Sunday 11 November 2018
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32B
It’s a fairly well-known story. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples. It’s the week leading up to the crucifixion. They are in the temple courtyard, watching as people bring their offerings for the temple treasury. There are plenty of flashy givers around. But there are no debit cards, no checks, and no paper money, so you can hear the sound of each and every coin as it’s put in. Some of the bigger givers are making a show of their offerings. Some must have been a bit more humble, but one could hardly avoid attracting attention with a particularly large gift.
Ancient Judea was what we call an honor-shame society. Someone’s standing in the community was based on the amount of honor they were perceived to have. Honor could be based on the family you came from, your gender, your class, your ethnicity, your generosity in public, whether you were known to be honest and fair, how much power you wielded in society. Honor could be gained or lost. Honorable actions or circumstances increased your honor. Shameful actions or circumstances decreased your honor.
It’s not how our society tends to function these days, but there is one good modern example of honor-shame dynamics. Online, multiuser commercial communities have an honor-shame system. Airbnb, Uber, eBay. These are markets in which individual sellers and buyers, who don’t know each other personally, have to be able to trust each other in order to do business together. How do I know that it’s safe to stay at this particular Airbnb or ride in this particular Uber car or buy from this particular eBay seller. I know because of their rating. After every previous transaction, they get a rating from the person they did business with. And good ratings accrue as honor. If someone has a 4.9 star rating based on over 1000 different transactions, then I can be pretty sure that they are safe to deal with. They have great honor in their particular society. If someone has low ratings, I might be more apprehensive to work with them. Or if they are a new provider and have no ratings, I might not want to take the risk.
But these ratings are not based on any kind of objective test. They are just based on other people’s impressions. And people’s impressions include their implicit biases. Studies clearly show that ratings and service are effected by a person’s race and gender. If you are black, it will be harder to get a ride on Uber than if you are white, and you will likely have to wait longer and have a higher chance of being cancelled on. Though I should note, racial discrimination on ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft is much less pronounced than racial discrimination in the taxi industry. Honor and shame are based on more than one’s competence and ability, though. They are effected by all of the factors that influence how we understand and classify other people.
When people are gathering around the temple to bring their offerings, everyone is aware of all of the markers of honor and shame. Those wealthy worshipers who come and bring large gifts: they would likely have exceptional honor in the community. Others would notice when they came by. They might have various clients and retainers following them around, attesting to their impact and influence in the community. Everyone would know that they were people worth looking up to. They would be the ones drawing attention, drawing admiration.
But Jesus notices someone else entirely, someone who was generally unnoticeable. A poor widow. Widows are a particular type of character in the bible. When a biblical writer wants to talk about people who are vulnerable and marginal, people existing right on the edge of survival, they talk about widows and orphans. What both widows and orphans lack is a male protector. They meant that they had no means of support and also no one to protect them from physical and legal threats. It is almost unnecessary to indicate that she is poor. Simply saying that she is a widow implies that she must be poor.
This didn’t necessarily mean that she would be reviled. A widow was not shameful in that way. She simply would have been invisible, the kind of person you might avoid making eye contact with. She could have walked through that courtyard and dropped her two, small copper coins in the collection bin without anyone taking notice at all or remembering that she had been there.
But Jesus notices her, an unnoticeable woman. He doesn’t just notice her, though, he praises her. He says that she has given the greatest gift. He ascribes honor to her. She would have had no honor. She is an unnoticed, poor widow. But Jesus, completely counterintuitively, says that in God’s eyes she has more honor than anyone else gathered there. Completely unthinkable, boggling.
That’s not so hard to understand. Two pennies don’t get your name on a memorial plaque, do they. Two pennies don’t get your name on a college building. Two pennies don’t make you a philanthropist. In order to have that kind of honor, in order to have that kind of prestige, you have to give monumental amounts of money.
Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Bill and Melinda Gates. One doesn’t get a reputation like that with small donations. Bill and Melinda Gates have given $27 billion to charitable causes, making them by some accounts the most generous people alive. But of course, they still have $84 billion to keep them comfortable. Perhaps instead we should look to Chuck Feeney. He has given away only $6.3 billion, but, on the other hand, he has only $1.5 million for himself. His charitable gifts are 420,000% of his net worth.1 According to one Forbes article, “no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime.”2 Perhaps we should consider him to be the most generous person alive.
