“All that is gold does not glitter,” This is the first line of a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien. And it strikes me as a rather fine summary of today’s Gospel story. There are two distinctly different kinds of people represented by this gospel; on the one hand we have the scribes who most certainly do glitter. They dress well, are extremely sociable and give impressive and lengthy prayers. They are seen and listened to, and they are everyone’s favorite dinner guests. Along with them are the rich folks who give their large sums of money, they too are seen and heard.
But on the other hand we are shown a solitary woman. She is alone, she has no husband, no status and no riches or fine clothing. No one is listening to her or longing to invite her to dinner. She is the very picture of anonymity. Even the sound of her pennies as they drop into the treasury is lost beneath the sound of all the other offerings. Only Jesus seems to notice her and he brings her to the attention of his disciples saying to them “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For 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.” This is a truly astounding thing to hear, one that turns conventional wisdom on its head. How can two copper pennies be more than all of that other money?
What is Jesus really trying to tell us about this woman? Is she an example of the power of faith, and the virtue of giving? Or should we lament this widow’s plight and cry out against institutionalized poverty and injustice? These are not bad lessons to learn and if we are moved by either of them then I say Amen, but there is something else at work in this passage as well.
You see Jesus does not exactly praise the woman for her giving, nor does he exactly condemn the rich for theirs. What he does do is invite his disciples, and us, to look at the world a little differently, to see the real differences between the rich and the poor, to see what real sacrifice actually looks like. Again and again in the Gospel Jesus moves the spotlight away from the beautiful, stately, wealthy and seemingly important people and instead focuses on people that maybe we would rather not notice at all, the poor, the broken, the outcast. Not only are we meant to notice the marginalized, but Jesus beckons us to look beyond appearances and see them as he sees them, as God sees them. Jesus knows and wants us to know as well that “all that is gold does not glitter.” But it is just so easy to get distracted by shiny things.
There is a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that has stuck with me since I first saw the movie 23 years ago. After solving mysteries, fighting Nazis and narrowly escaping death half a dozen times Indiana is faced with the task of finding the Holy Grail in order to save his father’s life. So as his father lays on the brink of death, Indiana navigates his way through trials that test his worthiness till finally he makes his way into a room filled with shelves of gold and silver chalices each one more beautiful than the next. The room shimmers and glows as the light bounces off all the precious metal and jewel encrusted vessels. In this place, out of all of these choices, Indiana has to figure out which one is the actual Holy Grail.
Now I was 12 when I first saw this movie but I remember my reaction to that room, how beautiful I thought it was, and I remember my excitement as I waited to see which chalice Indiana was going to pick. Would it be the biggest chalice or the one with the prettiest jewels? And I admit I was pretty surprised and somewhat disappointed to discover that the Holy Grail turned out to be a plain, and somewhat dirty, wooden cup.
And yet, in a very real way Jesus is that plain wooden chalice. His whole life as we understand it is a lesson in looking closer. Born of an insignificant Jewish girl, and raised as a carpenter’s son, he travelled the countryside with no home and no money and he died a seemingly shameful death surrounded by criminals. Nothing about him said King of Kings, or Son of God, but we know that even though he did not glitter he is the truest of all gold. So when he saw this widow give away what little she had, without any thought of recognition or reward, he saw his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, that topsy turvy place where the first are last, the greatest are the servants of all and copper coins given by poor widows are greater than any offering of the rich. And this is the challenge that we are faced with. To look closer, to see God’s Kingdom working all around us, and to discover that it is in those we least expect, in the homeless, the old, the strange and forgotten people who live on the fringes of our society, it is in them that the Kingdom of God shines most brightly.