And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
till I put thy enemies under thy feet.’
37 David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. 38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places 39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 22:41-23:7, Luke 20:41-21:4
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday after the Holy Cross:
Are You a Translator?
During the Armenian Church year, on the Saturday of the fourth week of the Holy Cross, we remember the Holy Translators Mesrop, Yeghishe, Moses the Poet, David the Philosopher, Gregory of Narek, and Nerses the Graceful. These well-known saints are remembered on other days within the Church year, but this particular feast day remembers them specifically as translators (թարգմանչաց).
Typically, we think of Sts. Mesrop and Sahag as the Holy Translators due to their translating of the Bible into the Armenian language in the 5th century. But if translation, according to the Armenian Church simply refers to the practice of rendering something into another language, then why remember a mystic such as St. Gregory of Narek as a translator? Why include David the Philosopher and the others? In other words, what does this feast tell us about what it means to translate? Of course, translation does include the rendering of something into another language, but were earlier Christian Armenians thinking on another level?
Perhaps translation, as Armenians perceived it, was considered elucidation or the explaining of our faith through various mediums such as prayers, hymns, poetry, philosophy, and even history. All of these, according to our Church, have been and still can be devotional practices of “translating” the Christian faith to and for the Armenian faithful. Translation, then, goes beyond the skill of finding equivalent words between languages. It is the impartation of Christ to his people, to those who will also become translators for his Church.
How will we, today, translate the Gospel to others? Are we as the Armenian Church faithfully translating the fullness and truth of the Orthodox faith to our faithful, to the world? Are we doing our best to make it accessible for those seeking to know what we believe, for those seeking hope and salvation in Jesus Christ?
The two small brass coins the widow gifted to the treasury were called lepta, a fractional unit of currency at the time, the smallest available denomination, equivalent to the United States penny. Each coin was worth half a quadrans, so the two lepta she donated was worth one quadrans (a quadrans was a coin worth a fraction of a denarius, which was approximately the daily wage of an agricultural worker). Therefore, what the widow gave to the Temple, which was everything she had, was worth less than 1% of an agricultural worker’s wage for one day.
Are We the Scribes or the Widow?
It’s the rush of Passover, a major holiday in Judaism which commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews by God under the hand of Moses from slavery in Egypt. The Temple is crowded with pilgrims who have traveled from all over Palestine to celebrate this feast. The hustle and bustle of people become a blur of activity, and in the middle of this blur Jesus sits with his disciples, and he notices something. He notices someone. And when Jesus stops to notice, so should we.
She gave more?
Giving is at an all-time high for the year. People are approaching the treasury, donating to the Temple according to what the law required. The wealthy, perhaps donating even more – contributions that surely would make a difference. And then there is the poor widow. The widow gave much less in quantity compared to the others. She gives two of the least valuable coins in their currency of the day. Today it would be like someone entering a church and dropping two pennies into the plate or box. Why bother?
But what does Jesus say? She gave more than all the others. Certainly, her gift did not make a difference to the Temple. Her two copper coins contributed nothing, financially speaking, and surely, she was aware of that. And clearly, she needed the money more than the Temple needed it. But because she gave all she had, everything she had to live on for the day, all her livelihood, Jesus noticed.
Contrasting the scribes and the widow
Through these juxtaposed events, the Gospel writer is drawing a contrast between the scribes and the widow, the contrast including the socio-economic class, as well as the actions between the two. Socially, the place of a widow in the ancient Jewish world was one of unimportance and insignificance. They were socially placed in the same class as orphans. When their husband passed away widows were often left with no means of income or stability, living day to day and meal to meal. Like orphans, dependence is what defined them. Scribes, on the other hand, held a noble position and were considered productive members of society, successful and important.
With that in mind, consider the actions of the scribes and the widow. St. Cyril of Alexandria describes the custom of the scribes:
They walked in the streets beautifully clothed, dragging with them a pompous dignity to catch the praises of those who saw them. While they were wicked and their hearts were full of all dishonesty, they falsely assumed to themselves the reputation of piety. With solemn ways not based on reality, they diligently lengthened their prayers, supposing that unless they used many words, God would not know what their requests were.
And on top of all this, Jesus mentions that the scribes were swindlers. Specifically, they rob widows!
What is the motivation of our heart?
