The Widow’s Mite or the Widow’s Plight? What we do with what God has given us

[This is the transcript for the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on November 15, 2015. The audio can be found here.]

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:41-44, NIV

So as some of you know, we are right in the middle of a short three-week series that began last Sunday in the book of Numbers, where we looked at the story of Joshua and the 12 scouts or spies that were sent out to investigate the land of Canaan — the promise land. 10 of the 12 that came back did not believe that God could help them, and the people as a whole were persuaded that it was not possible to take the land that God had promised. They thought that God was setting them up for defeat. It’s a really a tragic story in many ways, as it shows that there are serious consequences for refusing to claim what God has given us, and to steward it with a willingness to risk and make sacrifices — to trust that God will make good on his promises!

For today though, we’re looking at this short little story in Mark’s Gospel (it also shows up in Luke), but it actually asks very much the same question of us: “What are you going to do with what you’ve been given?”

Every time I read this story, I think of this coin that Whitney has. It’s supposedly a “Widow’s Mite” – a Greek Lepton (1/64 of a day’s wages then — it’s worth a little bit more than that these days though!) Her family on her mom’s side is from the Cayman Islands, and somehow a number of these coins made their way to the Caribbean on ships, and they’ve been dated back to the early Roman era. So she and her three brothers each have one. And like her favorite piece of jewelry — besides her wedding ring of course — because it symbolizes her family heritage.

But, the coin is also valuable to Whitney and me because of the story it represents. It’s a famous story and for whatever reason it’s one of those that really seems to resonate with people — there’s just something about the way something so insignificant can be seen as invaluable in the eyes of God.

Now, when we hear the word temple, which is where it says this story took place, we might be tempted to think of something like a church. But as some of you may know, this was a massive, public space. It probably looked and felt more like a marketplace. There were a number of places scattered around where you could purchase birds or wood for offerings, or frankincense. There was also a place for the free-will offering, which is where Jesus and this woman were.

The wealthy, powerful and important people would have been visibly giving large offerings, and you would have been able to hear the noise of their big gifts being tossed into the treasury.

And Jesus is not impressed — especially since they were giving their gifts in such a way as to be noticed. The widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has to live on, it says — her Bios! is the Greek word, and it probably goes totally unnoticed, but not by Jesus. He recognizes her radical trust in God to provide for her.

Jesus then goes on to point out that the rich after giving their large gifts were still rich. The rich in this story give out of their abundance, but they do not sacrifice their abundance. They share their leftovers. It’s kind of like famous billionaires we know of, some of whom are even very socially conscious (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Oprah…). And I’m not bashing them. I’m just saying, they’re still very rich even after they give.

And of course we do the same. We usually just give what we can afford to, even if that’s a lot. Most of us probably do not eat less, or dress worse, or travel less, because of what we give… Our giving doesn’t cut substantially into our life. We don’t give up control. But the widow did.

So Jesus tells us that the offerings of the wealthy pale in comparison to the sacrifice that the widow makes. She’s living on the currency of the Kingdom of God! While the wealthy people give what to be noticed, they give what they can spare, they give to stay in control.

And so this is the common, straightforward reading of the story, and it’s a good one. It teaches us something very important. That God looks at their heart — not the amount of money that we give. That we’re to give sacrificially, and joyfully. That we’re to give because we’re seeking God. Not because we want something from God. And finally, it poses the question, not just what are you giving, but what are you holding back. Is trust informing your stewardship, or is fear ruling over you?! What’s keeping you from giving more of your life away? What are you going to do with what God has given you?

As is often the case in reading the Bible though, and you all know this, to get to the best stuff, sometimes we have to dig a little deeper. And we don’t have to be scholars to do it! Sometimes it just takes one google search. Again, the natural thing to assume I think is that the Temple was kind of like the church, or that tithing to the temple was like tithing to the church. But the Temple was more like the city government than it was like a church, and tithing was more like paying taxes than making charitable donations. It likely added up to something much higher than 10%.

Because the Temple had a political and economic function just as much as a religious one. Church and state were not separate. It was public and central to society. Of course they were occupied by the Romans, so they weren’t totally in charge. It was more like a colony within the Empire. But the Temple had long been accused of collaborating with the Empire. This is what led to some of the rebellions that we can read about.

But the point is, there was a hierarchy. And at the top were the political and religious leaders. We really need only look at the previous three verses to see this, and to see what Jesus was saying about these people:

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Mark puts these verses about the corrupt leaders right next to the ones about the widow’s offerings for a reason! And keep in mind, this is a holy week story. Jesus has already rode in a donkey and disturbed the peace by driving out the moneychangers in the temple.

Why does he say though, for instance, that the teachers of the law “devour widows’ houses”? Well, from what we can know historically, the scribes and the teachers of the law were part of the literate class that worked for the wealthy. So this is most likely a reference to their activity of administering loan agreements and foreclosing on people’s property when loans couldn’t be repaid! And obviously, widows in the First Century had no way of making any money.

But in ancient Israel, widows and the poor were not supposed to be required to make offerings to the Temple. So something isn’t right about this picture. Mark is pointing this out, and Jesus is criticizing it! In other words, here the passage can be heard not just as praising the widow, but as condemning the way the poor are being manipulated to give to the temple!

