The Gospel this past week was the story of the widows mite. morning and in a season of churches asking their members to pledge it seems like a set up. The perfect selection of verses from Mark for “pledge commitment season,” all neatly packaged – Jesus doing the heavy lifting on the guilt trip. The problem is that this Gospel can be heard as the church telling us that we should all emulate the widow in this gospel, whom Jesus praises for her generosity as she gives away everything. More sermons than I care to think about, across many denominations, will circle around that point and use an equation of the Temple = the church and go on to say that Jesus wants us to give more money to the church, trusting that God will take care of us if only we have the courage to pledge more. I admit in the past I have even preached some of those kinds of sermons. They work in part by eliciting guilt and are meant to produce more income for the church.
But truth be told, with age and hopefully some wisdom, I look at this text quite differently. I no longer see in this text any support for the position that Jesus thinks it’s a wonderful thing that this poor widow put her last two coins — all she had to live on — in the Temple treasury…going away destitute. It just isn’t there. If anything, reading the text in its context suggests the opposite.
The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, receive the seats of honor, put on a good show of prayers, and here is the key phrase and “DEVOUR WIDOWS’ HOUSES”. That last part is particularly important as next we see Jesus watching religious hierarchy in essence taking a widow’s last two coins — all she has to live on.
What Jesus then says can be paraphrased as something. like “and just in case you thought I was making stuff up about this — check out this woman — she just literally put her last cent ( all she had to live on) in the temple treasury to maintain this place.” But he doesn’t stop there, even though the lectionary reading stops there. The conversation continues. The disciples say, “Yeah, but look at the building! This is wonderful”. Jesus responds that it will soon all be destroyed — an act that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus attributes to no less of an actor than God.
Note that Jesus did NOT say, “Not one stone will be left on another unless you all are as generous as this widow. Now dig deep, people — this building must be maintained!” Jesus doesn’t criticize or blame the people he places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the robed guys who have created an elaborate business system that effectively separated the people like this widow from their money. Jesus is here condemning the dynamic of poor people being left with nothing by those claiming to represent God; the sheep being fleeced by the shepherd.
I also don’t believe that Jesus’ point was to suggest that God’s people must never make offerings or have buildings. But truth be told no where in the Gospel does Jesus tell his followers to go build buildings or maintain them. God’s focus is not on the institution or facilities; it is on relationship with God & with other people, and compassionate ministry to God’s people. Buildings are tools we can use for ministry but they are our human concern, not God’s.
What impresses Jesus is the sharing of resources, to create a world in which no one has nothing, none have too much, and all have enough. That, for Jesus, is what makes a place holy to the Lord. For Jesus the question was “who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and the widow (from our Psalm today 146:8).”
I believe the message God wants proclaimed on this Sunday — and on every other day as well — is that the one “who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them” (Psalm 146:5), is the one to whom all those things and all they produce belong. Every day is a day on which to remember to freely offer back to God and God’s people a portion of all of God’s gifts to us. We do that when we share the bread of life with the needy, give justice to those who are oppressed, give food to those who hunger, freedom to the prisoners, and sight to the blind. Everyday is a day to remember, and to respond in gratitude to God’s grace to us, especially in sending us Jesus; and especially in recalling that Jesus now sends us into the world. We are sent so that those bent down by the world’s troubles may be lifted up & may hear that they are God’s beloved.
That is the work and mission of God to which every parish is called; and to which you and I are called through our baptism. When we participate in God’s re-creation project for the world, we begin to see God’s glory on earth.
It is true that churches as institutions need the generous, sacrificial contributions from our parish members and for all the same reasons you need income to keep your home running. But when in the name of God clergy ask you to give of your time and talents and your money for the work of God through this church – the true purpose of that asking, and of your giving, is for your own personal and spiritual growth. We have to teach children to share – and so too we as adults we must intentionally continue to practice the same lesson of generosity in order for us grow spiritually. Elsewhere in the Gospel Jesus tells us that “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also”
If our time, talent and money is primarily invested in ourselves – our heart will be focused internally and we become ingrown and selfish. If we practice generosity and we invest ourselves in God’s mission our hearts are turned to others; to ministry, toward the values the scripture tells us are important in the reign of God – care for the poor, the widowed and the orphan; tending the sick, feeding the
hungry (whether for food or for the word of life) giving sight (or insight) to those who cannot see. That causes us to grow in compassion and caring.
And when we give of ourselves and our resources we find that we receive abundant life – full measure, pressed down and overflowing. Or as St Francis put it – “in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned and in dying we are born to eternal life.”
Thanks be to God