Think about the actions of the scribes. What motivated them? Vanity, greed, ego, glory from others, fame, name recognition, self-righteousness, and a preoccupation with external things. This sounds eerily like our own society today: political leaders, religious figures, our obsession with personal stardom on social media. And let’s not forget where each one of us, our parish community even, fit into that list. No one is immune.
But over and over again, we learn from the Gospels that Jesus’ way is not the way of society, not in first-century Palestine and not in the 21st-century United States, not anywhere. Jesus is not impressed with things that impress other humans, nor do they ultimately save us, and so he calls us to seek honor from above. The joys of true discipleship, the blessed way of life, which Jesus referred to as Երանութիւն (Yeranootyoon) in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) is counterintuitive, an inversion of the cultural model of success and happiness.
Be like the widow
Place yourself next to Jesus as he notices the widow. We are the disciples to whom he is talking and teaching. The widow put the rich and the so-called important people to shame. Be like her. The rich gave what they could easily afford, it didn’t hurt them to give out of their abundance.
By contrast, the widow gave out of her poverty. She gave without expecting a return. She gave without desiring gratitude. She gave without looking for recognition. Hers was true, authentic piety, the kind that stole Jesus’ attention, the kind that serves as a model for us today. The model of discipleship. It will cost us everything, but it is a call that we follow out of love. What else would compel someone to give out their poverty, to give all of what they had, to give all of who they are?
Does Jesus notice us?
If we as individuals, families, parish communities, the Diocese, the global Armenian Church were to contrast our present state to that of the poor widow, where do we stand? How would Jesus describe us in comparison to the widow? Are we the scribes who disregard God, inverting his values which draw us away from him? Before we respond too quickly, hear the prayer of St. Gregory of Narek, who perhaps contemplating the story of the poor widow, sees in himself the heart of the scribes:
Now compile and condemn your soul’s sins, reproach yourself with varied images, my soul, in a relentless stream of words: …extravagance of glory seeking, arrogance, roguishness, egotism… (45B)
Do we do anything that causes Jesus to stop and take notice? Are we too busy trying to get the attention of others, perhaps the money donors, that we end up giving Jesus second place, or don’t bother trying to get his attention at all, whether consciously or unconsciously? Are we preoccupied with externals such as protocol, liturgical rubric, titles, positions, and bylaws, important as they may be? Or are we like the widow who wholly embraced God, who demonstrated authentic piety marked by sacrifice and humility, who approached even this small external act as an act of worship? Like the widow, are we dependent on God, not only for physical sustenance and daily needs, but for our very existence, for salvation, forgiveness, peace, fulfillment, hope, and love? Although small, the widow’s sacrifice was whole, total, entire. Do we offer our livelihood to God, our entire being?
A new goal for each one of us, for each parish, for this Diocese: steal the attention of Jesus.
The Way of the Cross
The widow’s way is the way of the Cross. Interestingly enough, it’s the time of Passover, the final week of Jesus’ ministry, and so this event takes place on Christ’s way to the Cross. Her sacrifice serves as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus. The Cross symbolizes giving, in its fullness. The widow gave all of her livelihood and our Savior was going to give his life.
So what is Jesus looking for from us? As we remember the poor widow who gave the two copper coins, let’s make the words of St. Paul to the Galatians our own:
But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
For St. Paul, nothing else mattered except the way of the Cross. And the widow, in this small act, modeled it. Jesus invites us to do the same.
The Widow and Badarak
The entire Badarak hinges on the principle and reality of sacrifice. In fact, the word Badarak is best translated as sacrifice or offering, which the widow embodied when she offered/sacrificed everything she had, as small and insignificant as it was, temporally speaking, anyway. Jesus knew her heart as she essentially offered her entire self to God as an act of worship, a true sacrifice. She kept nothing back. This is exactly what Jesus wants from us and what we find at the heart of Badarak. During Badarak, the priest prays:
Be mindful, Lord, and have mercy and bless your people standing here before you and those who have offered these gifts, and grant them whatever is necessary and profitable. Be mindful, Lord, and have mercy and bless those who have made vows and those who have brought gifts to your holy Church and those who are mercifully mindful of the poor. (p. 38)
What does it mean to offer or bring gifts?
