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.