Although there’s some debate as to the meaning of the law, the recently enacted Federal bankruptcy law makes it more difficult for people to give to charity after they declare bankruptcy. You see the creditors want to be reimbursed first, before God gets paid.
I’m not sure if the two widows described in today’s readings had declared bankruptcy, but they were in bad financial shape when they gave their last pittance to charity. Although these widows have little to commend themselves to our attention, Scripture honors both for their willingness to give. But why give everything away, if death is the result? Of course, maybe that’s the point. They knew they had nothing to lose. So, even though their acts of generosity may seem odd, they are our models of faithfulness.
THE SACRAMENT OF GIVING
Like most preachers, I’m not thrilled about giving stewardship sermons. Talking about money seems self-serving and may even be on the verge of meddling. But money, as they say, makes the world go around. You simply can’t do much in life without it. In our world, the more you have, the better life seems to be. Or, so they say.
There is a counterpoint to this belief. The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, you see, money is benign, but when our desire for money takes hold of us, it can cause a lot of problems. Money can cause problems, but it doesn’t have to be dirty. While I’m not sure that God wants us all to be rich, I’m not sure God wants us to be destitute either. And so, I have to wonder about Jesus commending this widow to us.
There’s a back story, of course, to these comments about the widow. In Mark’s account, Jesus seems to be condemning the Temple, which had been recently destroyed by the Romans by the time Mark was writing his Gospel. Mark also has a negative view of Scribes, who were among the religious leaders of the day. The question is this: Who best represents the faith? The rich religious leader or the poor widow?
Although Jesus was critical of the religious system of his day, he commended this woman for her faithfulness. She came to the Temple and gave her pittance because she saw this as an act of worship. There’s a trend among some churches to get rid of the offering. The idea is that people get turned off by churches always asking for money. I see the point, but there’s another side to this. That weekly offering is also a reminder of whom we owe our allegiance. It’s not always easy to put that offering in the plate, but somehow in this act of giving we experience God’s grace. Besides, even if a church doesn’t take an offering, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in your money. They just have to find other ways to get into your wallet. Bills, after all, are still due.
If all we’re doing by passing the plate is getting money to pay bills, then probably there are better ways to get the money than passing the plate in worship. We could, and maybe should, set up automatic tranfers or annual billings, maybe we could even take credit cards. But, if what we do in passing the plates has sacramental value and can help counteract our inclination to make money and success our idol, then maybe it is an act of worship.
William Stringfellow wrote that our giving has "little to do with supporting the church." That might seem like an odd statement, because the money we give pays the bills. A church after all is an institution. But he says this because he believes that the "the church's mission does not represent another charity to be subsidized as a necessity or convenient benevolence, or as a moral obligation." Therefore, the offering is "integral to the sacramental existence of the church, a way of representing the oblation of the totality of life to God." This means that our offering is a confession of faith, a statement that "our" money doesn’t belong to us, even as our own lives don’t belong to us, but instead, our money and our lives belong to the world itself.1 In their own ways, these two widows, the one who gave her last bit of food to Elijah and the widow who gave her last few coins to the treasury, recognized that what little they had, belonged to God.
If our act of giving is a sacrament, then how should we give? Jesus criticized those who made a show of their giving. As big as their gifts were, they came out of their abundance. But the widow gave everything she had. Once those coins were dropped in the treasury, starvation wasn’t far away. Now, two pennies worth of bread won't stave off starvation for long, but her willingness to part with everything she had has great symbolic power. She didn't give so the Temple could run more effectively, she gave to honor her God.
There’s a flip side to these two stories about widows who gave their all. Remember what James wrote: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jms.1:27). That’s the message of the prophets as well. Scripture speaks quite clearly about how we’re supposed to care for those who are in distress.
We know how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks, and when they do, we rarely miss them. This was true then, and it’s true now. Back then the only social security available to a widow was a male head of the household. That’s why Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz. If Ruth didn't find a husband, she and Naomi would starve. The widow from Zarapeth was in a double bind. Not only was she a widow but she faced a severe drought and had a young son to support. It seems presumptuous of Elijah to ask her for bread when she didn’t have enough to feed herself or her son. But, she acted in faith and God provided for her needs even though she wasn’t a worshiper of Yahweh.
Mark’s widow also gives sacrificially, but we don’t know what happens to her. I wonder whether she went off to die of hunger or whether the people listening to Jesus went and cared for her in her distress. The answer to these questions must be left to the imagination, but hopefully it will encourage us to respond to those in need.
These two incidents remind us that what we have is not our own. Although I can't promise you that God will multiply your gifts a hundredfold, because that would be presumptuous of me, if our giving is a sacred act then surely we’ll be blessed. Because where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. These two women in their own ways laid up treasure in heaven, because that’s where their hearts were (Mt. 6:19-21).
1.William Stringfellow, quoted in Pulpit Resource, 28 (October, November, December 2000): 30.
Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lompoc, CA
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 12, 2006