Are you more impressed when companies present ridiculously large checks to charitable organizations, or when an anonymous person gives sacrificially? John Weems explored the story of one widow who Jesus considered a model of generosity.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Imagine someone were making a movie about your life.
What music would be featured on the soundtrack?
Would Frank Sinatra’s My Way play as you head off to conquer the corporate world? Would Drake blast as you walk the halls at school? Would some Brahms or Bach, Mozart or Mendelssohn accompany you as you contemplate the meaning of life? Maybe Somewhere over the Rainbow would play through those magical times you had with family or friends on vacation?
For the years I worked in business before becoming a pastor, there was a song that would have been playing for me and many of my colleagues . . .
That was For the Love of Money by the O’Jays. And the title of that song epitomizes the primary focus of a large percentage of my life. I spent most of my waking hours thinking about how I could earn and spend more of money. My career decisions were primarily driven by it.
Around this same time, I had started attending church in San Francisco as an adult, and another soundtrack developed. I heard Bible readings and sermons and songs like Be Thou My Vision about seeking God through everything. I really liked the sound of it. Some of what I heard inspired me to sign up for a volunteer project here and there. And in that hour a week I was in church, I knew in my heart that God wanted me to care about something other than money.
So I left the corporate world to serve as a pastor and really don’t ever have to think about or talk about money . . . actually, I did no such thing.
The reality is that every person and every for profit and not for profit organization has to deal with money on some level. Some people are better than others at managing it. Whether wealthy or poor, some manage not to worry too much about it.
Ernest Hemingway found it greatly troubling, saying that the “Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth.”
Jesus was keenly aware of the challenges of money. At least 700 Bible verses deal with money in some way, with Jesus teaching on money in nearly one third of his parables.
More than a currency, money can take on a life of it’s own. One of the original words for wealth in the Bible is “mammon.” When Jesus says, “you cannot serve God and wealth,” he is referring to something much deeper term than the translation conveys. Mammon is that which gives us our identity or defines us. Some attributed a demonic quality to mammon.
In his time, some people brought big public offerings, the equivalent of companies cutting those comically oversized checks and having their picture taken.
Jesus was not impressed, as we learn in today’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of Mark:
“38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
What about these scribes in long robes who devour widows’ houses and say long prayers?
Biblical scholars John Donahue and Daniel Harrington explain that if a lawyer had a good reputation, he could more easily be appointed as trustee for the estate of a woman whose husband had died. Widows were rather powerless with no inheritance rights and at the mercy of the male dominated legal system. By being a public part of worship and making a big show of one’s prayer and offering, the lawyer would be setting himself up for financial gain, thus devouring widows’ estates.
In today’s scene, Jesus was sitting across from the treasury, which at a temple also doubled as the bank. The treasury consisted of several trumpet-shaped chests in the sanctuary, each marked for a different purpose like taxes or offerings. The show-offs would have arrived with many copper coins, drawing attention as they dropped into the chests like a Las Vegas slot machine.
Jesus could see through this disingenuous show, and was not impressed by the large deposits. Dating back to the prophets before Jesus walked on earth, God had a reputation for standing up as a champion of the widow.
While the guys in the fancy robes were putting on a show, Jesus heard a sound that seemed to warm his heart. Clank, clank. Two coins of the smallest denomination, like two pennies today. Two pennies that meant everything to the widow.
We can debate about the lack of financial prudence on the widow’s part. Putting on a financial reality hat, I cannot recommend that any of you give your last pennies to the church. We have returned a pledge to a person who we know really needed the money more than we did.
It is impossible for us to know exactly what the widow’s circumstances were, whether she is a historical figure or a literary device like Jesus used in many of his stories. The author is intentionally setting a strong contrast between those who give from abundance and those who give from a deeply sacrificial place.
Giving from a deeply sacrificial place is a form of liberation from the power of mammon, the entrapments of wealth. Martin Luther, the great reformer who felt called to call out religious leaders for exchanging pardons of sin for money to build temples, is credited with saying we all need “three conversions,” “the head, the heart and the purse.”
Presbyterians tend to be pretty good at working to convert our intellect. Many here love to know every historical critical fact of Scripture, the language nuances, scrolls discovered in caves. Others are more heart oriented and want to be moved through singing, prayer, and emotion.
The purse can be another matter.
There is an old story about Sam Houston, after whom Houston, Texas is named. Houston was finally ready to be baptized in a river. The pastor asked Houston to remove his watch so it wouldn’t get wet. The pastor then noticed that Houston still had his wallet in his pants and encouraged him to leave it in a dry place. “No, I believe not, pastor. I’m afraid it needs baptizing, too.” As the story goes, Houston was told that all of his sins had been washed away, to which he replied, “God help all the fishes.”
The reality is that the purse pulls on both the head and the heart. At the individual level, we naturally struggle with our insecurities. Some wonder if you’ll have a place to live next month. Others know you’ll be fine, but worry if your children and grandchildren will be able to afford to live or afford their education. I have at least seven applications on my phone to help me know my bank account and stock balances. We can easily obsess about every penny.
How much is enough?
That Hemingway quote from earlier in the sermon, the “Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth,” came from A.E. Hotchner. Hotchner wrote Papa Hemingway, a biography of his close friend. While Hotchner is best known for his connection to Hemingway, he apparently learned not to let money own him.
About 20 years after Hemingway’s death, Hotchner started a venture with his neighbor. You might have heard of “Newman’s Own,” the line of food fronted by actor Paul Newman. Hotchner and Newman set the organization up to give all profits to non-profit organizations making a difference in the world. Hotchner and Newman also started a residential summer camp for children battling major illnesses. More than 13,000 children attend these camps every year.
The joy of life can increase in direct proportion to increase in generosity, and you need not be a celebrity or billionaire to reap the rewards.
Giving our best to God can be liberating.
The tithe was intended to be the first fruits of the harvest, the best of the flock, remembering that all good gifts come from God. It was intended to liberate humans from fooling ourselves into thinking that we are the primary creators.
Some of the amazing people I know are the most generous, and they aren’t all writing huge checks. There are hundreds of saints among you. One came in with a handful of change, telling me that he wanted to give his “pennies from heaven.” Another is a corporate executive who is full of gratitude and views sacrificial giving as a spiritual discipline that helps keep her centered. One of our saints had a stroke and struggles to communicate the way she would like, but she profoundly communicates love everywhere she goes as she brings flowers, helps at memorial services and weddings, and brings her smile reflecting Christ’s light everywhere she goes.
We were created by a generous God to be generous beings, exemplified by the unending generosity and grace of Jesus himself.
Sacrificial giving changes the giver.
Sacrificial giving changes the world.
 “Hemingstein’s Law on the Dynamics of Dying,”A.E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway: a Personal Memoir (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 133, accessed through Google Books.
 John R. Donahue SJ and Daniel J. Harrington SJ, Sacra Pagina: the Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 2005), 362-63.