A few years ago, I was a part of the team of folks that helped to put together the racial reconciliation roundtables that took place at the Owatonna Middle School after the high school experienced an incident of racial conflict.
The goal of these sessions was to open lines of communication, and to have healthy, honest conversations…and to hear one another.
There were probably 20 tables, that each had 5 or 6 people at them, working their way through a list of questions the facilitator had given. We were all asked to share how we had seen, or experienced racism. At our table, a high school student, a young woman who was of Somali descent, and who was a practicing Muslim shared her story. She said that yes, there were some incidents of blatant racism, like being called names, or things like that. But then she talked about feeling like an outsider…a stranger…she talked about people who would act like her friend, or not, based on who else was around (which was confusing, and frustrating)…and she talked about sometimes feeling invisible…unseen…and feeling alone.
Her words were powerful. And truth be told, they were hard to hear. My heart broke for her. We thanked her for her honesty, and her vulnerability.
A few minutes later, the facilitator asked the groups one final question: “How did it make you feel to share your story with this group?” When it was this young woman’s turn to answer, she smiled, and simply said, “It feels good to be seen and heard.”
To be seen and to be heard. It is a powerful thing. To be seen and heard is an affirmation. It affirms who we are. It affirms our value as human beings.
And we must recognize that there are people, lots of people actually, who do not feel seen nor heard.
In our Gospel story today, Jesus is teaching the crowds in the temple, and he points to the rich and the powerful, the religious leaders and law keepers. They are easy to spot. They walk boldly up to the collection box to drop off their offerings and are making a point of showing off their giving and their generosity. These people, says Jesus, are giving not because of wanting to give, but because it makes them look good…because they want the credit. Jesus warns his listeners to not become hypocrites like these people, who just do what they do to be seen. He says in fact, “beware of these people.”
Then Jesus spots this poor woman, a widow, who is approaching the donation box, Jesus calls his disciples over to watch. She reaches in her purse and takes out two coins…each worth just a penny…small change…nothing really…and she puts them into the collection box. Jesus says to his disciples “This woman! This widow! This is all she has. Everyone else gave more but they have so much more. But this widow has given everything. The others give out of their abundance. This widow gives out of her scarcity…she gives out of her faith.”
Now, to really “get” where Jesus is going here, you have to understand about widows during Biblical times: Women, culturally, were considered merely extensions of their husbands, they were a bit more than property…but they weren’t really an independent person. If a woman in Biblical times lost her husband, if he died, she lost all of her status as well. She became a social nobody. Widows became kind of unseen…they just blended into the background. They had no role, no job, no income, and often no family. A widow would spend her life simply wandering.
This Gospel text is an important story. We most often hear it when we are thinking about generosity, and about the widow’s faithfulness. Jesus points these things out to the disciples. And generosity and faithfulness are important themes in this scripture.
But there is something else going on here. There is another, perhaps even deeper theme, below the surface. And it is something important for us to know, and to remember.
It’s this: Jesus sees the widow. He sees her. He sees her fully. He is sitting there, outside the temple, when she walks by, just one person amidst a crowd, and he calls his disciples over and says “hey, look at her. Watch what she is about to do.”
Jesus saw her:
- He saw her and he knew that she was a widow, which means that she was at the bottom of the social ladder.
- He saw her and he knew that she was alone, and unnoticed.
- He saw her and he knew that she was poor.
- He saw her and knew that this was the last of her money.
- He saw her and he knew that this level of generosity, giving just her two pennies…couldn’t help but put her at risk.
In this powerful moment, Jesus is revealing that despite the social stigma she carries, God sees her and cares about her. And God cares about the obvious sacrifice that she is making through her generosity. And Jesus is teaching his disciples (and us,) that this widow…this woman is loved by God.
And Jesus is saying that the religious structures that allow for this woman to be ignored, to be marginalized, to be unseen, simply cannot be tolerated.
Jesus saw her. And to be seen, is a powerful thing. Seeing someone; really seeing them, is the first step in a compassionate response.
Have you ever had moments when you have felt “seen?” Has there been a moment when someone looked through the crowd to see you, or to recognize you?
My family moved in the spring of 8th grade. I remember the first day of class at Southview Jr. High. Everyone else in my grade had gone to school together since kindergarten, and it felt like they were all best friends.
At the beginning of every hour, the teacher would have me stand, and would introduce me as the new student. And everyone stared for about 8 seconds…evaluating…and then everything went back to the way it was. And I sat down. I remember that it was all pretty traumatic.
Until my second to last class of the day. The English teacher, Mrs. Harms, she did the same introduction as everyone else…but then, before I could sit down again, she looked me in the eye and asked me questions. “Where did you move from, Todd? Do you have sisters or brothers? Do you play music or sports?” Right there in front of the class, God and everybody, she asked me these questions. And then she said, “Todd, it’s good to meet you. I’m glad you’re here. Let me know if you need anything.” And as an 8th grader in his first day at a new school, it was kind of terrible. But at the same time, it was kind of wonderful. Because someone cared enough to ask. Because someone saw me. It must have been powerful, because 43 years later, here, today, I’m still talking about it.
Jesus is reminding you in this story that you too are seen. God sees you. God knows you. And God cares for you. Yes, you’ve got your flaws, and your hang-ups and your hurts. We all do. But God sees through these things. And like that woman in the temple, God sees you and cares for you.
But there is, I think, even just a little bit more to this story:
God wants us to see. I think that is a part of Jesus’ agenda in pointing out this widow to his disciples. God wants us to see…to really see those around us, especially those in need.
- There are people around you who are hurting.
- There are people around you who are poor.
- There are people around you in need of a meal.
- There are people around you who feel horrible guilt over things they have done.
- There are people around you who are almost bent over from the weight of debt.
- There are people around you whose family relationships are broken.
- There are people around you who have been victims of abuse.
- There are people around you who are seeking meaning.
- There are people around you who are broken.
- There are people around you who are living on the margins.
- There are people around you who are in pain. I don’t know…perhaps you might even be one of them.
People of God, we are to be a community that sees…clearly! Our role as ones who follow Jesus is to see people for who they are; to see their heart. Our task is to approach, and engage, and to let people know that they are seen. And our call is to care with the same, unconditional love that Jesus showed to that widow…that Jesus shows to us.
Tonight, when you pray, pray for vision. Pray for the kind of vision that Jesus has. Pray for the kind of vision that allows you to see people for who they are; to filter out the baggage that we all carry and to see them…beautiful and precious in God’s eyes. Children of God, loved beyond measure.
Did that widow in the temple even know that Jesus saw her? I don’t know. I’d like to think so. Because we know there is power in being seen and in knowing that you have been seen.
Friends, let’s develop a new habit: when you encounter someone in the hallway, or the cafeteria, or the store, or the meeting room or the cubicle. Stop. Talk to them. Ask how they are. Listen. See them like Jesus would see them. You will discover something beautiful. And someone you encounter may really need to know that they are being seen.
And remember that Jesus sees you, flaws and all. And it is because of Jesus’ love…that you can look at those around you and can say with confidence to those you encounter: I see you, child of God.