November 1, 2015
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.”
This weekend marks the thirtieth anniversary of my first major failure in ministry. It was a stewardship sermon about the poor widow who drops in her two small coins. It did not go well.
I had been ordained as a minister for about a month. At the first-ever session meeting that I moderated, somebody mentioned that Stewardship Dedication Sunday was coming up. They wanted a good sermon, because they wanted to be able to afford their new preacher. Then they sat back, folded their arms, and smiled.
Well, I was up for the challenge. That was back in the days when I knew everything. I had preached a dozen sermons in my career, so I was an expert. I had a shelf full of books about the Gospel of Mark. To my distress, I opened them to discover they said hardly anything about this brief, little story. So I built a sermon on this wonderful widow who gave everything to the temple. Perhaps I invented a few details, but I thought it was a good sermon. This time, they sat back, folded their arms, and scowled.
The critique came quickly. The chair of the Finance committee pounced first: “Worst sermon I ever heard! You never mentioned the budget. You should have laid on some guilt, and made these people feel guilty for the pitifully small contributions that they make to the church budget. We will never make it on two pennies per person.” Then he spun around and stomped away.
A saintly woman approached next. “Thank you, Reverend, for your good effort. I could tell you prayed before you preached that one. I was praying for you too. But, well, I can’t afford to give any more money to the church. I’m afraid I don’t have the means, and I do need to eat.” And she shuffled away.
Then a third man came forward. “You kept my attention for a couple of minutes, Rev. You really did. But then my mind started to drift, so I picked up the Bible and read that passage again. Did you know that the widow gave her two cents to the temple that Jesus accuses of fleecing all the widows? ‘Beware the scribes who devour the widow’s houses.’ Jesus says that. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Clearly I wasn’t going to get a raise that year. No sir.
If we take it for what it says, this is a troublesome text. Jesus points to this anonymous woman and says, “Look at her!” She had taken her place in line, along with all the faithful who have come to donate to the temple. According to Mark, it is a few days before Passover. Jerusalem’s population will swell as all of God’s people came home to celebrate their identity. While in town, go to the temple, give thanks to God, and make a financial gift.
The wealthy people were putting in a lot, because they had the money to give. Then this woman comes and - clink, clink - she drops in two small coins. “Look at that!” says Jesus.
Mark says she’s a widow. How could he identify her that way? Did she have a big black “W” on her dress? Was she dressed in black and clutching a Kleenex? And how did he know she was poor? Was she wearing old sandals or a tattered shawl? We don’t know. There is no evidence that Jesus knew her. He never mentions her name.
Yet the irony is thick. As my third critic pointed out, Jesus has just condemned how some religious leaders mistreated women like her. It seems the scribes of his day had a habit of handling the estates of men who died, declaring their widows incapable of handling money. These scribes distributed the estates, claiming whatever professional fees they deemed necessary. It was sanctified exploitation.
It reminds me of those old television evangelists in the 1980’s who loved to appeal to people who were too feeble to leave their own homes: “You, too, can be a Faith Partner of our Cathedral to the Sky. Call now, operators are standing by.” Then they used the donations from disadvantaged people to buy private jets, air conditioned dog houses, and water slides.
So what was I thinking, trying to excavate a stewardship sermon out of this text? The finance committee chair wanted me to speak gloom and doom about the budget, the saintly woman was feeling pinched, and the Bible student said, “In the Gospel of Mark, this is a conflicted passage, to say the least.”
But there’s still something about it. Jesus says, “Look at her.” Take a good long look. What does he want us to see?
It looks like she is making an enormous sacrifice, for one thing. We don’t know why. We already have a hunch why she shouldn’t. But she does it any way. It’s astonishing. What we have here is the miracle of generosity. Have you ever seen that miracle at work?
After my father died this summer, it took my mother a couple of weeks to return to worship at her church. She had been skipping out, wanting to spend every possible moment with my dad before he passed. After he was gone, she wanted to return to church – but she couldn’t go back to the same pew that the two of them had inhabited for 53 years. The grief was too raw.
