By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
November 8, 2009
Read: Mark 12:38-44 and Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Widows are prominent in today’s readings from scripture. Both Naomi and Ruth were widowed and lived a difficult life until Ruth found a partner in Boaz. As widows, they were subjected to the oppression of their times.
And in Mark we hear about the scribes who ‘devour widows’ houses’ – more oppression – and then the example of the poor widow who puts two small copper coins worth only a penny into the synagogue’s treasury. Jesus compares her contribution, out of her poverty, to the contributions of the wealthy who gave comfortably out of their wealth.
This time when I read and reflected on these scriptures, I see that the social-political-religious system matters. And it’s not so different today. This poor widow’s house is being devoured by the social-religious system she is compelled to live under. It is with sadness that Jesus points to her. The scribes care about social status whereas God cares about social justice. God cares for the widow and social-religious systems probably should as well.
Jesus is pointing out the difference in motives for giving in this story. The amount is not so important. The scribes were concerned with looking good to others. The widow, on the other hand, was giving because she knew she needed to give. It wasn’t a matter of the people around her noticing her gift or even the needs of the temple treasury. It was her own recognition of a spiritual and emotional need to give something away.
This reminds me of a story of a church building project another pastor was involved in. One of the wealthier members of the congregation wanted to donate a significant sum for the project and that’s wonderful– but he wanted his family’s name put into the stained glass windows in acknowledgment.
The pastor responded by pointing out an older woman – whose name he no longer remembered. “For over forty years, this woman has brought a quarter to church every week. It’s her quarters that built the foundation of this church, and without her gift, there would be no place for your windows. I won’t put your name on the windows because her name doesn’t appear on the foundation walls.”
Some years ago, I heard a children’s story about the animals in the forest who were arguing over how much a snowflake weighs. No one seemed to know. So they thought it must weigh nothing. But the wise old owl pointed out a branch nearby. It was full of snow. But one snowflake would eventually land on it and cause the limb to break. A snowflake by itself doesn’t weigh much. But when it combines with other snowflakes it makes an incredible difference.
Like the widow’s mites, our gift alone can do nothing. But combined with the gifts of many, many others, our contributions change the world.
But it can’t happen that way if our focus is on what people will see us do. No one who tries to become a hero in battle helps win the battle, but those who work hardest to win the battle become the heroes.
A rabbi was asked, “Which act of charity is higher–giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?” What do you think?
All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing seems logical. And they were not disappointed
“Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing,” the rabbi said, “It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.
“Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity involves ego gratification.
“However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling “NO!” for one reason or another–perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or we’re not sure what purpose our money will be used for, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity–then we are confronting our own egos, and giving nonetheless. Why? Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives…[ David A. Cooper, Entering the Sacred Mountain: A Mystical Odyssey (Bell Tower, 1994] Hmm. The widow’s mite?
Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
During the course of earning her master’s degree, a woman found it necessary to commute several times a week from Victory, Vermont to the state university in Burlington, a good hundred miles away. Coming home late at night, she would see an old man sitting by the side of her road. He was always there, in sub zero temperatures, in stormy weather, no matter how late she returned. He made no acknowledgment of her passing. The snow settled on his cap and shoulders as if he were merely another gnarled old tree. She often wondered what brought him to that same spot every evening. Perhaps it was a stubborn habit, private grief or a mental disorder.
Finally, she asked a neighbor of hers, “Have you ever seen an old man who sits by the road late at night?” “Oh, yes,” said her neighbor, “many times.” “Is he a little touched upstairs? Does he ever go home?” The neighbor laughed and said, “He’s no more touched than you or me. And he goes home right after you do. You see, he doesn’t like the idea of you driving by yourself, out late, all alone on these back roads, so every night he walks out to wait for you. When he sees your taillights disappear around the bend, and he knows you’re okay, he goes home to bed.” (From Garret Keizer, “Watchers in the night,” Christian Century, April 5, 2000)
Remember, a snowflake by itself doesn’t weigh much. But when it combines with other snowflakes it makes an incredible difference.
Our psalm today says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.” Trust in the Lord. The Lord’s mercy and goodness shall last forever. Amen.
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