Sunday, October 04, 2009

Out of Poverty

Mark 12:41-44

This familiar account of the widow’s two coins—or as the King James renders it, the widow’s mite—has become so familiar that it’s lost a lot of its power. Online you’ll find a website called, which is a Christian jewelry store. You can purchase settings of authentic widow's mite coins excavated in Israel from the time of Jesus. Of course the jewelry goes for significantly more than the poor widow could have ever afforded, but that’s beside the point. The point, according to the website, is that: “Jewelry should mean something. When women rejoice upon receiving a beautiful diamond ring, the joy isn’t in receiving a rare crystallized form of carbon. The joy is in receiving a symbol—a symbol so powerful that a man is willing to spend a month’s salary on it to say ‘I love you.’” Without a trace of irony, the website then adds, “When you give the gift of the Widow’s Mite, you are saying to the recipient, ‘When you wear this piece of Christian Jewelry, you are connecting yourself to the poor.’” Nice. People actually fall for this shtick. I guess that buying a widow’s mite to wear is cheaper than giving all you have to God.

Giving can be an embarrassing topic. Even though from the earliest pages of Scripture, giving is how people show gratitude for God’s grace, how they express love and worship, how they acknowledge God’s place as the giver and Lord of all things, and how they acknowledge their own place as stewards rather than owners of God’s gifts. To give is to thank. To give is to love. To give is to worship. To give is to free yourself from money’s evils. Of the 500 plus references to evil in the Bible, none explicitly mention its origin save one. 1 Timothy 6:10: “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Jesus declared back in chapter 10 how it’s easier to thread a needle with a camel than to squeeze a rich man into God’s kingdom. And thus throughout Scripture, from the law to the gospels, the message is clear: let loose of your possessions. You don’t possess them anyway―they possess you, right? Give and you knock out the two greatest commandments at once. When you give to love God, you automatically love your neighbor. The money you give to the church becomes money used to reach the city and world with the gospel, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, care for the lonely, as well to teach and to train in the way of the Christ.

To give is to thank. To give is to love. To give is to worship―which is why we pass offering plates in worship. And yet at the same time so much of our giving gets run through a grid, mostly out of concern that we not give too much. We debate whether our giving should be pre- or post-tax, and whether tithing even applies anymore. “God doesn’t need our money,” we say, “what Jesus really cares about is my heart. Jesus says here that this widow’s two cents counted for more than the vast riches given by others. I put in two dollars!”

Now I’m not trying to get all televangelist on you, but the truth of the matter is that as Christians commanded to love God with all of heart, soul, mind and money, we’re pretty lousy givers. According to statistics, we each give on average about two percent of our income, significantly less than we spend on bottled water, music downloads or computer games. In recession-wracked America, where good water is free, we still spend almost 17 billion dollars on bottled. Not only would drinking from the tap be huge for the environment, but it would free up enough money to fully educate every single child in the developing world. If any of this makes you feel guilty, I told you that giving can be an embarrassing topic.

Of course at issue in tonight’s passage is not necessarily stinginess. As we read, the people putting money in the temple offering plates were putting in plenty―a good deal more than two percent I’d guess. Back then, if you loved (and feared) God at all, you tithed. This is what makes the widow’s act so odd. She had two coins―she could have kept one for herself. In fact, she could have kept both for herself. The same law that dictated God’s people give ten percent of their earnings instructed that a portion of that ten percent go to widows and orphans. We read in Deuteronomy: “The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving them food and clothing.” And yet you’ll remember from last week that the ministers in charge of the temple offerings were “devouring widows’ houses” (verse 40), bilking poor women out of whatever dower they had inherited upon their husbands’ deaths. In chapter 13, Jesus will indict the entire Temple system, labeling it corrupt and doomed to destruction. And yet the poor widow gives to support the temple anyway because it’s supposed to be God’s house. And she doesn’t give a tenth or even half of what she has; she gives everything.

However, since two measly cents didn’t buy anymore then than it does now, skeptics might wonder why all the fuss? It wasn’t going to do her any good to hold onto it, so how hard could it have been to give it? It’s like the retiree down to her last quarter in Vegas. She might as well take one more shot at the slots. Maybe she’ll hit the jackpot. Or better, like the desperate person who figures she might as well pray to God when at the end of her ropes. What do you have to lose? God does answer those prayers. Maybe Jesus rewarded the widow’s desperate bid too. Maybe once she got back outside, she discovered a whole pocketful of change―like Jesus miraculously made appear in that fish’s mouth when he needed a coin to pay the Temple tax (see Matthew 17). Or like Christians find Jesus doing with unexpected checks in the mail for just the right amounts. If God takes care of the lilies of the field, which are here today and tomorrow thrown into the fire, surely he took care of this widow.

