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Two Coins, Three Lessons

November 12, 2012

“Two Coins, Three Lessons” Mark 12:38-44 © 11/11/12 Ordinary 32B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

What I am about to ask you to do may be painful or frightening. I want you to reflect for a moment on a time when you felt very vulnerable. Perhaps you were a small child, lost in a big store, and you didn’t yet know your phone number or even the names of your parents. They were simply “Mommy and Daddy.” Or much later in life you found yourself overextended financially, whether because of reckless spending habits or because your job simply didn’t pay enough or you had lost it through no fault of your own. You were unable to conceive a plan to get out of debt and pay your monthly bills; your fear and despair precluded rational thought. Could be you were in a strange city, and your car broke down in a not-so-great neighborhood, and you waited an anxious hour for the AAA roadside assistance to get there. Perhaps your time of vulnerability was that vigil in the waiting room, when you sat powerless, longing for news of how the surgery was going for your loved one. Though you trusted your doctor and God, you nevertheless felt so very alone.

Now suppose that every day you knew nothing but such vulnerability, powerlessness, and fear. You had to struggle even to survive; your children frequently went to bed hungry. The laws did not favor you, and the passersby were not friendly or helpful to you when you were reduced to begging on the city street. Given such a situation, you had little to contribute to the economy, and generally, you were regarded as a burden.

Despite your dire straits, though, you somehow manage to continue to trust in the goodness of God. You could become bitter and resentful, your every thought focused on the questions like “Why me?” and “What did I do to deserve this?” and “God must hate me, if he exists at all.” You could stop worshipping God, unwilling to give glory to a deity so cruel and unfeeling. But you don’t. Instead, you attend faithfully; you do what you can. You mount the steps of the Temple and put in two little coins, all you have to live on, not worried that the bill collector would soon be knocking on your door, your landlord would want the rent.

You are widow in the first century AD, vulnerable and powerless. But still you believe. Still you trust. Still you risk your livelihood to give a gift to the God who sustains your meager existence.

For the gospel writer, you, the widow, are an example of genuine piety, unlike the religious professionals of the day. These scribes, experts in the first century equivalent of the Book of Order, love to be greeted with respect by the people. “Good morning, Doctor.” “So very good to see you, Your Grace.” They dress in distinctive clothing, so as to stand out and let everyone know what they do for a living. They sign their letters with a flourish and make sure to include their degrees and titles in the signature line. They fly first class and get the best tables in the restaurants, calling the maitre d’ by name and slipping him a denarius for his trouble.

Well, so what? we say. They’ve worked hard to earn their position. Studied long to learn the nuances of the Torah, the law of God. Paid their dues. They should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. True, except that what they have is not enough. They’ve figured out that their office of trust and honor can be used to take advantage of the naïve and simple. On the Sabbath, they’re all smiles and well wishes, but when sundown comes, and with it the end of the holy day, they are in backrooms and dark alleys secretly making deals to steal the property of others. For example, the scribes were typically appointed as trustees for estates of those who died; they were expected to manage the funds for the benefit of widows and orphans. Perhaps the widow in the story even depended on one of these lawyers. But Jesus accuses them of embezzlement at worst and religious posturing at best. No wonder they wanted to kill him.

The poor widow, on the other hand, asked nothing for herself. She didn’t care that the Temple treasurers probably laughed at her gift and played up to the fat cats who funded the building program, the capital campaign, and the arts endowment. No one in the in-crowd knew her name nor did they try to find out. Yet none of that seemed to matter. She kept on coming, Sabbath after Sabbath, festival after festival, putting in what she had. There was no requirement that the woman give both coins, her entire living, but she wanted to. God was sustaining her life, poor though it was, and she was grateful. If someone had come to her, trying to be sensitive, and had suggested that perhaps she should not give all her income, she would have been insulted. She would have felt deprived of something precious. Participation in God’s work was a rare joy, a profound privilege. She would have nodded assent to the comment of an elder in Kentucky. Speaking about his church work, he said: “I get to do this. Wow!”

