Spare Change, Abundance, or Sacrifice

November 8, 2015

Mark 12:38-44

38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.  Many rich people put in large sums.  42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.  43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  44For 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.”


Mark’ story of the widow’s mite is so familiar.  And how convenient, that the lectionary would place it during this season when churches are conducting their annual stewardship campaigns.  How appropriate, that we have this poor widow to whom we can point as an exemplar of good stewardship.  She so dedicates herself to the work of the Temple that she brings every last cent she has to deposit into the treasury.  How noble!  How sacrificial!

Then we have the Old Testament text for the day.  God sends Elijah to a widow in Zarephath, a widow who is down to her last handful of meal and her last little bit of oil.  Well that’s fine, Elijah tells her.  That’s enough for you to make me a little cake.  I’ll wait right here.  Along with his request, however, Elijah offers this widow a promise from God: you’ll have meal and oil enough to feed you and your son (and presumably Elijah) until the Lord sends rain.  This widow, like the poor widow in Mark’s story, gives away all that she has, but her stores are replenished and do not run out.  What she gives away, God replaces many times over.

Then we have Mark’s poor widow, putting her last two coins into the Temple offering box.  We hear her story with the story of Elijah’s cake-baking widow echoing in our ears.  Maybe she’s given all that she had to live on, but surely God will take care of her now.  Surely God will provide all that she needs in order to live.  Surely God will reward her sacrifice.

And the preacher, with a flourish, admonishes her congregation to give.  Give!  Give all that you have for the kingdom of God.  Give until it hurts!  God will provide for you, if you just give!

But is that what this text really teaches us?

This story begins, not with generosity and giving, but with a harsh critique of the scribes in the Temple.  “Beware!” Jesus tells those around him.  Watch out for these guys, Jesus warns them, because they strut and they preen, they take the best seats in the synagogue and at dinner parties.  Charged with caring for the widows in their midst, they exploit these helpless women, extorting their inheritances until they hardly have anything left to live on.  And then, for the sake of appearance, they pray long prayers.  Their prayers are not genuine, Jesus tells his followers.  Their prayers are just a pretense, an attempt to make themselves appear pious and righteous, when they are not!

Immediately, the text then turns to a look at the people bringing their offerings into the Temple.  Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched as people brought their offerings.  Some rich people, we learn, brought large offerings.  A poor widow came into the Temple, and she deposited two copper coins into the box.  Jesus calls his disciples over and tells them this widow has put in more than everyone else.  They gave, but they had a lot of money from which to give, Jesus says.  This widow gave all she had to live on – she gave her last penny.

What Jesus does not say is that the rich people did anything wrong.  Jesus does not criticize the wealthy for how much they gave.  He also does not say that it is a good thing that the widow has given all that she had.  In fact, his commentary could be read as frustration, as exasperation that this woman has been reduced to such meager circumstances.  Why does she have only two coins to her name?  Why has her estate not been better administered by the scribes who are charged with overseeing it?  Why is she poor?

Beware of the scribes, Jesus says.  These religious men, who should represent all that is godly and righteous in the Temple, are focused on garnering special privileges because of their power.  And this widow gives away all that she has to sustain this institution that has left her destitute.

So what are we to take away from this story?  How are we called to respond?  When the offering plate comes down our row, what should we put into the plate?

Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to this poor widow because she exhibits a “faith that is far greater than the Jerusalem ‘keepers of the faith.’”[1]  This widow may be giving to a corrupt system, but she understands that the Temple belongs to God, not to the scribes.  She gives her offering to God, an offering of all that she has – an offering of her whole life.

Perhaps some preachers will use Mark’s story of the widow’s mite to suggest that God expects us to give all of our money back to God.  But I don’t think that is what this story is intended to teach us.  “The widow gives to an institution that no longer notices who are in the greatest need and has forgotten why it exists.”[2]  The scribes were not evil people, but they had lost sight of their true calling.  They had forgotten that they were called to care for the widow and orphan, the sick, the stranger in their midst.  They had become so focused on collecting funds, that they had forgotten why they needed to collect them in the first place.

What about us?  It’s easy to get so caught up in raising money for the church that we forget why we are the church.  I once served on session with a man who would express frustration over new members who could not contribute large amounts to the church budget.  Widows, single parents, young adults – he simply was not interested in having them join the church, because they could not give much money.  What he failed to recognize, is that these were the people the church was called to serve.  The amount of money they could give was not important.  What was important was their commitment to be disciples of Christ.

Jesus does not want us to give all that we have to live on.  Jesus also does not want us to give our spare change, our leftovers – whatever we can scrape together at the end of the month – as if our discipleship is cheap and inconsequential.  “Jesus wants from us abundant and sacrificial and extravagant lives of faithful and courageous discipleship, forever thankful for the One whose love sacrificed all for us.”[3]

The Church, as the body of Christ, is called to be a community of faith, hope, love, and witness, participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely.[4]  As members of Christ’s church, we are reminded that we live in the grace of God through Jesus Christ.  “Everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and overflow of that grace.”[5]  That grace not only sustains us but also enables us to “model for others the enormous power of offering all that we are to the rest of creation.”[6]

Perhaps, this stewardship season, we should look at the story of the widow’s mite not for what it teaches us about how much we give, but about why we give.  Whether we give little out of our abundance, or much out of our poverty, what stands between us and total reliance on Jesus’ love for us?  What of ourselves do we withhold from God?

[1] Blount and Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, 198

[2] Ibid., 203

[3] Ibid., 204

[4] Book of Order, F-1.0301

[5] Scott Hoezee, cep.calvinseminary.edu

[6] Emilie M. Townes, Feasting on the Word B/4, 288

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