“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:44).
Most people will hedge their bets. In other words, if you happen to make a bet on one outcome, you might also bet on the other outcome, to mitigate your losses if the first bet turns out to be the wrong one. After all, there are no sure things in this life, and hedging the bet is a way of managing risk. It’s a way of holding something back; of not “going for broke” and becoming broke in the process. It’s not just what we do with our resources, however. We also hedge our bets when we pursue two courses of action at once, waiting to see which door will open. Maybe we’d prefer to go through the first door but will settle for the second. Never mind that if the first door opens we’d never dream of going through the second one instead.
People hedge their bets when they have resources at their disposal and options laid out before them. We should all be so grateful for gifts like these. Hedging your bets, however, is a First World practice, one that comes with investment portfolios and retirement plans and the sort of education or appearance that gives you options in this life.
The Scriptures, however, especially our readings today, give pride of place to a class of people who in the ancient world and in many places today had few resources or options: widows, typically women making their own way in the world without family support. We don’t have to go far to see this ourselves. Poverty and social disadvantage came with this territory. It was and is life on the margins. The loss of a husband or father or any additional breadwinner in families without many resources or options to begin with can be devastating.
Yet the Scriptures often hold up marginal folk like this as an example for all of us, perhaps because they could not afford to hedge their bets. The widow of Zarephath in our first reading is generous with what she has, even though she is starving and the little that she and her son possess can only eke out their existence for a short time. In spite of this she believes what Elijah tells her: that God will provide for them from his inexhaustible resources. There’s no hedging here.
The poor widow in our Gospel today is similar. Though she only has two small coins of very little value, she puts it all into the treasury. She is generous toward God, far more generous than people with more resources who are able to give far more, because “she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on*” (Mk. 12:44), as it says in the reading. The others, those with more, are hedging their bets, holding something back as provision for the future, holding themselves ready to explore other options that lie outside of the Temple treasury. The poor widow, by contrast, is staking her life on her offering.
Generosity and faith are being held up for us in our readings today: generosity toward each other, and faith toward God. Poor widows and those without resources and options know through hard won experience that generosity and faith are the things that will get us through, and that there are no substitutes for them. People on the margins cannot disguise from themselves that each of us is dependent on God and on each other.
If you have resources and options it is possible to think that you can rely on yourself. But that’s not the reality. Depending on ourselves is killing us, from Adam and Eve in the Garden to this very day. If the widow of Zarephath had decided to rely on herself it would have been the end of her family. She knew that none of us can really hedge our bets in our relationship with God.
Today we celebrate confirmation at the Church of the Redeemer: a significant occasion in which we reaffirm our faith in God who provides for us. This is the case for our confirmands today, who are in the spotlight; but it is also an opportunity for us to reaffirm our own faith. I hope we are not hedging our bets today, but are mindful of our dependence on God for the grace to live our lives and to follow Jesus as Lord.
I said a moment ago that poor widows in Jesus’ day couldn’t afford to hedge their bets, but that’s not strictly true. Actually, the poor widow in our Gospel is a perfect example for us today. Did you notice that she had two small coins? She could have hedged if she wanted to: put one coin in and held the other back for come what may. But she didn’t do that, did she? She put them both in, everything she had, because she knew she could trust in God. May we too trust in God, and be generous toward each other, without any hedging at all.
- The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee