by Daniel Harrell
Epiphany, which for church calendar devotees commemorates the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem not only stretches out Christmas (falling as it does on January 6), but historically ranks right up there in importance with Easter and Pentecost. Epiphany was celebrated not because three kings or wise men (actually we have no idea how many there were) traversed afar. Epiphany was celebrated because the Magi were not Jewish. Their meeting Jesus constituted the first revelation of Christ to Gentiles. This is of monumental importance to the Church because the church grew to be comprised almost totally of Gentiles, in fulfillment, ironically, of Old Testament prophecy. That the Magi bore extravagant gifts of worship to Christ signified their immense gratitude to God for reaching out beyond the bounds of Israel’s covenant to include even them. When it comes down to it, for all Christians our giving is ultimately an act of gratitude and worship. We see it with the Magi, we see it presumably with this sacrificial gift from a destitute widow who drops two copper coins in the Temple treasury.
The familiar account of the widow’s two coins—or as the King James renders it, the widow’s mite—has become so familiar because of its frequent use as a shining example of sacrificial giving. Unlike the pompous rich folks in the Temple who sauntered up to the offering box and dumped over gratuitous sums of cash out of their surplus, this poor widow gave everything she had to live on. Jesus calls attention to her sacrifice presumably because that’s how we should all act when it comes to our money. Presumably she exemplifies Jesus’ teaching elsewhere about loving the Lord with all that you have; about how you can’t serve both God and money, about how wherever you put your treasure is where your heart is, about how you’re not supposed to worry about what you eat or wear because God will provide for your needs, about how the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and how if anyone wants to follow Jesus you have to deny yourself and lose your life to do it. It’s not that the widow’s two cents were really going to help the church make budget, but if everybody would follow her example, church finances would be in spectacular shape. It’s what makes this passage such a favorite for Stewardship Sundays.
Of course to follow the widow’s example would make your own personal finances a spectacular mess. Which is why I keep saying presumably in regard to the widow’s mite. Is destitute poverty for all what Jesus intends? Some might say yes. After all, in another passage from Mark that often gets pulled out for Stewardship Sundays, Jesus tells a rich man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” It interesting to note, however, that Jesus does tell the rich man to give it all to the poor, not to the church. So much for universal destitution. And so much for church stewardship. Not that it matters. The rich man was so shocked by Jesus he walked away without giving anything. He was not going to sell all his possessions to follow Jesus. That was too hard to do. A lot harder than it was for the poor widow. After all, two cents didn’t buy much more then than it does now. Why not give it all?
It’s like the retiree down to her final quarter in Vegas. She might as well take one last shot at the slots. Maybe she’ll hit the jackpot. Or better, like the person at the end of her rope who figures she might as well give God one last shot. What more does she have to lose? Jesus did say, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—O ye of little faith?” Fine, I’ll show a little faith. Let’s see what God can do. Who knows, maybe once she got back outside, she discovered a whole pocketful of money—like Jesus miraculously made appear in that fish’s mouth when he needed cash to pay his own taxes. Or maybe that rich man had a change of heart and decided to give all his money to her anyway.
You know, when you actually read this morning’s passage, you’ll see that Jesus doesn’t exactly approve the poor widow’s sacrificial gift. All he says is that she “put in more than all those who contributed out of their abundance” because “she put in all she had to live on.” Was this a good thing? Most commentators insist that the her simple piety was a powerful contrast to the scribe’s pomposity and to the rich people’s money parade. Surely Jesus approved. The children’s version of the widow’s mite that Dawn and I read to our four-year-old Violet concludes, “This story shows what our God thinks about the gifts we bring/ To help our church and missions too, to honor Christ the king.” The children’s version goes so far as to have the now destitute widow holding her dependent child by the hand—a child who will now have to go without food because her mother gave their last dime to the church. Was this what Jesus intends?
Flip back five chapters in Mark and you’ll find Jesus letting loose a scathing indictment against the scribes and Pharisees for the way they hoodwinked poor people into giving when their own personal needs or the needs of their families were at stake. Jesus says, “Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”
You don’t even have to go back five chapters to see how mad all this makes Jesus. You don’t even have to go back five verses. Look at the context for the widow’s mite—both here and in Luke where the story also appears—and what you discover is it follows directly on the heels of Jesus lambasting the scribes and Pharisees again, this time for bilking poor women out of whatever dower they inherit upon their husband’s deaths. “Beware of these teachers of religious law!” Jesus warned, “For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in church and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly devour widows’ houses, cheating them out of their property, and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will receive the greater condemnation.” Here in Mark and in Luke, Jesus condemns ministers for “devouring widows’ houses” and then points out the widow, a severely disadvantaged and vulnerable member in ancient Jewish society. All she has left to her name is two cents which she gives entirely to the Temple—doing what she thought she was supposed to do because that’s what the teachers of the law told her to do. Her house has now been completely devoured. It’s like the elderly grandmother of a friend of mine who was conned into handing over most of her social security check each month to some huckster preacher she watched on TV because he said he was doing God’s work. She said, “He preached that if I truly believed I should give all my money to his ministry and I’d be blessed.” How could Jesus ever approve of that?