One Sunday she took a deep breath and said to herself, “OK, it’s time to go.” She sat with some friends. Everybody was glad to see her. She went to coffee hour and was glad to be back.
As coffee hour was winding down, something unusual happened. A lady she didn’t know very well asked, “Can I talk to you privately?” This woman is married to a dishwasher at a local hotel. She is on disability, and lives in a trailer park on the edge of town. She usually sits in the back of the church, and often wears the same dress. It may be the only dress she owns.
She gave my mother a hug and then slipped her an envelope. “Please open this later,” she said, “not now.” Mom thought it was a sympathy card, and slipped in her purse. Later that afternoon, she remembered it and opened it up.
There was a long handwritten letter on yellow paper. “Dear Ann, my husband and I are so sorry Glenn died. We are concerned about you. We watch out for people who are going through difficulty, and want to help any way we can." Inside the letter, there are two twenty dollar bills.
Mom called me immediately and said, “What should I do? It’s forty dollars. She can’t afford that. What do I do?” I said, “You always told me to write a thank you note. Turnabout is fair play.”
Mom said, “But I don’t need the money.” “Yes,” I replied, “but she needs to give it to you.” There was a moment of silence, and then she said, “Fair enough.” My mother knows if such a gift is given, whatever else we do, we guard the contributor’s dignity, express our thanks, and extend our gratitude by sharing what God has given us.
For this is how God works in our hearts to create the miracle of generosity. It’s like the woman in Jerusalem. There’s something at work in her soul to make her generous. Jesus notices that it is something more than the average rich person who gives because they always seem to have some cash. “They give out of their abundance,” he says, “but she gives out of her poverty.”
So I marvel at this woman that Jesus points out. She gives freely and generously. No doubt she knew what it was like to have needs. No doubt she knew the institution through which she was giving had its flaws. No doubt she believed somehow that God’s work would be done and God would be honored if she gave.
But here’s the thing: look at what she gave! She gave everything. Two small coins, equal to one of our pennies, quantitatively not much, but Jesus declares it is “her whole living.” Or to translate it literally, “her whole life.” She gave her life. No wonder Jesus, of all people, took notice of her. On the very next page, the Passion story begins and Jesus gives his whole life.
This is a story about sacrificial giving, about trusting God so much that you live a generous life. It’s about having your soul intact, that you might love God and neighbor even if the institutions around you are on shaky ground.
I have a friend named Carlos. Three years ago, in the middle of a storm warning, he looked out the church window to see a guy from the Weather Channel broadcasting live on the church lawn. That’s when you know it is going to be a tough day. When Hurricane Sandy stopped blowing two days later, hundreds of the people in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, had lost their homes. Two weeks after the storm, it was Stewardship Dedication Sunday.
Carl stood in the pulpit and said, “Today is not a day about fundraising. It’s a day about being the church. We exist to pray together. We exist to worship God together. We exist to care about human needs.” With that, the church offered individual prayers for healing. Then they prepared a free meal for anybody in the community who was hungry or needed a friend. Carl said, “This is what Christian people do.” Somehow there seemed to be plenty of money, because everybody wanted to be part of that. Now, there’s a church with its soul intact.
Jesus said, “Look at that woman over there. Do you see her?” She had virtually nothing, while the affluent people around her had more than enough. They put in large sums – but she put in everything. They offered their leftovers to God, but she put herself all the way in.
We can speculate all we want about her motivation. Was it obligation? Perhaps. Was giving her habit? Certainly. Was giving a spiritual practice for her? We hope so.
Here’s what I think. I believe she gave because she knew the purposes of God’s temple are central to our lives: to lead people in praising God, to gather around the sacred texts, and to listen and act when the scriptures say, “The Lord upholds the homeless child and the widow, but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.” (Psalm 146:9)
We know why she gives: because she gave herself to God - - - heart, soul, mind, strength, and pocketbook. Is God greater than the institutions that claim to do God’s work? Certainly! And in emptying her pockets, she worships the God who comes to save the world by building justice among God’s people. She gives because she wants to take part in that work.
“So look at her,” says Jesus. “Take a good look!” She gives her all for the work of God. So does Jesus.
What about you?