With that introduction, then, let me suggest that this story teaches us three important principles about stewardship. First, the power of small gifts. We need big gifts and people with abundant resources in the Church. Indeed, the community of faith has depended since ancient days on those with means. Jesus and his disciples, Luke tells us, were supported by certain women, including Mary Magdalene, out of the funds of those women and many others (8:2,3). The early churches were house congregations that met in the homes of the rich, the only dwellings large enough to accommodate a group. And we are rightly grateful in our own day for those who can donate buildings and/or fund programs, instruments, and endowments.

But as much as we value big gifts from the few, we also treasure small gifts from the many. Politicians need their SuperPACs but also the $3 donors who by their sheer numbers add up to significant contributions. So also congregations need folks who put in one or five or ten dollars in the plate. Or look at the impact of the Two Cents a Meal or the PW Least Coin Offering. A few cents in the fish box for One Great Hour of Sharing. And if not money, then valuable time or talent given freely, the skills the church needs and would have to pay top dollar for if not done by a volunteer. Painting. Cleaning. Landscaping. Art and calligraphy. Repairs. Cutting grass. Interior design. Cooking. And on and on.

Real dollar amounts matter. It does cost money, and sometimes lots of it, to get things done. But the message of this text is that though the dollar amount be small, the percentage might be large. The poor widow put in everything she had. 100%. But sometimes even a small percentage is equivalent to such a sacrifice. Whatever the gift, it’s important that it be a challenge to the giver. The message of this text is that if a gift is easy, it might help fund a budget, but it may not help you grow in your relationship of trust with God.

Second, we get a clue from this text about the difference between two kinds of giving. We need both in the church and both are to be honored, but one is unique to the community of faith, the people of God, while the other is no different than what we do for any organization. The widow demonstrated the one, while the other contributors to the treasury practiced the other.

Tom Ehrich, a consultant and writer, labels these “harvest giving” and “charitable giving.” Listen to what he says: “…we need to accept the difference between ‘harvest giving’ and ‘charitable giving.’ Christian stewardship is grounded in an ancient Hebrew belief that the harvests of life come from God and that giving the ‘first-fruits’ of the harvest back to God means seeing the grace of God and being overwhelmed with gratitude.

“Charitable giving, on the other hand, allocates extra wealth to causes that the giver finds worthy. By their cultural, educational and healing-centered work, beneficiaries of shared wealth make our society better.

“While both forms of giving are necessary, it is harvest giving that restores us to right relationship with God and binds us to others in the great enterprise of faith.

“Church fund-raising, unfortunately, has drifted into ‘charitable giving,’ alongside donations to favorite charities such as museums and schools. Charitable giving flows from generosity, of course, but within it is a strong element of control, a certain noblesse oblige, and a calculation of tax advantage. Not much room for the humble submission of true gratitude.

“During flush times, charitable giving is a tide that lifts all boats, including churches. In lean times, however, churches discover that they are last in line, receiving leftover-fruits, not first-fruits. The harvest has been spent before the church’s annual appeal rises to the top of the stack.

“The hardest challenge in Christian stewardship is making the shift from ‘charitable giving’ to ‘harvest giving.’ The first is generous with hard-earned abundance; the latter sees what Jesus saw, namely, a harvest of God’s doing. Charitable giving feeds pride and control; harvest giving returns thanks” (see note at the end of this post).

The widow practiced harvest giving, though she had little to give. She didn’t give to get control or sit on a board or get her name on a list. She gave because she needed to, because it was right, because God had blessed her. The others putting money in were, I suspect, charitable givers. The Temple got something, maybe even a large something, but it was on a list with other charities. The givers didn’t see the uniqueness of what the Temple was doing. And maybe the leaders of the Temple didn’t either.