Far from providing a pious contrast to the pompous conduct of the scribes and the rich; this story darkly illustrates of the dangers of misguided devotion (thanks to Addison Wright for insights). The vulnerable widow was swindled by the religious leaders to donate as she does. Jesus condemns the ill-advised values that motivated her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it. Read on in the verses immediately after this and Jesus condemns the entire Temple system, labeling it corrupt and doomed to destruction. The disciples marvel at the magnificence of the Temple itself—which people’s offerings had gone to construct and maintain. They tell Jesus to check out the impressive stones and the beautiful architecture, to which Jesus replies, “Yes, look at these great buildings. They will all be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” How is it possible to feel inspired by the widow’s offering now? Not only was her contribution totally foolish, thanks to her being manipulated by the ministers, but given the future of the Temple itself, her gift was a total waste.
Obviously this has turned into a train wreck of stewardship sermon. How to salvage it? Let me try by suggesting to you what may in fact be the main points of this passage; namely, four reasons not to give or pledge any of your money to this church:
First: If your giving is in any way coerced or manipulated by ministers who have every motivation to manipulate you since our salaries are paid by your generosity, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church.
Second: If your giving is in any way motivated by a misguided sense of religious guilt or shame or fear whereby you worry that God will condemn you harshly for not forking over enough, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church.
Third: If your giving in any way threatens your ability to feed your family, pay your bills or keep a roof over your head, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church.
And finally: If your giving in any way comes with any implicit strings attached, or if by giving you seek recognition or applause for being such a generous person, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church. The church does not want your money—at least we’re not supposed to, not under circumstances or motivations like these.
There’s this beautiful stone congregational church near Boston that I used to bike past all the time. It’s called Wellesley Hills Congregational Church, and I was reading about they had launched a recent stewardship campaign in order to raise $100,000 to renovate their rundown Sunday School space for kids. Their pastor, Matt Fitzgerald, turns out to be a Minnesota native. He grew up in Duluth and lived for many years in the Twin Cities with his family and is familiar with Colonial Church. I found this out after emailing him on the heels of reading his story. As the stewardship committee stuffed the last pledge card and licked the final stewardship campaign envelope to go in the mail, a knock came at the office door. It was a Hollywood movie scout. Having seen their beautiful church, he was ready to give them $10K to shut down for three days so that his company could film a wedding scene from an upcoming Adam Sandler movie. The movie plot involved a teenager who gets his schoolteacher pregnant with the wedding scene taking place several years later, when the offspring of this illicit union is a grown man getting married. The scene had something to do with the guy punching a guest who wouldn’t shut off his cell phone or something. Or maybe the minister punched him, I don’t know.
Anyway, Matt wrote how he had seen enough Adam Sandler movies to know they can be pretty funny sometimes, if not pretty ridiculous. And making space for that particular kind of ridiculousness in his somewhat stodgy sanctuary did make him smile a bit. Not only that, but $10K would get the stewardship campaign off to a nice start. It’s not like they’d be filming on a Sunday. So sure, he thought about saying yes. But then he remembered what a pain it was to rent out the church for anything— there were always spills, odd requests, demanding guests and insurance riders to worry about. All the clean up afterwards. At best his church was good at being a church—they didn’t do much else that well, certainly not as a site of a major motion picture. For better or worse, Matt described his church as a classic mainline, main-street, tall-steeple, in-bed-with-the-larger-culture kind of place. But he couldn’t see his church as a Hollywood kind of place. “I am not the sort of Christian who would boycott a movie (I might even wind up watching this one),” he wrote. “And we could use the money. But the church I serve is not mine, and I found myself wanting to protect its true owner from the world.” He said no.
So the Hollywood scout upped his offer to $60K. That’s $20K per day just to use the building.
Now according to congregational polity a pastor has the authority to turn down money, but Matt wasn’t sure he had the authority to turn down this much money. So he called a Congregational Meeting. At the meeting, most of the congregation turned out to be pragmatic types—with a few Adam Sandler fans to boot. They thought it would be fine to take the money. Congregationalists don’t believe the church to be the building. It’s the people. Besides, times were tight. This unexpected windfall would be a huge help to the kids of the church. They’d get a brand new Sunday School wing. And the renovation would make that part as beautiful as the rest of the building. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?
However a small number of the members, five to be exact, thought the gift horse looked more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They felt very strongly that no matter how lightly the treatment might be, their church should not be involved in a story that gets laughs from the sexual exploitation of an adolescent. The Congregation Meeting went round and round about this for several hours, desiring to reach a consensus which for Congregationalists signals the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately they weren’t getting confirmation. And it appeared as if they would have to settle for a lack of consensus—albeit one with a nice payoff. By majority rule, they’d take the money and try to patch things up with the people who were offended afterwards.
But just then one of the deacons, one who supported taking the money, stood up and said, “Look—it seems as if saying yes to this offer is going to hurt some members of our congregation. Not most people. Obviously not the majority. But some people. So I guess the question isn’t about a movie. It’s about us. Is $60,000 worth hurting a part of our community?”
Five minutes later the congregation voted unanimously to turn down the Hollywood offer even though most of them thought it was OK to accept it. They went from polarized to selfless in a matter of seconds. Matt the minister wrote, “I have mouthed unanswered prayers inviting Jesus to join our meetings dozens of times. I have interrupted agendas to speak confidently about his presence when he is nowhere to be found. This time I kept my mouth shut, and he walked right in.”