Saturday, November 10, 2012

So Little, So Much

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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. (Mark12.43-44)

How We Give

The mention of money is all it takes for many Christians to break out in a cold sweat. And they have just cause for feeling squeamish. From the start, the Church has been a lucrative venue for charlatans and scam artists to exploit the faithful’s confidence that God rewards sacrificial giving. The teachings of Christ and the Apostles—which consistently emphasize the virtues of generosity—get twisted into all sorts of outlandish promises that have no basis in scriptural truth. Enormous cathedrals have arisen on the backs of poor people told they can buy their way into heaven. Vast televangelist empires have emerged from a steady flow of donations from people with little to spare. Purveyors of “prosperity gospel”—many of them every bit as criminal as the craftiest Ponzi schemers—point to their mansions and Mercedes and minks as proof positive that God makes people rich. (For the record, it is true that, as 2 Corinthians 9.7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” But when we read the statement in context, there’s no escaping its basic premise: God blesses givers so they have more to give. Verse 8: “God is able to provide every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”)

So we are justified in approaching Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 12.38-44) with caution. In this episode, Jesus favorably compares a poor widow who contributes all that she has with wealthier types who make a great show of their gifts—and there’s no mistaking the story is about money. As a result, this text has been a perennial favorite of get-rich-quick preachers and religious rainbow-riders down through the ages. “Be like the widow!” they say. “Give everything you have—even if it’s just a couple of coins, like she did. Jesus says you’ll be better than rich people if you do!” But this passage is about a great deal more than money and status. When we read it carefully, we realize the issue isn’t how much we give at all. It’s how we give. The questions it raises have nothing to do with the amount, but rather where our desire to give comes from.

A Sincere Heart

We don’t know what prompts the widow to give all she has. What’s most intriguing about her is that she comes and goes completely unaware that Jesus notices of her. There’s not a shred of ostentation in her giving, and its size is so insignificant that it’s unlikely to make a real difference. But that’s Jesus’s point: her unconcern about being seen is why He calls her to our attention. Before the widow shows up, Jesus also points out another group—although his assessment of them is hardly flattering. In verses 38-40, He says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

It is against this background of self-aggrandizing religiosity that Jesus sets the widow in sharp relief. And Jesus makes very clear where both parties’ desire to give comes from. The widow gives from a sincere heart. Her sacrifice is worthy because its extent is not apparent. Meanwhile, the religious leaders’ gifts and piety are unacceptable because they’re offered hypocritically; every act comes with a “what’s in it for me” clause attached. What’s more, Jesus indicates that ill-gotten gains make their impressive contributions possible. “They devour widows’ houses,” He says, referring to their ruthless greed for wealth and status. These people aren’t givers at all. They’re takers. That’s why Jesus says, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed to their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (v43-44) This woman with so little gives so much that her gift is greater than all the others combined. It is she who deserves to be seen—and Jesus makes sure we recognize that.

Presentation Isn’t “Everything”

In terms of our giving—whether of finances, time, or compassion—size really doesn’t matter. Our contributions to God’s kingdom are measured with two criteria: degree of sincerity and unwillingness to exploit the honor of giving for selfish gain. When it comes to generosity of spirit, we quickly discover presentation most definitely isn’t “everything.” Regardless of one’s resources, anyone with sufficient cunning can put on a show. Regardless of one’s spiritual depth, anyone can learn how to recite eloquent prayers and stitch together long-flowing robes of self-righteousness. The instant we design acts of worship to impress onlookers is the instant our hypocrisy is revealed. What’s more, our need to impress often provokes speculation about the source of our largesse. Chances are—like the scribes and so many prosperity preachers—the wealth and status we try to flaunt has been obtained at someone else’s expense. We’re a far cry from blessings that God showers on cheerful givers. If we give with expectations of glory or recognition, we’re not giving at all. We’re taking.

So where does our desire to give come from? When we find that place and align it with Christ’s teaching, we’ll understand the amount and nature of what we give is irrelevant. Humility of gesture is the thing, as we seize every opportunity to give our all, despite how little that may seem in comparison to others. It tickles and amazes me that a poor lady passes through this story with no idea she’ll be remembered centuries later for the significance of her sacrifice. That’s the real lesson in this passage. How we give—not how much or the attention our gifts may receive—determines the true value of our offerings.

It’s not the size of the gift, but the sincerity that prompts our sacrifice.


Sherry Peyton said...

I just saw a report on CNN of a group who solicits money for charity, then buys whatever goods (useful or not at bargain prices), inflates their value, thus making it look like that make a huge return on every dollar given, and of course, they pocket the rest in inflated salaries. In the example shown, they shipped about 2500bucks worth of medicine and claimed it worth over 800 thousand. We learn great lessons from the widow about true giving. And we should be ashamed, since so much of ours is from our excess, not truly giving of ourselves either in money or time. Thanks Tim. You remind us again that it is all in what we think rather than the appearance. Bless you. Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, these kinds of stories sicken me. They epitomize what Jesus meant by "devouring widow's houses." But after our nausea stills, we should reckon with how much greater our world needs the kinds of selfless, sincere givers Christ calls for. We're not only fighting the ravages of poverty and oppression, but the scammers who exploit the kindness of others for their own gain! It is a sorry truth.

And, like you, I'm convinced that giving out of excess is somewhat less-than-giving, noble though its intentions may be. Without sacrifice that we can feel, we shortchange ourselves of the joy that comes from true giving. I know I've personally written checks without thinking twice--never feeling an ounce of pain from what I've given--and, without fail when doing that, the blessing of knowing I've done something worthwhile has escaped me. There's a lot to be said for the no-pain, no-gain principle!

It's always so lovely to hear your thoughts here. They constantly enrich the conversation!

Showers of blessings to you and yours,

Joshua said...

Thank you for this post, Tim. The widow has been one of my scriptural heroes, my measuring post in many ways. The humility she exhibits, her sole focus on her relationship with God, her lack of caring of how anyone around her characterizes that relationship all give me an example of a true believer. Thank you for sharing. You inspire me as usual.

Tim said...

Hey Josh, I couldn't agree more. She is heroic in so many ways--none more so than she doesn't see herself as a hero. The layers of complexity in this story can't be overestimated and yet it boils down to one thing: integrity of our faith. I believe that's what draws us to her, and so many other widows the Bible presents as role models for us.

It's always so good to hear from you--and I'm equally grateful for your inspiration in my life!

Many blessings my friend,

kkryno said...

These times are so ripe for this story. It seems the more "advanced" our society becomes, the more that greed comes into play, the more humans seem to de-volve. I've been just so disenchanted with people lately, and I don't like that much.
Thanks for sharing this one, Tim.

Tim said...

I often have similar thoughts, Vikki, and they always set off a lot of related questions. I'm not sure if the greed the media enjoys rubbing our noses in is more prevalent now than in earlier times. Or do we just hear about it more than we used to because it gets so much coverage these days? Bad news has always been great news to people who like to talk and unfortunately our airwaves and Websites are overrun with people who relish telling us how awful people are.

Whether our greed and callousness have got worse than ever or we're just hearing about it with greater frequency doesn't matter, though. It's prevalent, that's for sure and we need to own the error of a culture awash in materialism and love of wealth. The only way we can reverse this tide is by honoring Christ's principles and celebrating true generosity and compassion every chance we get. It goes back to a basic question: will we allow the times to define us, or will we define our times?

It's exhausting. But we can't allow our fatigue to get the better of us--hard as that is some times!

Many blessings, dear sister. Keep the faith! There is goodness in the world, even though it may not be as obvious as the evil that surrounds us!

Much love,