So, we learn that small gifts are powerful. Harvest giving is the way of the people of God. And, finally, we are reminded of the benefits of real stewardship. Because her life did not consist in the sum of the things she had and could get, but in trusting God, I suggest to you the widow achieved a freedom that the scribes and the affluent Temple-goers would never know. Her profound faith in God liberated her for a life of real choice.

No doubt right now you are wondering how that could be. How could a life be more circumscribed? How can a fragile existence be one of choice and freedom? In this way: those who can have anything they want and exercise authority over people like the widow may be enslaved to their need, addicted to their possessions, so enamored of their power that it grips them like an iron hand. They are preoccupied with moving up, with getting more and more. If they let any of it go, their lives would fall apart or as the psalmist put it, be blown away life chaff in the wind. When offered what matters most—a center, a focus for living that is worthy and satisfying—they must turn away. But the widow could embrace all God had to offer and give glory to God from the depths of a liberated heart.

It’s a commonplace to speak of the church as a place and community where we can get our needs met. My generation—the Baby Boomers—has certainly promoted that sort of viewpoint. We say: “Did you get anything from that sermon?” or “That anthem just left me flat” or “What do you offer for my age group?” The experts in church growth urge us to study demographics and develop programs that fill a niche. I agree with and try to practice that—to a point. But I have always to remember what an elderly saint in the Montevallo church once said. Her name was Lucille Griffith, a respected author, a beloved professor, a consummate churchwoman. She told me that when she came to worship, her primary aim was not to get something for herself, but to give God glory and praise. Sound familiar? Look at this church’s mission statement.

Lucille, like the widow centuries before, and as do you, knew that there is more to religion than getting. There is also loyalty and trust, commitment and courage, sacrifice and service. There is not only freedom from, but freedom for. Not only the seeking of refuge, but the offering of it. As someone has said, we cannot be consumed by the “politics of aspiration” or “let concern for [our] own comfort and stability eclipse [a] vision of the common good” (Steve Thorngate, “Defining the Middle,” The Christian Century, 10/31/12: 32).

For the generous widow, the goal of life was to glorify and enjoy God. If that meant giving up her whole livelihood, indeed, life itself, so God could be worshipped and praised, then so be it. She didn’t make a big deal of her commitments and values. She gave as she did, again, because it was the right thing to do, the right thing for her, no matter what anyone else might say.

I suspect the widow discovered something wonderful, namely, that when our focus is first on the glory of our Creator, we will in fact find our need met. As Jesus promised: “Seek first the reign of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Clutching and grasping and seeking to secure our own futures on our own terms won’t do it. Only faith that trusts God for everything will bring us life.

Is there a formula into which we can enter all the right numbers and variables and come out with such a liberated, faithful life? No. There is no one act or series of acts that constitutes such an experience. As I’ve already said, it has to do more with our focus, our center, our attitude. Out of a heart filled with love, the widow gave her livelihood. Did she stand like a rock when her husband died? Was she a jolly woman who laughed all the time or shouted “Hallelujah”? It didn’t matter one way or the other. What gave her life power and integrity was her profound sense that she belonged to God and lived in God’s good creation. Her identity as one of God’s children gave her life meaning, even though she had nothing else.

And that provided all the motivation she needed for giving. That fundamental sense of her identity and the goal of her life made her free at the root of her being, the radix. In other words, she was a radical, someone who had gotten down to the essence of things. Who would have thought? A couple of coins. A deep faith. Imagine that.

Do we have the courage of that woman? Can we turn our lives over to Jesus? Can we live out a commitment that surprises our neighbors and friends and other church members, even ourselves? Can we, will we, admit that we do not secure our own existence and we do not belong to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior? Will we remember, not only today, but every day, that it was he who gave his very life for us? “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Note: See also Fr. Ehrich’s article at http://www.pres-outlook.com/reports-a-resources3/church-wellness-report3/9358-only-qharvest-givingq-will-do-.html

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