesus can know what truly was on their hearts while they walked past the offering box. I’ll guess that they weren’t all bad, and that some of their wealth truly did help their neighbors.
But then Jesus notices a widow.
He may have been the only one who really saw her. She might have been all but invisible to everyone else. As a widow, this woman had nothing: no name, no kinfolk, no land, no means of survival. She had nothing but two copper coins. She walked past the offering box, and as she flung her two small coins into the box, she threw away any hope she had of another meal. It may be fair to say that she was exceedingly foolish! She might have been able to buy a little bit of bread with those coins, but now she had no money for that. Like the widow of Zarephath, whose larder was nearly empty when she met Elijah, this widow had no reasonable hope for any kind of a future. Both widows knew who they were, and who they were not. Life was as good as over, for them. Why not just bake a little cake to split with your son, call it a last meal, and die? Why not just toss your two remaining coins into the offering box, go home, and die? They had no other choice to make. They were as good as dead, anyway.
But Jesus saw this widow. He saw her, and he made a judgment about her. In his judgment, she put more into the treasury than all the rich people, because she put everything in, everything she had to live on. It’s easy to read this judgment as praise: what better time than stewardship season to hear Jesus compliment someone for giving her all to God? But that interpretation of the situation is not the best way to understand what Jesus is saying. He rendered his verdict on everyone in the room, and his verdict came in two parts.
First, in the judgment of Jesus, everyone in the room was participating in a fundamentally unjust economic system. No matter the good that could be done with the temple fund, it is wrong to separate a widow from her last two copper coins. It is especially wrong to do that while others can give enormous amounts and still have plenty of money left to live comfortably. That widow is the needy neighbor that everyone in the temple should be helping. Jesus likely loved and respected her, but he wasn’t praising her generosity, because as good and virtuous as she might have been, she simply had no money, which meant she could not be generous, at least in any way that could be reflected on an accounting ledger. She could not be on a list of donors, the kind of list we sometimes see in concert halls and theaters, with donors listed in groups according to the size of their donations. She should have been allowed to spend her penny on bread, while the people of God helped her with lodging, meals, and health care.
And this brings us to the second judgment Jesus made that day. In his second judgment, Jesus decided he needed to do exactly what the widow did. There he was, sitting opposite the temple treasury in what was about to become the last week of his life, with the religious authorities plotting to have him arrested and executed, and he saw a widow fling herself fully into the mercy of God. She now had nothing, nothing at all, and only God could save her. Jesus, an educated male spiritual leader with a name and a trade… he could have left the temple, fled the city, and escaped arrest. But like that widow, he flung his whole life into the mercy of God. He saw what was happening in that treasury, and he chose to respond to it by giving away every last connection he had to life and safety.
Faced with injustice, suffering, and human despair, Jesus chose to follow the path of the widow.
Hear this good news: the Judge not only pardons us; the Judge gives everything away, including life itself, for our sake. Like the teachers who place their bodies between first-graders and the bullets of a shooter, Jesus sets his own death between us and judgment.
That is why we pray this every Good Friday: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death…”
Jesus saw everyone in the temple that day. He saw them, and he saw the injustice that was happening, an injustice that everyone unquestioningly upheld, unwittingly or not. He saw all this, and he then went on to die for all of them, for all of us. His death ended a life of perfect self-giving love to others.
Today, we do not lay down our lives as Jesus did, allowing ourselves to go on death row as innocent convicts. But many of us do fling ourselves into God’s mercy. Tomorrow, for example, we honor those among us who have chosen to serve their country, even though it may mean that they might have to give “the last full measure of devotion,” as President Lincoln said, for the freedom of us all. With each passing week we see people putting the safety of others before their own, stepping into the fray to save children from gunshots, or families from wildfires.
Jesus did not want the widow to lose everything, any more than Elijah wanted the widow of Zarephath to die of starvation. And God did not want Jesus to die. “God did not make death,” we are told in the apocryphal Book of Wisdom, “nor does God rejoice in the destruction of the living.” And yet, today we see God in Jesus choosing his own death that others might be restored to life. We see that not only does the Judge pardon us, but the Judge gives everything away in love for us.
What will you give, in your own life and ministry, to save the life of your neighbor? For whom will you pray, casting upon God your deepest hopes for healing, justice, and peace? Know that as each of us wrestles with these questions, God our Judge sees our lives, sees us, and judges us to be good.
You are guilty but forgiven; dying but restored to life; impoverished but fed at this table with the bread of abundance. Jesus is here for you.
Whom are you here for?
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill (Episcopal), Alexandria, Virginia, November 11, 2018.
1 Kings 17:8-16