And this criticism from Jesus falls right in line with the Prophetic tradition — the second half of the Old Testament — where we read again and again God’s warning to his people about their social responsibility for the marginalized and for the poor. Hear what the prophet Zechariah says (7:9-11):

8 And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.

Reflecting back on the message of the earlier prophets and what led Israel into Exile, God is basically saying through Zechariah, “my heart is so bound up with the needs and the circumstances of the poor & weak, that if you act against them, you act against me!” Ignoring them is to ignore me! (like Matt. 25: “What you do to the least of these…”)

Now, this is not to say that when you take care of the poor you’re somehow earning God’s favor. What it does mean though, is that, if you don’t have room in your heart for the poor, you don’t have room in your heart for God.

So yes, this poor widow has a beautiful, generous heart, and she’s an example to us, but she’s also a victim of an unjust society. The temple had become a place where widows were robbed. Though the affluent were tithing, the weightier matters of the law are neglected (Matt 23:23). The money the widow gave was going to the very same people who would take money from Judas only a few days later to capture Jesus and have him crucified!

For some reason though, these circumstances seem to be the kind in which God meets people the most — identifying with the plight of the widow and the marginalized. The widow is a victim of a self-righteous and unjust society – Jesus lets himself become victim to a self-righteous, unjust society. The same sin and suffering that takes advantage of her sends Jesus to the cross. We could say the same sin that lead to a mass-shooting, terrorist attack in Paris two nights ago, in Beirut last week, in Charleston earlier this year — this same sin puts Jesus on the cross. He enters into the sin, suffering and death of the world on a mission to redeem it.

Next Friday I’m going to Atlanta for a day to hear the world-famous German-theologian Jurgen Moltmann speak at a conference about his 40-year-old book now, The Crucified God. He’s 89-years old now. Moltmann was a POW after fighting for the Germans in WWII. During his time as a Ally prisoner, his cell was decorated with images of the concentration camps so as to remind him and his cellmates of what they had done. Moltmann says that at that time he would have rather died than had to face the truth and the shame of his country’s crimes and his role in those crimes. Here’s a quote though that captures the conclusion he ultimately came to in his book:

“God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressed and the oppressors from oppression and to open up to them the reality of a free, generous and compassionate humanity.”

Friends, no other religion says anything like this. Jesus dies for the widow, but he also dies for perpetrators, the Pharisees and the terrorists. There is no one is out of the reach of the grace of God, and there is no thing that can separate you from it.

And if we grasp this – if it grasps us – it’s no longer a matter of trying to figure out what God wants us to do. Or how much God requires us to give. Those are very moralistic and religious questions. When the story of God’s love seizes us, we’re moved to give our whole lives to it — our bios, like the widow. We don’t have to be in control anymore, because of our gratitude, and because of our trust!

So is this passage about tithing? Is it about giving and stewardship? Yes it is, but it’s also about the Gospel itself, which is the real reason why we give anything.

As members of Saint Peter’s, your tithes and offerings, your gifts — whether in terms of money, time, or talents — are not gifts to the institution, or to the staff, or clergy. This church, this staff, is not separate from you. You know this! but this is not a transaction. Yeah there are operating costs, which we try to keep as low as can so that we can give as much as we can directly to the ministries that God has entrusted to us and to things outside of ourselves.

But truly, you are not giving to the church. Rather, you are the church, and as the church, you give. We give as the church, and, when we do, God is really the one giving, through us. That’s how we become the body of Christ, tangibly, his hands and feet in the world. So that we can do our ministry, but also so that we can work to take care of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

And this means we partner with others. The church can’t do it all, and shouldn’t try! Maybe some of your money needs to go to sponsor children through Compassion International or World Vision. There are water wells to be drilled, good micro-finance banks to be funded, possibly. Human trafficking to be stopped. Environmental restoration projects to be supported.

So as a church we partner with Suzy McCall and LAMB in Honduras, where our team of 12 women is currently serving. We’re sending a team to Haiti again in January to work in the medical center we sponsor there. We’ve partnered with the Pink Bus on the East Side. We’re forming a new Art Bus team, and we’re looking for other local ministry opportunities. We give to our diocese which goes to support church planting.

Tithing is not mentioned very much in the New Testament, and when it is, the details are unclear. But rather than being an excuse not to tithe, if anything, Jesus raises the standard to a much higher level. He tells the rich young ruler to give everything! Now he doesn’t tell everyone to give everything, but the chances are that he’s challenging each us to give more than we’re comfortable giving.

There’s a quote in your bulletin from C.S. Lewis that has stuck with me on this question:

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”

What we’re going to see next week, as we turn back to the Joshua story, is that even when we’re up against giant obstacles in our life, when we trust, and risk, and give, God is with us. I know that can sound a little bit cliche or just like a Christian platitude — I hear it even as I say it — but I really believe that when we step out and let go of the need to control in generosity and in sacrifice, that Christ is there, just as he was in this widow’s life.

The widow in the story gave everything. The rich people let her do it — while they only gave for show, while they gave what they could spare, and while they gave to stay in control.

Our giving, by comparison, is a response to what God has already given us. So the challenge is simply this, as we ask of ourselves again, each day: What are we going to do with what God has given us? Let’s pray.