Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Widow's Mite...

It ain't about money, y'all. It's more important than that.

Mark 12:38-44
As he 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 is the Word of the Lord.

Today’s Gospel reading is a study in extremes. On the one end, we see religious leaders whose chief concern was for their own comfort and fame. On the other end, there's a woman who is dependent on the church of the day for her continued existence, who faithfully gives every penny she has.

First-century Judea was a completely patriarchal system. Men ran the government and the religion, men owned the businesses, sold the goods, handled the money, and men made the rules. In fact, it was a part of the daily ritual for a Jewish man to include this phrase in their prayers: “I thank You that I was not born a woman...” Women were regarded as little more than a man’s property, and had no real rights. When a woman became a widow, she had to rely on family members to survive – and if there were no family members, then it was the responsibility of the Temple to care for her. This put them at the mercy of the Temple rulers and, very often, the very scribes Jesus was talking about.

The Gospel account this morning takes up the narrative just after Jesus has been sparring with the religious leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Herodians, and had done some teaching to boot. All of this appears to have been taking place in the area of the Temple known as the Court of the Women. This was an area about 200 feet square, set beyond the Court of the Gentiles, beyond which no non-Jewish person was allowed. Beyond this court, fifteen steps up, was the Court of Israel, which only men were allowed into. So it was this area specifically in which only Jewish people, but all Jewish people, be they man, woman or child, could gather.

Within that court, against a wall, were eleven chests, with two more at the gate leading up to the Court of Israel. These chests had brass, trumpet-shaped receptacles to receive the donations of the people. Each chest was set aside for a different purpose; some received the annual donation that each Jewish person was to make to the Temple, others were for specific sin offerings and thanksgiving offerings required by the Law, and some were set aside for voluntary offerings.

Since there was no paper money in that day, the act of giving meant throwing coins in, and of course the more one put in, the longer and louder the noise of that brass trumpet. This could be what Jesus was referring to in Matthew’s Gospel when he said, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others…”
So Jesus sat and relaxed from his long morning teaching and dealing with challenges left and right, just across from the noisiest place in the Temple, and watched as people went by and gave their gifts into the Treasury. You could, of course, tell how much someone was giving by how loud and how long the coins rang as they were poured into the box, and you could see why people were giving based on which box they poured their coins into.

And in the midst of all this ringing and clanging and rattling this one widow walks up, tosses in two tiny coins, and walks away, and Jesus perks up. “Hey, Peter and James and John, yo, Thomas and Matthew, grab Andrew and Phillip and Thaddeus and Bartholomew and the others and come here! Did you see that? Did ya?”

The widow's two small coins would have made barely a sound. I’ve seen some commentators say that the coins were worth anything from a sixty-fourth of what an Israelite would need for their daily food to half a day’s wages, but it’s quite a chunk of money when that’s all you have.

It wasn't a tithe or something given out of her abundance, this widow threw everything in the offering plate. Now, this is an important thing to see: Jesus praises the gift, but neither encourages his followers to do the same, nor does he particularly disparage those who gave more, but out of their abundance.

Why? Well, because what fired Jesus up, the point of what he teaches his disciples and all of us here isn’t about money at all! The focus is on priority, on where we place our trust and security, on what takes precedence in our lives. What the reading asks us, today, is this: who is the center of our individual universes – ourselves, or God?

If we look at American Christian culture, whatever that means, we’ll find that it mirrors, very often, American culture in general, and I think we can all agree that in American culture, the individual is the center of the universe. It’s all about “me.”

Walk in a Christian bookstore (and, increasingly, any bookstore, and even Wal-Mart) and you’ll find lots of books by well-known preachers and authors that emphasize what I’ve heard called “the WIIFM” – “What's In It For Me.” What started fairly innocently with Norman Vincent Peale and “The Power of Positive Thinking” has grown to a billion dollar industry, with book titles like “Your Best life Now” and “Becoming A Better You,” all focused on how God is just itching to pour abundant financial blessings on you if you’ll do and say and think the right things and “open yourself up to it,” whatever that means. In a world where, according to some reports, a Christian is murdered for his or her faith every five minutes, the clear “Gospel” message of many of these books is less on truly living the Good News, no matter the cost, and more about how to game the system, how to make God give you what’s in it for you.

