THE TWENTY FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
November 8, 2015
“Two Small Coins”
Just last week at our consistory meeting two actions were taken that, for the most part, were driven by anticipated gifts of money. The consistory did not pass a motion to move forward to pay for a revised plan for the Elevator project. And, we did pass a proposed budget.
Most religious institutions are dependent upon the generosity of the participants for their very existence. How much ministry and mission, or how little, is dependent upon the amount of money that ends up in the treasury.
And so there comes a time when those who are responsible for such things ask donors for a ‘little more.’ If the budget is increased by a certain amount, it is popular to simply divide that increase by the number of givers and to say, we only need an additional $3 a week from each giver. This simple mathematical equation is an easy demonstration, but it isn’t a good way to describe what is needed. For instance, if someone is giving $3 a week now, that suggestion is a 100% increase. Stewardship, unfortunately, is more complicated than simple division.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples happen to be in the Temple. I hear there were 13 containers on the wall in the ‘open air court of the women’ in the temple where people literally toss in their offerings. It isn’t quietly done as during our offertory, no sealed envelopes, no privacy. No one to say, “it’s between you and God.” No, you throw your offering in their right in front of God and everyone.
And Jesus notices that there were some people who were putting large sums into the boxes. These kinds of gifts are what make a difference in the life of the Temple. Jesus does not say that these givers are anything but generous. What he does say is that the ‘poor widow’ who put two pennies in the box gave more than anyone else. She “gave her whole life.”
Now if this were only a story about stewardship, it would be easy enough to launch into discussion about the concept of proportional giving and note that those ‘big givers’ actually give significantly less, proportionally, than this widow. And even though I am not certain this text is actually about stewardship, it is easy to glorify her gift and question the larger givers.
If the message isn’t really about our stewardship, what is it about? I suggest what this text does is predict Jesus’ own stewardship. Just as the widow gives her entire self, Jesus gives his entire self for our salvation. Today we gather about this table of sacrifice and mystery that brings to our remembrance that great gift of Jesus for us. She does what Jesus does, that in her giving she anticipates that it will make a difference in the world beyond herself. In the end, that is truly discipleship according to Mark, that is truly salvation according to Mark, and it is what Jesus portrays according to Mark. But more so, according to Mark, this is the essence of God.
The criticism that Jesus offers in this passage comes before the scene in the temple. Jesus begins this reading with criticism of the religious leaders of his day for their greed, pomposity, and crass exploitation of the poor. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus tells his followers. “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Their piety, in other words, is a sham, and the religious institution they govern is corrupt — not in any way reflective of the God the Psalmist calls a “Father of orphans and protector of widows.”
Jesus notices the religious authorities and tells his followers “beware.” Jesus notices the widow too. He sees what everyone else is too busy, too grand, too spiritual, and too self-absorbed to see. For me, this is the key to understanding this story — that Jesus’s eyes are ever on the outsider, the small, the insignificant, the hidden. And if this story is criticism of the church and commentary on discipleship, then it is pointing us to something much larger than how much I will put in the offering envelope this Sunday or any Sunday to come. Rather, this raises questions about how I steward my whole life as well as the lives of those around me — near and far. Most especially those I haven’t noticed. The difference the church makes in the community should be for the good, for everyone.
Speaking of the needs of the (invisible) most vulnerable in our midst: we read this story in the midst of yet another election season, with local elections just past and next year’s presidential campaign already heating up. As we listen to candidates debate economic issues, we might recall the worn-out question from a campaign years ago, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Such a self-centered question might be better replaced with, “Are the widow and the orphan and the stranger in our midst better off today?”
The questions this text raises are appropriate to reflect upon as commentary on the current lack of a budget from the Pennsylvania State legislature.
Or perhaps we might care so much about one another and our shared life that simply asking, “Are we all better off today?” would lead us to see our futures as inextricably entwined, like those of Naomi and Ruth, (the widow and the Pharisee) and of all Israel itself. [The Rev. Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, November 8, 2015, UCC.org]
I am tempted, because I know how much more we could do in mission and ministry, to beg you to give more of your time, more of your treasure, but begging wouldn’t be dignified, isn’t really the point of the text, and how would I know if the right people would take it to heart? I wouldn’t want to watch the widow put her last two pennies in the plate, but she probably would.