But you will never find an article in Forbes profiling a poor widow who donates two pennies to her local church. No one would even consider such a thing. The church that accepted that donation probably wouldn’t even record such an offering, it’s so small.
And yet Jesus says that her small gift is worth more than the gifts of Bill Gates or Chuck Feeney. Her gift is bigger because, “All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” She has a tremendous faith in God that allows her to give everything she has even when she doesn’t no where her next meal is coming from.
We have similar story in the lesson from 1 Kings this morning. We have another widow, with only enough flour to make a last meal for her son and herself before they die. But she has the incredible faith to instead make bread for the prophet Elijah when he asks, even when she has nothing left to live on.
And here is the point in the sermon when I’m supposed to make a stewardship appeal. This is when I’m supposed to encourage you to have faith like the widow, to make a sacrificial donation, to give until it hurts. If you have enough faith, then you won’t worry where your next meal is coming from. If you just give all you have to the church, then God will give you a blessing. You’ve heard that sermon before, haven’t you? I know I have.
But that’s not what I’m going to do this morning. Instead, I want to go back to the first half the gospel lesson this morning, the part we haven’t talked about yet.
Jesus says, “Watch out for the scholars. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” In other words, Jesus warns you not to trust people like me. Beware of those scribes, those scholars who are the keepers of the biblical text. They love to wear long robes. They like to be recognized in the community. They pray wordy prayers. That is a description of a clergy person that is surprisingly accurate even today.
But none of that is the most important warning that Jesus has for the people. What is more important is that scribes are the ones who devour widow’s houses. In other words, they cheat the most vulnerable out of their livelihoods. Watch out, Jesus says. Don’t trust them.
Right here in the same passage we have praise of sacrificial giving and a warning against those who call for sacrificial giving. What about that widow at the temple? Are we supposed to imagine that she is among those being cheated out of their houses? What else can be happening if she is giving everything she has to live on? Is she someone we should emulate? Or is she someone we should pity? Or is she someone we should protect?
The bible does call for generosity. Jesus, in particular, calls for extreme generosity. He says, “No one can be my disciple unless they give up everything they own” (Luke 14:33). But at the same time, Jesus calls for the poor to be lifted up out of poverty. He does not want people to live in destitution. Yet here he praises an already poor widow who gives her last pennies to a bloated religious institution. What are we supposed to do with that?
Well, we have to hold a few different things in tension. Jesus does call for a faith that is stronger than fear, a faith that is willing to give even to the degree that it radically changes someone’s economic circumstances. And it is incumbent upon every follower of Jesus to consider Jesus’s call for radical generosity. At the same time, Jesus calls for the poor to be lifted out of poverty. At the same time, Jesus warns against those religious figures who exploit the poor and take their last penny in order to support the institution. At the same time Jesus praises the widow who in her poverty gives everything.
And yet, those can all be true at the same time. Jesus does call on all, especially those of means, to display a radical generosity, and at the same time he can say that the most generous philanthropist is not as generous as a poor widow. They deserve no extra praise for their large sums of money, because the poor widow’s mite was more dearly given. And Jesus can admire the might of the widow’s gift while still warning against the leader who would accept such a gift. It is often true that the poor are more generous than the rich, more willing to share from their meager means than the rich are willing to share from their abundance. And it is right that Jesus honors that generosity. But it would also be wrong to exploit that generosity.
I don’t know what your giving habits are. Some pastors do keep track of such things, but I don’t. I don’t know how much you give to the church, and I certainly don’t know how much you give to other charities and causes. Giving is an important part of every Christian’s spiritual life. We each have a God-given need to give. And those of us who are blessed with more are called to give more. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). But it shouldn’t be grounds for boasting. Having more money to give does not make you more worthy in God’s eyes. Jesus says that the tiniest gift of a poor person is more praiseworthy.
We each have our gifts to give. And it can be hard to recognize true generosity when we see it. But God recognizes it. God sees the widow’s mite and knows that it is a mighty gift. And sees your gifts, even if no one else notices. God sees your gifts, even if they seem insignificant to others. God sees. So let us give as we called, remembering that the largest gift is not always the mightiest gift.