But the widow’s welfare is not the point of this passage. Jesus sees her humble act as motivated by neither resignation or desperation, but rather motivated by love. The widow’s gift decidedly sharpens the contrast between pretense and true piety. Unlike the shameless scribes and Pharisees, she was a poor widow who loved God wholeheartedly. As an impoverished, disenfranchised, uneducated woman, she represents the least and the last whom Jesus said would be first in God’s kingdom. As one who out of her poverty gave everything she had, the widow previews Jesus himself, who out of his own poverty—being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped—gives everything he had and more for the sake of love.

But it doesn’t stop with Jesus. Jesus did not give to release us from giving any more than Jesus died to release us from loving. To the contrary, “Christ’s love compels us,” the apostle Paul writes, “he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him.” And what does it mean to live for him? The widow is our example. The poor widow previewed Jesus’ giving, and she previews ours too. If it is the case that tithing no longer applies, it’s only because Jesus has upped the percentage from ten percent to a hundred. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” That’s what Jesus told the rich man in chapter 10. Was Jesus just talking to rich people? Fine. Flip back to chapter 8: “If anyone would follow me you have to deny yourself and take up a cross to do it.”

Fortunately, jewelry store can help you do that. Their ad reads, “Someone who wears a cross immediately associates him or herself with Jesus’ selflessness who willingly gave his life that we may live.” Take up one of their crosses and you’ll only have to deny yourself about fifty bucks.

Farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry points out two embarrassing questions that every reader of the gospels must face when confronted with the words of Jesus. First: If you had been living in Jesus’ day and heard him teaching things like “sell all your possessions” or “deny yourself,” would you have been one of his followers? Don’t be too sure, Berry cautions, “in Jesus’ lifetime even his most intimate friends could hardly be described as overconfident.” Secondly, can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so?

Wendell Berry goes on to recount the story of a 16th century Anabaptist in Holland named Dirk Willems. An Anabaptist was a Christian who insisted that only believers, and not infants, could be baptized. Today we call them Southern Baptists. Back then, Catholics and most Protestants considered Anabaptists to be heretics worthy of hanging, which many of them were, some right out here on Boston Common. Dirk Willems, a known Anabaptist, was fleeing arrest from the Protestant authorities, pursued by what was known as a “thief-catcher.” As one chased the other across a frozen body of water, the thief catcher fell through the ice. Without help, he would have drowned. But in addition to believers’ baptism only, Anabaptists were also stern adherents to the Sermon on the Mount, which on this day carried stern implications. Because the sermon on the mount teaches that we love our enemies and persecutors, Dirk Willems turned back, put out his hands to his pursuer and saved his life. The thief-catcher, who then of course wanted to spare his rescuer, was forced to arrest him nonetheless. Willems was brought to trial, sentenced and burned to death in a “lingering fire.”

Wendell Berry writes, “I, and I suppose you, would like to be a follower of Christ even at the cost of so much pain. But would we, in similar circumstances, turn back to offer the charity of Christ to an enemy? Again, I don’t think we ought to be too sure. We should remember that the ‘Christian’ persecutors of 1569 undoubtedly thanked God for the capture and death of their enemy, Dirk Willems the heretic.”

If you had been living in Jesus’ day and heard him teaching things like “sell all your possessions” or “deny yourself,” would you have been one of his followers? And, can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? If we are honest, we cannot escape these questions. And if we are honest, Berry writes, “we cannot answer them either. We humans, as we well know, have repeatedly been surprised by what we will or won’t do under pressure. A person may come to be, as many have been, heroically faithful in great adversity. But as long as that person is alive, there is always a next time, and so the questions remain. These are questions we must live with, regarding them as unanswerable and yet profoundly influential.”

I agree with Wendell Berry that these two questions are profoundly influential, but are they unanswerable? Perhaps, but they don’t need to be. Here’s where other words of Jesus come to bear. In Matthew 11, Jesus said that “wisdom is proved right by her actions.” In Biblical parlance, a wise person is any person who loves God enough to trust him, but nobody can be said to trust God if they never do anything that requires trust. Wisdom is not the same as saying you love God or understanding that it’s good to trust God, or knowing the right thing to do. If “wisdom is proved right by her actions,” then wisdom only works when you act. Can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? The only way to know is to do it.

Dawn and I have this running joke about how I’m 87% into everything. While this serves me well when playing sports (I always have something left in reserve), it’s lousy in relationships and most everywhere else. I’m continually haunted by a mentor of mine in high school who stood me in the middle of a parking lot many years ago and told me as I went off to college that if I never ended up making anything of my life, it would be because I’d learned to do so well by giving so little. “Until you hold nothing back,” she said, “you will never discover your true calling.” She was right. And while I’m still mostly 87% about too many things, those places in my life when I have gone all in have been places where I have discovered not only my calling but God’s trustworthiness and the strength that truly comes from denying myself. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Christian martyr under Adolph Hitler, put it this way: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more of the road which is too hard for us… All that self denial can say is: ‘Jesus leads the way, keep close to him.’”

Which brings us back to the widow and her two cents. She was determined to stay close to God even though it cost her everything she had. Can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? What if it was only mildly painful? The only way to know is to do it.

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