Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Widow's Mite: Giving All

(Picture credit: Liturgy)
The last strains of the sermon hymn died. I strode forcefully to the pulpit, plopped my manuscript down, looked hard at all those faces in front of me, and felt a power in me that could only have come from the Holy Spirit. As I gazed around the packed church, I knew how much they were spending on rent, mortgage payments, food, liquor, clothes they would only wear once, and trips they didn’t enjoy but made in order to impress the neighbors. I remembered the news last night, with the refugees from burned-out villages in [Central America], and the threats of worse famines in Africa. I thought about how little we give in our outreach budget and to [Episcopal Relief & Development], and about the struggle to pry another nickel from the vestry for the neighborhood feeding program.

So it all came at once to me, and I preached as I’ve never preached before or since. I preached my heart out, and even the ushers listened without yawning. I preached about how much God had given them, how badly they used it, and what good they could do in the church with their time and talents and money. Before I could even finish, people were throwing cash, checks, and pledge cards at me. They were weeping and cheering and signing up to pay the church budget for the next forty years. I’ve never needed to preach a stewardship sermon again.”...So reminisced the happy old rector, in the air-conditioned study of his busy and well-maintained old church.

This fantasy description was written many years ago by the late Rev. Pat Wilson-Kastner of the Diocese of California. It expresses every rector’s and church treasurer’s wildest dream of the ideal stewardship sermon. But during these late fall months when we’re thinking about gratitude, and stewardship of resources, and thanksgiving it’d be be tragic if all that conjured up only images of cash and checks and pledge cards. There are deeper issues about which we need to think all year round. The Hebrew Scripture reading and the Gospel today bluntly suggest that, both in fact and in faith, you and I often live beyond our means.

The appearance of the strange, mysterious figure of Elijah, in the 9th century B.C.E., in the reign of King Ahab, livens up the biblical narrative as the age of the great prophets is ushered in.  Ahab personifies Israel’s apostasy and infidelity: the nation’s turning from worship and service of the one, holy and living God to embrace the Phoenicians’ fertility gods, Baal and Melkart, and the fertility goddess, Ashtoreth/Ashtarte, along with the subsequent moral and social disintegration. Ahab was the 7th king of Israel after the monarchy split. His father, Omri, renewed political and business ties, begun by David and Solomon, with the affluent and skillful Phoenicians, particularly through Ahab’s marriage to the notorious Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal. Jezebel was strong-willed, domineering, and used her position in the court to promote Phoenician culture and religion which espoused the fertility cults. It seems that not only did Ahab tolerate her activities, but actively participated in them. The writer of 1 Kings notes that Ahab did “more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33)

Elijah appears on the scene at this time preaching a strong message to Israel: not a new one, but an old word which they’d nearly forgotten. It’s the theme of the sovereignty and grace, the command and judgment, the righteousness and redemption of God as the overseeing reality, both of national and individual life. For three centuries to come the prophets from Amos to Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, down to and beyond the prophets of the Exile, will hammer away at this message: God is the source of life. God alone is sufficient and provident.

Today’s passage from 1 Kings (17:8-16) underscores that message even more emphatically because it pictures Elijah being sent outside the kingdom of Israel, to the area of Sidon on the northern coast. The writer wants us to know that this is the turf of the Phoenician god, Baal. The point is clear: even where Baal is worshipped and regarded as the provider and sustainer of life, it’s the Lord God who truly gives life and provides bread to sustain God’s people. All life comes from God and belongs to God as God’s possession. Life is given, carried, and preserved by the gracious providence of the Almighty alone. And the writer will show that, like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, we all try to live beyond our means.

Mark’s story in Chapter 12 (38-44), the story of the “widow’s mite”, serves as a kind of link between Jesus’ public ministry and his passion and death. Jesus’ public ministry is drawing to a close. Mark relates several incidents focussing on the question of faith, incidents which define faith in terms of oversight and stewardship. 

Each of the incidents in Chapter 12 raises a question:
1st question: Who owns the earth? The parable of the vineyard (1-12) emphasizes that “the earth is the Lord’s.” When the vineyard stewards stop being stewards, when they presume to take control of what belongs to Another, when the vineyard’s produce is hoarded in careless disregard for the welfare of others whom the owner would feed, when our relationship with the earth isn’t one of stewardship, gratitude or humility, but one of selfishness, greed and pride, then the end result is destruction and ruin.

2nd question: To whom does the realm of human affairs, politics and economics belong? There’s that whole discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians (13-17). “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus, by the way, never really answers the question, but simply uses it as an opportunity to raise the more fundamental question: what happens to the sovereignty of Caesar in relation of the sovereignty of God before whom, Isaiah says, “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and...the rulers of the earth as nothing”? 

