Extravagant Giving

The text for this Sunday includes the story of the widow’s mite – the gift of everything that our observant Savior watched from his perch near the offering ‘trumpets’ in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem. This happened just days before his own arrest and crucifixion and it follows on the heels of some pretty strong words of warning about religious authorities and their hypocrisy. It’s a text that has been widely preached during November (when it falls into the lectionary calendar, as a matter of fact). November – the traditional month for stewardship sermons as year end approaches and new budgets are being formulated. ‘Give, give, give til it hurts’ – that’s often the interpretation used at such times. And I do think it is possible that this text can be used as a template for preaching the power of proportionate giving…except…it’s a bit troubling. Does Jesus really beckon the disciples to join him in his people-watching in order to show them the ‘right’ kind of giving, the kind that every ‘good’ disciple should strive to emulate? Should we all really give away all that we have to live on? Or is there something else going on in this text, something a bit more subversive, and perhaps a bit more in tune with the immediate and general context of the gospel of Mark.

Jesus enfleshes the focussed concern of God for the people on the margins, most especially the widows and orphans, in a society where neither is well-cared for and where both are usually invisible. Just before this small story, Jesus castigates the scribes – those interpreters of the law who oppose Jesus all through Mark’s gospel account – and he particularly rides them for ‘devouring the houses of widows.’ Probably he was making reference to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these ‘unpaid’ religious professionals often used their positions of influence to extort funds from the most vulnerable, especially widows, who enjoyed no legal protection, and – if they produced no male children – no financial protection either. Though these scribes received no ‘official’ recompense for their scribal and interpretive work, they did know ways of getting funds. Somehow the picture of tv evangelists comes to mind here…perhaps with the promise of ‘increased blessing for increased giving??’

We cannot know, we can only surmise. But it does seem clear – from the harshness of Jesus’ tone and the pointedness of his words – that the behavior of those in religious leadership, those finding themselves in positions of power and authority, reflected both an abuse of that power and a misuse of that authority.

Jesus says strongly, “This will not do!” “Beware!” The disciples are instructed, in no uncertain terms, to watch out for these wolves in sheep’s clothing, to be especially careful of authorities who like the perks of the job – who wear fine clothes in an ostentatious manner; who want to be seen in the synagogue, choosing to sit up in front, on the bench that faces the congregation; who want the best couch at the banquet; who pray long, elaborate prayers at the same time they are fleecing the widows. Beware. Be careful. Watch out.

And then comes this small story of the widow’s gift. And her generous spirit is to be commended. Her admission of her complete dependence upon God and neighbor is to be emulated. Her digging deep to share with others is praiseworthy. But…I wonder. Could Jesus also be verbalizing a lament-of-sorts in this scene? Could he be calling his disciples’ attention to the very thing he has just been warning them about? Is he bewailing the religious system that encourages such destitution? I think there may be some of that in this text.

It certainly lines up with Jesus’ earlier teaching, in Mark 7, against religious authorities who shelter their money by calling it ‘devoted to God’ instead of taking care of their elderly parents. It certainly lines up with Jesus’ strong prophetic word in the verses which immediately follow this story, at the beginning of chapter 13. There, the disciples are praising the beauty of the temple building and inviting Jesus to do the same. Jesus, however, looks at that magnificent edifice and sees it in ruins, ‘no stone upon another,’ shocking his followers with his foreboding word. He sees a religious system that is rotten to the core. Where others see authority and power, Jesus sees seeping decay and imminent loss. And he will not be a party to it in any way, shape or form.

So he speaks his harshest words of criticism yet. Mark’s version is much briefer that Matthew’s entire chapter 23, but it is still powerful to read. He is on his way to the cross and he knows it. Throwing any vestige of caution to the winds, Jesus blasts away at the ‘authority’ of the religious superstructure, in essence inviting them to come after him. Jesus is preparing to give the most extravagant gift it is possible for any human being to give. And because he is the Son of God in human flesh, the extravagance level takes on untold layers of love. So I think, despite the lament that surely was there in Jesus’ words, there is a lovely way in which this small person, living on the margins of her culture, provides us with a window into the gift that is coming. Like the other widow in this week’s readings – the one at Zarepath who used her last flour and water to feed a hungry prophet named Elijah – this widow willingly gives all that she has to the service of God.

Jesus had no use for authority that was illegitimate and abusive. And Jesus spoke with true authority – with power and certainty and ability that exceeded anything the scribes could offer. Jesus called false authority what it was. He named the evil and he stepped strongly into the melee that resulted from his truth-telling words. And on the way, he noticed a poor widow, flinging her tiny coins into the offering box at the temple. At one and the same time, her story serves to condemn the insidious abuses of wrongly-used authority and to highlight the beauty of generosity and humility, the offering of oneself and one’s meager gifts with relinquishment and dependence.

How hard it is for us to do that! We’d much rather wear the flowing robes and get the best seats at the banquet, thank you. Admitting that we are totally dependent upon Another for our very breath is difficult to do. It is somehow even harder to acknowledge that we are also dependent upon that One for the money in our pocket, the roof over our heads and the abundance which we enjoy. Placing ourselves in a position of dependence – or more accurately, acknowledging the fact that we are already there – is tough for 21st century western Christians to do. I have known very few people in my life for whom that kind of humility, graciousness and generosity is a natural part of daily living. And one of my primary life examples died this past week, a person whose absence from this planet impoverishes me and everyone who ever knew him.

I’ll write about Thomps in a later edition…

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