The priest’s prayer above mentions bringing and offering gifts, and being mindful of the poor. First, what does it mean to bring gifts to the altar? Keep in mind, we are not pagan. We don’t sacrifice (brings gifts of bread and wine) so that God will be pleased and withhold punishment. We are not earning God’s love by way of customs and rituals. During Badarak the priest prays:
And we offer to you yours of your own from all and for all.
Yev uzkooys ee koyots kez madootsanemk usd amenaynee yev haghaks amenetsoon. (p. 32)
This may sound like a riddle, so what does it mean? During Badarak, the bread and wine are offered as gifts to God on behalf of the people. This much we may already know, so let’s take it a step further. We take what God already gave us, what already belongs to him – wheat and grapes.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein; (Psalm 23/24:1)
Wheat and grapes could and would be a wonderful offering on its own, but we don’t just give back what he gave us. We turn these gifts into something better and offer something more valuable. We give the best we have! It is a true sacrifice, then, because we have a share and claim in it. God created us in love, and so we give ourselves back to God, and to be good stewards of creation (our selves, the world/nature), we offer back to him, not just the minimum, but an offering which expresses our reciprocal love for him.
Again, our sacrifice is not about appeasing or assuaging God. Rather, like the bread and wine, we too are gifts offered to God, and so we, out of love, offer ourselves as disciples for doing his will and work in the world. The gifts of the bread and wine, he gives back to his people as his own Body and Blood for forgiveness, healing, and salvation. In essence, as a community we bring to God our most basic needs, offering our whole life, and ask him to give himself back to us, to change us into the people God wants us to be, the Body of Christ. This is Holy Communion. He shares, unites us with his divinity.
Psalm 23/24 ends with a verse incorporated into our Badarak. When the deacon raises the chalice before the priest they both alternate saying:
Lift up your gates, O princes! The eternal gates will be lifted up and the King of Glory will enter.
Who is this King of Glory? The Lord, mighty in in his power. The Lord, powerful in battle.
The Badarak, our offering, is, as mentioned, about holy communion with the King of Glory! We raise to him our feeble gifts – bread and wine – but, again, what is it about bread and wine? Noted Orthodox priest and theologian, Fr. Stephen Freeman, writes:
I often think that sacramental Christians strain themselves, staring at the Bread of the Eucharist in a misguided effort to see that it is the Body of Christ. In truth, we fail to even see its truth as bread. That truth is a prerequisite of the other. (emphasis mine)
The sacredness of bread
In the world of the Bible, pre-modern and up until today, bread is sacred. Why? Because it has always symbolized the basic substance of life, representative of an entire meal and shared at a table at which people would gather in community and enjoy fellowship. Wine, of course, is celebratory, divine, it make us joyful. Unmistakably, both symbols – bread and wine – create community, communion!
And so these feeble gifts of bread and wine, packed with meaning and significance, are given with a heart of offering our entire selves, everything we have to live on, and everything that makes life worthy of gratitude, celebration, and proclaiming God’s goodness. We, the Church, the community, each one of us is called to be the poor widow as we celebrate Badarak.
What has God first given us?
Anything we possess comes from God, so when we bring our offerings to God (time, spiritual gifts, talents, treasure, our lives) we are giving back to him what he first gave us. While being blessed by God for our very lives, do we withhold or keep anything back from him? Do we only carve out Sunday mornings for God, if that? Do we only offer him a few hours every week? Maybe we offer one or two noticeable acts of kindness, much like the Scribes, or give a portion out of our material abundance. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, what portion of our lives and community does the story of the poor widow inspire us to offer back to God?
What does it mean to be mindful of the poor?
Also from the priest’s prayer above, what does it mean to be mindful of the poor? It means giving to them, serving them, of course. But also to learn a lesson from them. Remember the poor widow, her place in society and what she gave that day to the Temple. Humility and dependence are the marks of a disciple of Christ. Without these qualities we can’t even begin to continue on the path on which baptism placed us.
Do we think of ourselves as better than the poor, or do the poor, those who go without and struggle from meal to meal, often possess the qualities we lack, the attributes that draw the attention of Jesus? Remember, Jesus died on the Cross, a symbol of poverty and the human condition. He was treated as an outcast, his friends abandoning him, left with nothing. And that was the occasion for redemption.
We may wonder, who else but Jesus noticed the widow that day? Would we?