Benjamin Franklin said “There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.” It certainly is a pessimistic view on life and all that it contains. Yet, this saying has endured because there is a glimmer of truth to it.
These two themes of death and taxes play a predominant role in our gospel lesson from Mark this morning. The story of the widow’s mite is often told in a manner which glorifies the giving of the widow. In her gift of two coins she gives more than anyone else who is contributing is what Jesus tells us. The implied message is that she has literally given everything that she has. We understand this story to be one about generosity and faithfulness.
There is no doubt that the widow’s gift is a generous one. She comes to the temple and she provides her offering. She pays the temple tax and more as she offers all that she has in material wealth. A traditional telling of this story would say we should all be so generous. That each of us should dig into our pockets until there is nothing left but lint and then give it all to the church.
The widow gives out of her poverty, whereas the remainder give out of their abundance. They still have plenty left to spare.
Before we dig for deeper meaning perhaps we should ask why we place this widow and her generosity onto a pedestal? Why is her gift so wonderful, why do we idolize it? This is a passage which is often used by congregations during stewardship drives. A passage which is meant to encourage a congregation to give more to the church. Why is the widow’s sacrifice so great?
On a day when we also remember the sacrifice that men and women have made for their country the question of sacrifice is front and center. Many of us have will or will wear a poppy over the coming days as a physical reminder of the sacrifice of others.
In John’s gospel we read “No one has great love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). As a society we idolize this type of sacrifice. The Highway of Heroes attests to this. There is a nobility in fighting and dying for something greater than yourself.
However, when we idolize and herald the giving of this widow I think we need to ask if it is healthy? Is it healthy for a poor widow to give everything that she has? Is this the model of giving that the church should be encouraging?
Before we answer that questions let’s consider what the coins the widow presented as an offering do represent. They have a value greater than money, they represent an offering built on faith. On the belief that what she was donating to was larger than herself. That the cause she was supporting, the temple, was worth donating to. Her offerings were faith filled and represent all of what we bring, all of what we are and hope to become. They are presented to God for service to the world.
This is what our offerings should look like. Yet, in the case of the widow I question whether her offering should be celebrated as a model of financial stewardship. Consider the context of the story and this is the problem with the lectionary and only hearing the passage and not the entire story it is set in.
Jesus is in the temple and he is criticizing the temple structure. Jesus is pointing to the ruling elite, those who hold places of honour and he is indicating that their behaviour is not the appropriate model. It follows that the widows offering is the behaviour we should follow as she is the social opposite of the ruling elite.
However, we need to read this passage in the light of two other passages. The first is the teaching from Deuteronomy about who is to be protected and cared for: the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. How is the widow taken care of if she gives all of her money to the temple? The money collected at the temple should be used to care for the widow. Instead the implication is that the money gathered is lining the pockets of the elite.
The second passage we need to consider the widows gift in is the verses that immediately follow our reading from today. In chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel Jesus and disciples leave the temple. One of the disciples marvels at how large the temple is. Jesus replies by stating “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In light of these two passages, is the widow’s offering one that should be celebrated? The widow gives everything she has to an institution that Jesus tells us will be destroyed. Given that Jesus is the one who points out the widows offering, do you think he was doing so to praise it as the model for giving?
Don’t get me wrong, God wants our all. But our all is more than the sum of our bank accounts. The message is clear based on Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes, he holds them responsible for plundering the widow’s house.
Given how Jesus has highlighted the corrupt nature of the temple establishment and how he speaks of its future destruction we might ask ourselves if Jesus is cautioning against giving to the temple. By extension it brings to light our own giving today to the church. What do our offerings to the church accomplish? Are they a wise use of the gifts God has given us? It is my prayer that you find that yes, St. Andrew’s is a wise steward of the resources provided to it. If you are unsure then I would ask that you find a moment to speak with me about it.
Friends, there exists a tension within our passage. On one hand we recognize that the widow has been taxed beyond her means. That she is giving far more than is ever expected and that the status quo of her situation cannot remain. That it is not right for the temple establishment to expect such an offering from her.
On the other hand exists the reality that this widow gave everything. In giving the two coins we witness the widow giving literally her whole life to the temple. What does it mean to give your whole life to the temple? What does that look like?
The constitution of the Presbyterian Church, USA reads in part,
… ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless … engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice … giving itself and its substance to the service of those who suffer … sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world. The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life. – The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II, Book of Order.
At the risk of losing its life. When we think of giving do we think in terms of life and death? Do we believe that our giving to God is on such a scale that our very lives hinge on it? What does it mean to lose our lives in giving to the church?
In our Old Testament reading we have the story of Ruth and Naomi which we looked at last week. This week we consider the Ruth and Naomi lost everything and at the same time gained everything. Ruth, despite conventional wisdom, clings to her mother-in-law. She gives everything that she has left, which is only herself. She dies to herself and devotes herself to Naomi. In doing so she provides a form of hospitality to Naomi which goes behind simple relationships.
In turn Naomi clings to Ruth and treats her as a daughter. Strip away all of the theology and doctrine and what we have with Ruth and Naomi is a profound story about people finding richness in ordinary and unlikely places. The tale of Ruth and Naomi is a reminder that our lives can be a significant offering to one another.
Three widows. Three different ways of giving. Yet, each embodies and models and understanding that God is interested in more than superficial acts. God is interested in our whole selves.
Three widows. Three women who should have been cared for by the institution of the temple and the community which they belonged. Yet God uses their offering to be an example to us of what it means to give our whole selves. That we are to present ourselves, all of who we are to God. Amen.