You and I are still grappling with that today, even as our nation has just re-elected our President and have elected other new people to govern us. How do we come to terms with the subordination and accountability of Caesar and Caesar’s kingdom to the reign of the Lord God? As the Romans did, we continue to put Caesar’s image on our coins and currency. We add “In God We Trust”, perhaps with more emotion than with any real comprehension of what that might really mean for the undoing and redoing of our priorities as a nation under this, or the next, or any other administration.

3rd question: Who owns time? Who rules history? In vv. 18-27 the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection, and the giving and taking among brothers of the widow as wife betrays their assumption that time is defined in relation to our lives: in terms of the relationships which make up our particular history. Jesus says, in effect, that time belongs to God, along with life and relationship. It belongs to the same One who is eternal. Our lives and relationships and history are in God’s keeping.

4th question: To whom do I owe ultimate allegiance? Who commands my heart, soul, mind and strength? The question of the commandments raised by the teacher in vv. 28-34 isn’t really a question about which is the first or the greatest commandment. It’s a question about whose commandments they are, whose command we hear and obey. To whom does my life, and the lives I touch with my own, belong?

5th question: In that strange passage about the Messiah’s relationship to David, the question of ownership again arises: To whom does the Christ belong? Does he belong to some culture or nation or to some religious tradition? No, the Anointed One of God belongs to God, and therefore, to all the world across all boundaries of tradition, nationality, culture, and even religion.

Finally, we come, in Chapter 12, to today’s passage. Again, the issue is ownership and we’ve come full circle. To whom do you and I belong: not simply on the inside, not just with heart, soul, mind and strength, but to whom do you and I belong with all the things to which we cling and which cling to us: wealth, possessions, abilities, expectations, plans for the future, goals set, relationships which come and go? To whom do we belong with all that we have and all that we are? Here Mark pushes the question of faith, of oversight, of stewardship to its deepest level.

The humble widow provides a contrast to the Scribes who loved to be “somebodies”. They hardly thought about life and faith as beyond their means. They dressed up in long robes, signs of professional status. They loved salutations from others in the marketplace: “Manager Samuel”, “CEO Jacob”, “Director Joseph”, “Doctor Abraham”. A kind of lust for titles and rank lifted their egos above the crowd, above their colleagues. Not only did they seek out, but they expected the front seats, preferential VIP treatment in public and at private exclusive parties.

Even some of Jesus‘ Twelve, as we saw in the Gospel three weeks ago, were envious of places of honor. Jesus asks James and John if they think they’re really able to drink the same cup as he does, and without blinking they respond “We are able!” Again, there was no apparent awareness, even among the chosen, of living and believing beyond their means. Out of that circle of twelve eventually came betrayal and denial. In the end, they all “forsook him and fled.

The widow stands over against the multitude putting money into the treasury. Mark says, “Many rich people put in large sums.Please notice: Jesus doesn’t in any way denounce the gifts that were given. There’s no indication in Mark that the rich were anything but generous. If anything, he highlights their generosity. The point Jesus is trying to make is simply that true giving isn’t measured absolutely, by the size of the gift, but proportionately, relative to what’s left. Widows, in Jewish society, depended entirely on others’ generosity. They had no status before the Law, no right of inheritance. This widow’s gift was two small, thin coins (called lepta). The lepton was the smallest coin in circulation, about the size of a pencil eraser, worth about 1/8 of a penny today. Yet in Jesus’ eyes this was a lavish gift. She could’ve given one coin and kept the other: a 50/50 ratio of outreach to current expenses. Even by today’s standards, for an individual or a congregation, that’s way beyond a tithe! But as Paul Scherer notes: “Love is a spendthrift. Love leaves its arithmetic at home. Love is always ‘in the red’”. “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all...she [has given] out of her poverty all she had...

Soon after this, Jesus would offer and give his whole life, all that he had, for her, for you, for me. The Epistle to the Hebrews holds up for us the sacrificial giving of Jesus, “once for all”, the only gift in light of which all our giving, all our acts of gratitude and stewardship, all our thanksgiving make any sense at all. The Giver of life holds nothing back in his love for each one of us.

So, our reflection on today’s Scriptures takes us to the heart of faith, of priorities, of gratitude. They lead us to the heart of Jesus who “puts away sin by the sacrifice of himself”, who now appears “in the presence of God on our behalf”, and who “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who eagerly await this.

Isaac Watts, in the 17th century, expressed the heart of faith, gratitude, stewardship and thanksgiving in his beautiful hymn, #474 in our Hymnal:

When I survey the wondrous cross
Where the young Prince of Glory died, 
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. 



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