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.” – Mark 12:38-44
The envelope arrived in her mailbox looking like so many of the ones that came before it. Her first name printed in bold red ink, asking for her attention to this urgent request. It was the perfect teaser to get her to open the envelope, but truth be told, she’d have opened it anyway. What was the latest news from the Reverend’s ministry? What was the urgent situation that had caused him to send out this letter? We’re so close to reaching a breakthrough for the gospel in this remote location of the world; we just need a bit more resources to make it happen. Or we suffered a setback leaving our ministry financially strapped. If you could just be a faithful servant of God and give just a little bit more, just a little bit more. You’ve been one of our most faithful supporters in the past, won’t you please help us through this current time of need? I just know that God will send you a special blessing for being so generous.
So because it was such an emergency, she sat right down and wrote out a check for the Reverend. It wasn’t much, only ten dollars, but it was all she could spare. And then she went back to her dinner – the fourth time that week that dinner was a can of tuna and a small portion of store-brand macaroni and cheese, served with the second cup of tea made from the same tea bag. Some variety would be nice, she thought, but everything is just so expensive these days, and you just had to have your priorities.
In the portion of Mark’s gospel that today’s Lectionary story is part of, Jesus has been criticizing the scribes, the religious leadership of the time, for any number of things. At the beginning of this particular story, Jesus is blasting the scribes for, as he put it, “devour(ing) widow’s houses,” in order to preserve their own luxury and perks. And right after that comment, Mark turns our attention to the scene that plays out in today’s reading. You can see it in your mind: the wealthy people dropping large sums of money in the offering, but it was still just coming out of their surplus – they weren’t going to miss it; they hardly felt any sense of sacrifice giving it up, if they felt any sacrifice at all. And then we see her – a poor widow, dropping in her two mites, these two tiny little copper coins – next to worthless, really, but still, it was all she had. She gave it because apparently she’d been led to believe by the scribes that that was what a good, faithful person should do. Her giving was most likely a sign of great faithfulness, and her act probably came from a pure place in her heart, just as was the case with the woman who got the Reverend’s latest urgent appeal. But based on the way the whole story is being told, it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ actual point was to praise the widow or to say that what she’d done was the right thing to do. Truth be told, it just might be a very different point Jesus is making. It seems more to me that, without taking anything away from the widow’s faithfulness or her good intentions, Jesus is incredulous at hat he’d just seen. I hear Jesus’ words in the context of what he’d just said before this. In that voice, Jesus seems to be saying, “Just look – do you see that? That’s the kind of harm that the scribes’ words cause; making even the poorest and most vulnerable fear God so much that they think they have to do something like that in order to gain God’s favor.”
This is another one of those texts that show up during stewardship pledge season, and it’s offered up in order for us all to seriously consider how we understand stewardship as part of our overall life of faith – that stewardship isn’t just paying our dues in order to be part of the club. Stewardship, the way we handle our personal finances to support God’s mission, is itself a spiritual discipline, just like prayer, or any other spiritual discipline, through which we express our love for God, and through which our faith is deepened and strengthened.
And most of the times when we hear sermons about this widow, she’s praised for her faith – which is indeed very great – and that we should all strongly consider whether we’re using our finances in the way God would want us to – which we should. But despite that, I can’t preach about this story in the same way that it usually is – that the woman is a model for us to aspire to, even if we never reach her degree of faith and commitment. To be honest, based on the total context of the story, I see the woman’s actions as a result of spiritual abuse, extortion, ecclesiastical malpractice, on the part of the religious leaders who had made her believe that such a total sacrifice, even in her extreme poverty, was what God would want from her.
So, here in the midst of our stewardship campaign, am I saying to not have the same mindset of the widow who gave all she had to the offering? Well, yes and no. Clearly, almost all of us could take a look at our stewardship giving and realize that the way God would prioritize our spending and giving would be different than the choices we make ourselves, and we should move to correct that. Most of us should truly be giving more to support God’s mission through our stewardship giving to the church.
On the other hand, in the midst of all the money talk this time of year, and the usually soft-pedalled but clear message to consider increasing our pledges, there are also those of us who can be made to feel guilty for not giving more. Some who are on fixed, and small, incomes who, if we aren’t careful, can be made to feel like they’re freeloaders, church-squatters who aren’t pulling their fair share just because they aren’t giving at some imagined level of giving. We all need to be very careful during our stewardship campaign to not make the same mistake as the scribes that Jesus was skewering for offering the same message. Sometimes, even if we aren’t trying to say that, that’s the way it can come across. I know; I’ve felt that same guilt when I was at my absolute poorest – when I was having those four tuna dinners per week. And I’m sure that many if not most of us here have been there at one point of their life or another, even if you aren’t there now.
I guess I can’t say it any more bluntly than this: if you have a limited income, for whatever reason, I’m speaking directly and specifically to you: If you’ve carefully considered what you can do to support the church and you’re doing that, do not feel like you have to go even further, depriving yourself of the things you need in life like the widow in the story did. I don’t believe God wanted her to do what she did, and I don’t believe God wants you to do the same thing, either, just because you think that’s how you’ll stay in God’s good graces.
Because the good news here is about exactly that – God’s good graces. God’s grace, God’s love and acceptance and mercy, are already yours. You can’t buy God’s love, there’s no giving God more of your money in order to get some special blessing. God already loves you and keeps you in the palm of his hands. You don’t need to feel any guilt about how you can or can’t financially support the church. If you’re in a precarious financial situation in your life, to be perfectly honest, the church should be reaching out trying to find ways to help support you, not the other way around. Of course, that would mean that the rest of us who are more financially able would need to increase our giving to make it possible.
Is that what Jesus’ message really is here? You never know – it just might be.
Thanks be to God.