As Jesus taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘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.’
There are many churches in our country that still have box pews. Such pews are encased in panelling and are usually cut off from the rest of the church by doors at either end. Box pews were popular throughout European Protestant countries from the Reformation to the 19th century. Where such pews remain in place, they are often revered, and fiercely guarded, as an essential feature of the sanctity of the whole building. This attitude towards such an archaic seating arrangement is, of course, theological nonsense!
Prior to the rise of Protestantism there was very little seating in our churches. Such seats as were in place were reserved for the lord of the manor, civic dignitaries and churchwardens. The introduction of seating, including box pews, came about with the expectation that all present during services should listen to lengthy sermons which were intended to educate and edify.
But, box pews soon took on a less Christian persona. They ceased to be places of repose and became symbols of power and influence. The wealthy ‘purchased’ or ‘rented’ the best seats while the less fortunate were left to fend for themselves. The privacy and status-defining nature of box pews reached its zenith (or nadir) in churches that saw the installation of windows, curtains and tables in pews that were passed down through the generations. The scribes who are criticized by Jesus in today’s reading would have loved box pews! Yet another vehicle for showing off their importance.
Having set the scene by declaring the scribes to be those who will receive the greater condemnation, Jesus draws our attention to a poor widow. In the midst of the posturing of those who are wealthy, the poor widow comes forward and gives just two small copper coins as her contribution to the Temple treasury. But, it is those two small copper coins that Jesus declares to be the greatest of contributions because of their worth to that poor widow: she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
Whether we feel wedded to age-old symbols of power and influence, or whether we feel the need to jealously guard our worldly riches, Jesus is challenging us to view our own attitudes with a critical eye. Charity (that is, Christian love) does not begin at home! Christian love (charity) begins with open hearts and open minds; it begins with us giving our all as Christ gave his all for us.