When I’m writing sermons or speeches, I can’t stand to have a paragraph run from one page to the next. I often edit a phrase here or there just to make the pages come out even. It’s a fiddly way of approaching rewrites, but there are always a few extra words, and since they are mine, I feel empowered to deal with them ruthlessly.
Picture a paragraph that starts at the bottom of one page and continues at the top of the next page. When only the last line of the paragraph appears at the top of the next page, that line is called a widow. When only the first line of the paragraph appears at the bottom of the first page, that line is called an orphan.
Widow and orphan control prevents both. Orphans are moved to the next page with the rest of the paragraph. To cure widows, lines are moved from the bottom of one page to the top of the next. It’s a little more complicated than it sounds, because curing a widow cannot create a new orphan, nor vice versa. (Practical Typography)
The story of the widow and her mite (two small copper coins) opens Chapter 21 of Luke’s gospel. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the version of the story found in Mark comes up in the latter part of the year, often right in time for stewardship season, when we love the story of a sacrificial giver. “You well-off people sitting in the pews, look at the widow and her devotion to God! You would do well to follow her example!”
This tiny story is orphaned without the previous verses, inconveniently located in Chapter 20.
In the presence of all the people, Jesus said to his disciples, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They love being greeted with honor in the markets. They long for the places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” (Luke 20:45-47, CEB)
See what I mean? If you go straight to the widow, you might not catch on to what Jesus is saying.
All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had to live on. (Luke 21:4)
The religious authorities should be – according to scripture are – responsible for the care of widows, and orphans, too. We make too much out of admiring her faith without stopping to interrogate the system that allows her to give everything away without saying, “Sister, let us help you.”
Despite the best efforts of editors who made chapters out of gospels, in Jesus’ teaching, there’s no keeping them tidily on one page, to be forgotten or follow the rules that convenience the power structure. In Jesus’ teaching, they trail conversationally from one page to another, demanding our attention. In Jesus’ teaching, there is no widow and orphan control.
Lord, I am trying to listen to you and make my life the kind that will do justice to your teaching. Amen.
I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.