MARK 12: 38-44 & 13: 1-2
Rev. Betsy Scheuerman
Unitarian Universalist Church, Meadville, PA
Scripture: Mark 12: 38-44; 13: 1-2
As Jesus taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace, 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 boxes for offerings, and watched the crowd putting money into the boxes. Many rich people put in large sums. Then, 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 others who are contributing to the offerings. 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."
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"
Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
Mark: 43-44 "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those others who are contributing to the offerings. 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."
When my children were young, my father-in-law liked to bring donuts from the baker when he came to visit. Sometimes he would tease them, and say that he had brought not donuts, but cucumbers. One time he arrived with the box hidden behind his back, moaning about how he didn’t have any money, so he hadn’t been able to bring the donuts. My youngest son, Matt, was distressed. He ran off to his room, returned, and then emptied his pocket of all the coins he had gathered, and said, “Here, Grandpa. Here you are. Here’s some money for you.”
My father-in-law responded with shamed amazement: “He gave me everything he had.”
Even at five, Matt found it easy to give.
For many of us it is a lot harder. I was a hoarder. I liked accumulating money: the feel of coins in my hand; counting and recounting them; taking my savings passbook to the bank (maybe you have to be of a certain age to know what I am talking about) and getting it stamped, so I could see how much interest I had earned. Spending my money was serious business, a struggle that rivaled Jacob wrestling with the angel.
I’ve gotten over that (to my husband’s dismay). But I still find it hard to give my money away. I know—I’ve even preached!—that generosity is a spiritual practice. And yet, how easy it is to rationalize being tightfisted… Not tightfisted, just prudent, says my inner Scrooge.
One reading of this Scripture passage is a simple one: We should be more like the poor widow (and more like my son Matt): giving all we have, without thought of the morrow.
Research, by the way, confirms the truth of Jesus’ observation: the poor are more generous than others. Not only do they give a greater percentage of their money, they do so despite the fact that they receive no tax credit for their giving. I have witnessed this generosity. A congregant of mine was in dire straits. I gave him $100 from my discretionary fund. What did he do? He gave $50 of that money to someone he knew, whom he felt was even worse off.
But the story in Mark is more ambiguous than it first appears. Shortly before Jesus makes his observations about the extravagant generosity of the poor widow, Jesus has confronted the moneychangers and priests and scribes, accusing them of turning the temple into “a den of robbers.” Maybe Jesus was not so much praising the widow for giving her all, as expressing a fierce anger at a religious system that takes from the poor, and gives to the rich.
I’m sure that like me, you know stories of televangelists and unscrupulous charities, who suck the lifesavings from people until they have given their all. People who think they are buying salvation, or saving others, are really just supporting the lavish lifestyles of charlatans.
I am left with unsettling questions: Was the poor widow wise or foolish, to give away her last pennies? Ought her act of reckless generosity, to be praised? Ought it be bemoaned, as an act of imprudence?
She gives all that she has…to what? A temple that will collapse? Scribes who “devour widows’ houses”? Had the religion of Jesus’ time deteriorated to one that cared more for buildings and appearances and its institutions, than for the people it purported to serve? Could the same be said of our religion?
Oh God of Grace, Help me to look beyond class and education and wealth. Help me to value a generous heart above all else. Help me to give more freely, with less counting of the cost.
Grant me wisdom in discerning what risks are wise, and what risks are foolish. Grant me the firmness to say, No, when I need to keep something for myself. Grant me the courage to give all that I have and all that I am, when You ask that of me. Forgive me should my courage falter, and help me to forgive others who falter. Strengthen me in my work for economic justice in my own society.
Help me to trust in You more fully, and to live according to Your will. In times of turbulence and upheaval and destruction, grant me the confidence to know that You are my enduring support. Be with me, always. Amen.