Oh, it isn’t just books. There are an abundance of television and radio ministries and shiny megachurches that espouse what is called “Word of Faith” or the “Prosperity Gospel,” where the measure of a person’s dedication to God is how healthy and wealthy they are. Poor and middle-class viewers of these TV preacher types are often encouraged to give what are called “seed faith” gifts, often totaling thousands of dollars, as evidence of their faith in God to provide for their needs.

There’s a story, and I can only hope it isn’t true, about one of these preachers who was at an arena following one of his prayer-meeting events. A woman walked up to him and gave him the last of her money. All that she had. The story goes that after she walked away, he turned to his entourage and said, “See, boys? I got her last five dollars!”

The Prosperity Gospel and “Word of Faith” messages feed on what Christian theology views as our fallen nature. In being separated from God through sin, we by nature view ourselves as the center of the universe.

Even when we respond to God's call to salvation and relationship, our automatic tendency, our nature, is to view that relationship in terms of “What’s In It For Me” – it’s true that, whether we call it Prosperity Gospel or “fire insurance” or simply being “better than those sinners over there,” all too often our nature is to be like the Scribes, and if we devour some widow’s homes in the process of making our own home more secure, so be it. We are the center of our own individual universes.

By contrast, the poor widow in our Gospel account stands out as someone who was not the center of her own universe. Her comfort and security wasn’t found in her meager possessions, nor did she need to show off her piety. She gave everything because that’s all there was to give.

Sure, she could have just given one coin and kept the other one. There's a story about a little girl who was walking to church with her parents. Mom gave her two quarters, one for herself and one to put in the offering plate “for Jesus.” As they walked the little girl dropped one of the quarters and it fell in a storm drain. “Oh, no!” she cried, “I just dropped Jesus’ quarter!”

I admit that, given the same situation, I’d think long and hard about keeping some back for myself, even if it wasn’t enough to even buy a slice of bread. But for the widow, I imagine that the struggle over giving half or giving all never even took place within her. She gave it all because that’s what there was to give. The center of her universe was God, and God resided in the Jewish mind in the Temple, and if part of worship was giving, then that is what she would do.

Do you remember a few weeks back, when we talked about the rich man who came to Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had, and give it to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven. He finished with, “Then come, follow me.”

Of course we know that the rich man walked away grieving, unwilling to part with his wealth. His security was in his possessions.

This widow, in her utter poverty, parted with all she had as naturally as breathing. Again, her security was found in God, and that’s all there was to it.

And is it not true that this widow, in giving all that she had, was being just like Jesus, who not many days after he sat in the Treasury would give everything he had for you and me on the cross.

Have you ever seen someone give all they had? I have, and it was an amazing experience.

It doesn’t sound like much, I admit, but I will never forget it. About 15 years ago, I was working in development and public relations at a home for abused children. Part of that is, of course, asking for donations, and one day the Executive Director came in to my office. He was holding an envelope, and had the strangest look on his face. He handed me the envelope like he was handing me a crystal vase, as if he was afraid it would break. It was a standard business reply envelope, the kind that the mailing house inserted into all our mass mailings. I opened it, and in that envelope was, I think, a very worn five-dollar bill and a handwritten note. It said, simply, “I’m sorry this isn’t much. This is all I’ve got and I want the children to have it.”

Now, I can tell you that in my twenty years in nonprofit development I opened envelopes with ten-thousand dollar checks in them, and I secured grants and in-kind gifts for ten times that much, not to mention all the mass mailings and commercials and fundraising events I coordinated and took part in. I’m not bragging, because this was my job, but I helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. With all of that, the letter with that crumpled five-dollar bill stands out in my heart and mind, because it was the single largest donation I have ever seen in my life.

Let me say this again: this isn’t about money. It’s about in whom or in what we find our security, about whom or what is at the center of our universe. Is the question we ask “what’s in it for me?” Or do we rather pay attention to the words of the prophet Micah in asking, “what does the Lord require of you?” Is our security in your portfolio, or in our retirement fund, or in our stuff, or is it in God?

Who is the center of our universe? If the answer is anything but God, then the challenge becomes this: to ask how our life, our decisions, our prayers and our worship would be different if the answer was God – then let’s begin to act that way!

Let us pray, with St. Francis of Assisi,

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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