• Craig Mueller

What We Live On and What Lives On

It almost seems too good to be true. Right in the middle of our generosity appeal, a gospel for preachers to encourage their congregations to give more money!

Hold on. It may not be that simple! Before Jesus notices the poor widow’s offering, he berates the professional religious elite. They devour widow’s houses. They’re part of a corrupt system. Their piety seems to be completely external. It’s all about appearances and making the right impression. And like most of us, they judge their self-worth by comparing themselves to others. Then and now, cherished institutions betray our trust—government, commerce, religion. And often the ones who suffer are the forgotten ones, the ones who don’t have much to start with.

Jesus turns his gaze from the rich putting large sums of money into the treasury. It’s almost an afterthought for them. Their giving barely makes a dent. Then Jesus notices that the widow puts in all she had to live on. The Greek word for “all she had to live on” means “life.” From it we derive the word “biology.” The widow offers—sacrifices—her whole life. She prefigures Jesus. Both Jesus and the unnamed widow surrender their lives in the face of unjust systems that exploit them. Yet, in the face of an unknown future, they trust God with all their being.

Though we assume that Jesus is praising the widow, all the text says is that Jesus notices her. Maybe she shouldn’t have given her whole life savings to the temple treasury. Especially when it was not in her self-interest. We’d like to be able to observe Jesus’ facial expression as he contrasts her with the religious and economic elite. Maybe it isn’t about the coins but the widow’s courage and dignity.

So what are you living on these days? We could start externally and talk about budgets, what you give to the church and other organizations, how you use your time and whether you live a healthy lifestyle.

But what are you living on these days? In the aftermath of the election, with two mass shootings in two weeks, with a non-stop news cycle that breeds both addiction and causes us to recoil . . . what are you living on? When we are over the top with busyness or stress it feels like we are living on fumes. Or as someone mentioned last week, we are living on borrowed time.

And along comes November to remind us not to cling to anything too tightly—whether our money, our time, our security. In a couple weeks we moved from bright and brilliant autumn leaves to snowflakes in the air. The time change last weekend feels like an entirely new season now that it is dark before 5:00 in the afternoon. November can be a time for bleakness as the sun draws away, the earth dies, streets get quieter and we hunker down in our homes. We learn again that we cannot control the passage of time, the onset of aging, “what lives on” amid an unknown future.

Poet Jane Kenyon learned how to surrender as she faced both depression and leukemia. She expresses the feeling we sense in these dark, late afternoons—how it invites us to accept things in life we cannot change. A poignant poem of hers begins:

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through chinks in the barn, moving up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing

as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Kenyon goes on to name foxes and dew, stars and wind and repeats the refrain “let evening come.” As the poem ends, I think of the widow’s trust in God:

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

As autumn morphs into winter, as themes of Advent creep into these final three Sundays of the church year, perhaps our focus is not only what we live on, but what lives on. Are we investing in things that matter? What kind of legacy will we leave for future generations? What will live on after us?

I imagine the widow returning her pennies to God because she loves God, trusts God, and knows that the coins don’t belong to her in the first place.

As we breathe in grace, take in grace, and live on grace, it takes hold of us. Little by little we surrender the tight grip we have on our lives. As we hear the word of God and the word of life, and as we feast at the table of mercy, Christ comes among us. Evening comes. And what lives on—what lives on is gratitude.

FULL TEXT OF THE POEM

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned

in long grass. Let the stars appear

and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop

in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

  • Jane Kenyon


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© 2017 Craig Mueller