Relative Wealth – October 29, 2017
Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Mark 12:38-13:2
November 29, 2017
This is a story known as “The Widow’s Mite.” I’ve always loved that it sounds like we’re saying, “The Widow’s Might!” In other words, “The Strength of the Widow!” For there is great strength here! There is strength in this woman’s faith. There is strength in her devotion to the kingdom of God. There is strength in her trust that God would continue to provide for her. I love those thoughts, especially at Stewardship time!
There is a picture here of the “relative wealth” of those contributing to the Temple treasury. Some had much and contributed much. But Jesus said of this woman, “She has put in more than everybody else. For they all contributed out of their abundance. But she, out of her poverty has put in everything she had.” That idea of “relative wealth” has been part of this story ever since.
As we think about this woman today, I want you to remember that widows and orphans were in a tough place in those days! Without the income of a husband, or parents, in the case of orphans, those people had nothing to live on. There was no Social Security. There were no pensions. There were no 401K’s. The only thing many of them had to live on was the generosity of the religious community. And that was important!
That’s why I had us read from Deuteronomy 10 today. That’s one of the places in the Old Testament where we’re told that God loves “the fatherless and the widows.” And there are many such places! And there are many places where the caring for such people was not only encouraged, but was seen to be part of the religious life – of all the people. The “giving of alms” was an “expected” part of their faith.
It’s different for us now, of course. There are many ways such people are cared for in our society. But our concern for those in need should not be different. We can’t just leave that care to governments and institutions. We need to have a heart for those in need.
I can’t help but think of old Ebenezer Scrooge. Do you remember what happened when he was asked to contribute to the poor at Christmas time? Do you remember that conversation? Scrooge asked, “Are there no prisons?” “Plenty of prisons…” was the response. “And the Union workhouses, are they still in operation?” “Both very busy, sir…” said the man. “Then those who are badly off must go there.” said Scrooge. The man said, “Many can’t go there. And many would rather die.” Scrooge then said, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
We can’t be like that! As part of our faith, we have to remember that we serve a God who has always had an affinity – a heart – for the poor and the oppressed.
So did Jesus. When they asked him to be the “lay reader” in his home synagogue, Jesus took the scroll of Isaiah, and opened it to what is now chapter 61. And there he read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim ‘the acceptable year of the Lord.’”
That was a wonderful moment! But we must remember that Isaiah 61 stands in the shadow of Isaiah 58. And that is not so rosy a picture. In that chapter, God tells the prophet, “Cry aloud, lift up your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their transgression. …they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinances of their God.” Say to them, “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.” “You fast only to quarrel and fight, and to hit with wicked fist.” And then he concludes, “Is such the fast that I choose? Is it for a man to bow down his head, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a ‘day acceptable to the Lord?’” “No!” says the Lord. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to care for the homeless.”
Those were very telling words for the people of Israel. They were showing every pretense of their religion, but they were forsaking the ways of God. And Jesus’ life and ministry echoed those words from Isaiah! He had that same heart for the poor and the oppressed. In fact, when the disciples of John the Baptist came to ask if Jesus were “the one,” he said, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor hear the good news.” (Matthew 11:4-5) As I said, God has always had an affinity – a heart – for the poor and the oppressed. So did Jesus. And so should we.
Now, I say all of that so we can see a little better the mind and the heart of Jesus in this story. Here he is in the Temple, observing those who were bringing their gifts. And he observes this widow placing her coins in the temple treasury, and he gathers his disciples to talk about it. He tells them how great a gift it was!
But there’s more to it. It’s been pointed out that this passage is related to the previous passage. In verse 38 we read, “And in his teaching, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the marketplace, and the best seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at feasts, [but!] who devour widows houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.”
“Who devour widows houses”! It’s no coincidence that Jesus then makes an example of this “widow.” There’s a much stronger lesson here! And notice, Jesus says nothing at all to her! He doesn’t actually praise this woman directly for her contribution or her dedication. Yes, he commends what she does! But(!) it is a veiled condemnation of some of those who gave of their abundance. And there’s nothing wrong with giving of abundance! But this was about the oppression that some of them were not helping with, and may well have been causing in this woman’s life.
This story has always been used as a lesson about “relative wealth” of those contributing to the Temple, and that of this widow. It has always been a commendation of her faith and devotion. It has always been an encouragement, that, though we too might not have as much as some, our contribution is still important! And it is all those things. But there is more here. This is also about how we have that heart for the poor and the oppressed – just as God does!
And please know that I’m not saying this is about whether we are one of the “haves” or the “have nots.” And this is certainly not about a condemnation of “wealth.” Far from it! Jesus was never that concerned about wealth. He was more concerned with what we do with our wealth. He was never concerned about us “possessing things.” He was more concerned with “things possessing us!” He was never concerned with what we have, but rather how we love! To him, it wasn’t about “treasure,” but rather about what we “treasure.” “For where your treasure is,” he said, “there will your heart be also.” I think those are some of the most amazing and insightful words he ever said!
I was reading C. S. Lewis the other day. And in the place I was reading, he said that “each time we do one kind act toward someone, we tend to love that person a little bit more. And the more kind acts we do, the more we tend to be a person who loves other people. Often our actions toward others, affect our concern for them.” (paraphrase) I thought that was interesting. Because we tend to think it happens the other way around. We learn to love first, and then we are motivated to do kind things. Try it the other way. Act kindly, and see how affects your heart. Lewis may be on to something!
So… How and what do we treasure? Where is our heart? Those things are always of concern to God. May they be our concern as well, as we seek to be good stewards of all that he has entrusted to us, whether that means our own “relative wealth,” or the wealth and value(!) we see in other people!
Eternal God, help us to have the heart that we saw in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Help us to have that love which goes beyond our comfort zone, which goes beyond our world’s understanding. Help us to choose kindness and compassion. Help us to be your people, and to know we are your people. For the sake of your kingdom we pray, Amen.