November 11, 2018
William G. Carter
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 marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor 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.”
One summer Sunday, one of our ushers didn’t show up. I don’t remember who it was, but there was some consternation in the back of the sanctuary. The list of regulars had been exhausted, and no fresh volunteers were presenting themselves. What I remember is the lead usher looked at me, with a smirk on his face, and said, “Maybe you could help us take up the offering.”
Well, I’m usually up for a challenge. So, after the sermon the offering was announced. Three ushers stepped up with four offering plates, as I stepped down to join them. I have to tell you it was a complete revelation for me.
I noticed what I can’t always see up here, that there are different styles of putting the money in the plate. There is the sideways subtle drop, to suggest this is no big deal. There is the grand flourish. And there is the family bargain gambit, familiar from my childhood, where the parent says, “The quietest child in the pew can do the honors.”
One poor soul hadn’t paid much attention until there I was. He looked up, saw me standing over him, and gasped, “Oh, it’s you.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out a little bit more.
The most difficult part of the job, however, was resisting commentary. I recall a prominent man in an expensive suit. He put in a buck. I wanted to say, “Is that it? Surely you could do better.” The lead usher caught my eye and shook his head, as if to say, “Don’t say a word.” In the next pew sat an older woman, known to be having a difficult time. She had four offering envelopes with a rubber band around them. Each one was stuffed full. I wanted to say, “Are you sure?”
The ushers decided to never ask me again. Some people squirmed with me stepping out of the safe zone of the chancel. Others said, “That’s not his job. I’ll be glad to volunteer whenever you need me.” The universal response, I believe, was a certain unease at having the pastor observe what they were giving.
So I’m interested in this brief story from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is watching people make their donations to the temple. “Many rich people put in large sums.” Is that an affirmation or a critique? Mark doesn’t say. He doesn’t describe how he knew they were rich. Was it the way they dressed or the way they carried themselves? He also doesn’t say how Jesus knew they gave “large sums.” In that day, money came in coins, not paper. I’m guessing the coins jingled and clinked when they dropped in the box.
They didn’t have offering envelopes back then. Nobody was tracking the donations for a tax write-off. And there wasn’t the cultural conspiracy of silence, where giving is considered private and nobody else’s business.
When my first congregation was invited to join in an ecumenical service at a Greek Orthodox church, a lot of them were shocked to walk in, and, even before they smelled the incense, they noticed the bulletin board by the door. Someone had posted a typewritten list of everybody in the congregation and how much they gave. My Pennsylvania Dutch folks were shocked. They were stunned. To have that information right up where everybody could see it – and they did this on purpose! It was horrifying and froze their German blood.
That kind of information can be disturbing. A new person is recruited to count the offering or post the donations on the computer. The finance committee will dispatch me to train them, saying, “Please, please, please, count accurately but forget the name attached to the gift.” Why? Because you might look at people differently if you see what they give. In the words of our most venerable offering counter, “I have the shortest memory in town.”
This can be important. When you notice that loudest and most savage critic is giving only a couple of bucks, you begin to see the hypocrisy. It may soften the effect of their criticism. Yet I can also tell you, after years of observation, that the largest givers to this congregation are not the wealthiest; they are the most committed. I recall the wise words from one of my mentors, “Bring people closer to Christ and their wallets come with them.” Everything comes with them – talents and abilities, time as well as treasures.
And what about Christ? There he sat, watching people put their coins in the offering box. Actually they didn’t have a single box, but rather many containers placed around the temple. These were not intended for outreach or mission work – but for operations, to keep the temple flourishing. The temple was a big operation; arguably, in Jerusalem, it was the only operation in town. It was the only bank as well as the central shrine. The income was enormous. As one historian reports,
There were bequests coming in from all over the world, the world-wide levy of a fixed tax (among the Jews), the animal sacrifices (and the purchase thereof), the redemption of vows, the wood offerings, as well as the produce of the land owned by the Temple. (The income) increased exponentially during the great pilgrim feasts. Every good Jew was committed to spending a tenth of the produce of his land in Jerusalem.
With all that money coming in, Jesus sits down and watches the crowd. There were offering containers all around the Temple precincts. If you believed God was good to you, you could make an additional “thank offering.” Moses encouraged this, as a way of teaching thanks, of directing our gratitude to God who provides all the things. What the people gave depended, as it still does, on the measure of their engagement, the level of their involvement, the extent of their gratitude, and the expression of their values.
