I imagine you, like I, have noticed that many charitable organizations now include, along with the acknowledgement of your recent contribution, a submission form and return envelope for your next contribution. What?! I know, based on conversations I’ve had, that I’m not the only one annoyed by this new fund-raising approach. Now, here’s why I find it annoying. When an organization includes an appeal along with my thank you, quite frankly, I don’t feel very appreciated. In fact, it feels as if my most recent gift has been devalued. Apparently, it just wasn’t good enough and so, before it’s even had time to appear on my Discover card statement, you’ve clearly communicated that I need to up my game. And frankly, that offends me.
Now, this morning’s gospel story reveals Jesus’ own, rather unique view of charitable giving and I suspect we would find it no less offensive.
It seems quite ridiculous when Jesus, in this morning's gospel lesson, makes much ado over a woman who is, very likely, the smallest contributor to the temple that day. The woman is a widow and she is among those passing through the outer court of the temple placing her donation into the treasury – trumpet shaped chests into which people deposited their coins in the same way we deposit our envelopes in the offering plate now in days. Jesus was apparently positioned so as to have a kind of wide-angle view of this parade of giving. Mark tells us that there were many rich people who deposited large sums. No doubt the temple priests appreciated their contributions; after all, they had expenses to cover. But, it is a poor widow who draws the attention and earns the praise of Jesus. She becomes the focus of a teachable moment as Jesus addresses his disciples. She, Jesus informs them, has made the largest contribution of all. Now, obviously, Jesus was not speaking in a strictly monetary sense. For the woman deposits only two small coins. For those of us who grew up hearing the King James version of the bible, we know these coins as mites. Technically, they were lepton. Lepton happened to be the smallest currency in circulation at the time. So, we might liken them to today’s pennies… although it’s impossible to determine their equivalent value to today’s American currency. But, Jesus' response was focused on more than strict economics and we know that by his next words. Jesus says that this woman's contribution has been the greatest of all because, while others contributed out of their surplus, she contributed out of her need. The amount that she gave was all that she had to live on. She has truly given it all. She has given the entirety of her resources.
That final statement that the widow gave "all that she had to live on" hearkens back to another teachable moment earlier in Luke’s gospel. In chapter 10, Jesus is approached by a lawyer who wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus' response is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.i That word "all" – which is the Greek word holos – is such a little word. But it expresses the concept of entirety, completeness, wholeness; a small word; but a big idea.
It was not the amount the woman gave that Jesus lauded and praised. It was, instead, the reality that Jesus knew to be true of her. Through her donation, she offered up all of herself, her very life; all that she had to give, she gave. And, in doing so, she demonstrated a love that encompassed all of her heart, all of her soul, all of her mind and all of her strength. What she gave demonstrated a love that was whole and complete.
Now, if you're a pragmatist, like me, you might wonder – if the woman gave everything she had to live on – what was going to happen when it came time for her next meal. Well, neither Jesus nor the gospel writer addresses that question. But, perhaps the very absence of the issue should cause us to reflect on how a love so complete and whole leads to a trust so deep, so all-consuming as to eradicate the need for such questions. It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching on the limitless character of sincere forgiveness. When we need to ask “how much,” if we need to ask about the limits, we have, it seems, missed the point. So, if we get bogged down in questions of this women’s next expense, we perhaps are missing the point. This is not a lesson in economics; it is a story about love and trust.
Let me say that again… because that's really the key to this story. A love such as this widow displayed – a love which is so encompassing leads to a trust that is so deep that questions about our future security no longer consume us or hold us captive.
Now, let me say one more thing about that. This story is certainly not an indicator that Jesus is unconcerned with the plight of the poor. In fact, he is quite direct in pointing out that the scribes who have exploited these poor widows will receive punishment for it. God is most certainly concerned about the poor.
But, this widow is not praised because she is poor and needy. Neither is she condemned for it. Her poverty is simply a fact. It is a part of her identity, but it does not define who she is or how she’ll choose to live because, in the midst of her poverty, she has chosen to live in a way that bears witness to her trust in God; and to demonstrate her love for God and her neighbor by offering up her entire life – represented by a couple of coins. It is a sorry, paltry sum; but it represents an enormous and marvelous gift.
In 1908 in Wayne County, Mississippi, a woman named Osceola McCarty was born. During sixth grade, her aunt, who had no children of her own, became ill and needed homecare. McCarty dropped out of school to care for her and never was able to return. She became a washerwoman and continued at that humble task until arthritis forced her “retirement” at age 86. She never married or had children of her own and she grieved the loss of her education. She wanted another young person to have the chance she never had. She was a frugal spender and carefully managed her washerwoman assets placing money in savings accounts at local banks. With the assistance of a bank manager (for whom she did laundry) she established a trust to benefit the University of Southern Mississippi in the amount of $150,000. After her death, folks noticed that McCarty’s scotch-tape bound bible fell right open to 2 Corinthians 9:11: “You will be made rich in every way, so that you can be generous on every occasion.”
This morning marks the conclusion of our Stewardship Campaign Moving Forward With Faith. I want to invite you now, for the final time, to look at the questions I hope have shaped your prayers and your thoughts throughout this month. Will you read through them with me once more?
This morning we prepare to turn in our commitment cards. Those cards provide an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to the ministry of Trinity United Methodist Church. Those cards provide the opportunity for us to put down on paper what our monetary contribution will be toward the church's ministry budget for 2016. Along with the commitment card, you have in your bulletin a Gift Wheel on which you can also pledge your commitment of how you’ll give of your time by employing a God-given talent, skill or spiritual gift. You’re invited to dream and vision and creatively consider how investing your time to share your gift, your skill can support, grow or perhaps even birth new ministries here at Trinity. For monetary giving, we often speak of the tithe – the giving right off the top of 10% of our monthly income or earnings. But what about tithing our time? Do you know how many hours there are in one month? There are, on average, about 720 hours in each month. That means that, if we tithed our time, we give 72 hours a month to serving the church; or, at the very least, the church and other individuals or organizations in need. Friends, I can guarantee you that if every person in this church gave even 20 hours to serve the church each month, there would be more ministry going on here than we could even keep track of. There would be more lives changed and transformed than we could begin to imagine.
But, I especially hope that you will view both of these cards and our Stewardship Celebration Time as an opportunity to offer up all of yourself to Christ so that, through your serving and through your giving – through your time, your talents and your treasure – our lives might truly demonstrate a love for God that encompasses all of our hearts, all of our souls, all of our minds and all of our strength… to the glory of God. Amen.
i Luke 10:25-27, NRSV
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