Jesus was watching. “The rich put in great sums,” says Mark, because they had great sums, But what Jesus notices is that they give from their excess. These are the leftovers after building a big house, eating a fine meal, purchasing nice clothes. Here’s the leftover, the remainder. If those people are financially blessed, they can tithe because they have an extra ten percent hanging around. It’s not a sacrifice.
But just imagine if you could be generous even if you didn’t have a lot of money. What if God had come into your heart, filled it with light, released you from all fear?
Just then, he sees her. Almost missed her, but there she is. Jesus says, “Look at that woman over there.” They are Jewish men; they’re not supposed to look at women. But there she is, no husband in sight. She is quiet, never calling attention to herself. She has no interest in getting her name on a plaque on the wall. She gives her last two coins, pauses for a brief silent prayer, and moves on.
As far as Jesus is concerned, he knows everything he needs to know about her.
Is it the size of the gift? No, it’s not the size of the gift. She is not going to pay for a single candle with her two pennies. Does he notice that she gives in proportion to what she has? Not really, she’s not giving a ten percent tithe. She’s giving a hundred percent, everything she has to live on. To quote Mark’s Greek text, “She gave her whole living.”
It is an enormous gift. Like the day when Jim was counting our weekly offering and called me over. “Look at this,” he said. There is a cellophane-wrapped lollipop in the offering plate with a note: “LOVE.” “Somebody made a sacrifice today,” he said. We stood in awe of the gift.
Throughout the ages, Christian preachers love to praise this generous widow. They praise her total reliance on God, not knowing where tomorrow’s income will come, but trusting her life to God. As somebody else’s sermon summarizes a lot of other sermons on the text,
Jesus is impressed by her commitment to give “her whole life to God.” At a critical juncture, the widow chooses sacrifice over survival. It should come as no surprise that Jesus highlights the widow’s example. Jesus is forever calling people to give their whole lives to God. It’s central to his vision of discipleship. Put your hand to the plow and don’t turn back. Leave family. Leave friends. Take up your cross and follow me.”
I think I’ve preached that sermon with other words. It’s especially appropriate when we note that this story, the story of the widow’s sacrifice, is placed by Mark as an event from the last week of Jesus’ life. It happens around Tuesday of Holy Week, right before Jesus gives his life. He points out her sacrifice before he makes his own.
But there’s something else that I see when I hear the story this time. Jesus is watching the givers. Not just the woman, but all of the givers. He notices the act of giving reveals what is going on in the giver. Giving can be good for us, if it is generous and it empowers others.
Thanks to my good friend Virginia Miner, I came across the wisdom of Maimonides. Ever hear of him? Maimonides was a 12th century Egyptian Jew. He taught there are eight ascending steps of righteousness. Every step had to do with generosity.
· The first step is taken by those who give grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret.
· The second: those who give less than is fitting but give graciously.
· Third: those who give what is fitting, but only after being asked.
· Fourth: those who give before being asked.
Then it gets interesting:
· The fifth step: those who give without knowing to whom, although the recipient knows the identity of the donors.
· Sixth: Those who give without making their identity known to the recipients. Anonymous givers.
· Seventh: Those who give without knowing to whom, and neither do the recipients know from whom they receive. They are anonymous and give without strings attached.
· Eighth: Those who help others by giving a gift or loan, thereby helping them to dispense aid to others.
God is on the eighth and highest step of righteousness. So are those who give freely for the benefit of others.
So I bring this up on the week after we have dedicated our financial pledges for 2019. I don’t do that simply to nudge those who haven’t turned in a pledge card yet. Neither do I do this because the lectionary of Bible readings has scheduled this text for today. I do it because stewardship is not primarily about fund raising; it’s about soul-making.
It is good for us to give and to be generous. It is good to think about others and to support the enterprises that we value. It is good to endow our commitment to the generations that will follow us. It is good to provide others a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out.” It is good to give ourselves away, in every possible sense, so that others may flourish, and God’s gift of life can continue beyond us. Jesus said as much: “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:35)
So that is the Gospel’s invitation to all of us today: to live generously, to love abundantly, to give ourselves away to the glory of God. The mystery of Christ’s Gospel is precisely this: as we give ourselves away, we gain something that the world can never take from us. Even more than that, we begin to look like Jesus Christ.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) 28.
 Brad Roth, “By middle-class American standards, the widow’s decision is questionable,” The Christian Century, 9 October 2018
 Virginia Miner, “Don’t Touch the Chicken Until We See If They’re Hungry,” in Speaking of Stewardship, William G. Carter, editor (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998) 112.