(Set out “little church.”) Every time we have an Inquirer’s Class, someone asks about the little church. “What’s up with that box?” they ask. Here’s the story that’s come to me.
Many years ago a Confirmation class visited an African American church. As in many African American churches, the offering was received not by passing tiny offering plates to people comfortably seated in pews, but by wheeling in a large offering box and inviting people to “walk the aisle” and make their contributions in front of God and everybody.
The large offering box made an impression on the confirmands. They didn’t think we should receive regular offerings in a big box on wheels; but they did think it might be nice to have a box for special offerings. One of the girls in the class made the box we have come to call “the little church.” Since that time the little church has received numerous contributions celebrating everything from birthdays and anniversaries to PhD completions and weight losses.
Can you imagine giving offerings every week in a big box down front? With everyone looking? I’m not sure that would work here in this congregation. And now that we have electronic contributions… some weeks the box would be nearly empty.
But there was no such thing as electronic giving in Jesus’ day. In his day, they set up several boxes in the temple so people could make their contributions to various ministries of the temple—for temple personnel, for upkeep of the temple and grounds, for ministries to the poor, to get a new fire hydrant, should the need arise…those kinds of things.
One day Jesus was teaching in the temple. This day’s lesson was about the scribes, the religious leaders, who, in Jesus’ opinion, took a little too much pride in their position. They liked “to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (Mk 12:38-39)
After a while, Jesus took a break from his teaching. “He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.” How did he know they put in large sums? We don’t know for sure. Maybe the coins made a loud sound when they were dropped into the box. Or maybe the offerer slowly counted out each coin as he placed it in the box. ‘One, two, three….I have given 3,000 shekels to God today!” Or maybe when the credit card ran through, a loud “Ka-ching!” sounded over the loudspeaker. However it was communicated, the size of the gift was obvious.
Then, just as the large donor was accepting (imagined) accolades from those present, “a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” Though Jesus is on break, maybe sipping his co-cola, he can’t pass up this teachable moment.
“He calls his disciples and says to them, ‘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.”
None are recorded, but I wonder how the disciples responded to Jesus’ lesson? I’ll bet one or two pushed back immediately—“Jesus, there’s no way that widow put in more than everyone else. Did you see the size of the gift the person before her offered? Okay. I see what you’re saying about the woman giving a larger percentage of her income than the man who gave the larger sum, but let’s not confuse accounting with spirituality!”
Another disciple might really have gotten the spiritual point about the widow’s gift. “Wow. I see what you mean, Jesus! Even though his gift was large, the rich guy didn’t really have to think about how much to give. Because he has so much, even a large gift in terms of dollars and cents wouldn’t make much of a dent in his wallet. But that widow….she had to think long and hard. I mean, she brought everything she had—two coins. No one would have faulted her for giving one coin and keeping the other for herself. It wouldn’t have bought much, but she would at least have had something. But she chose to give it all, to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the community.
“That makes me think about my own giving. I don’t have a lot to give, but I certainly have more than two small coins. Would I give my all for the common good? Am I willing to give sacrificially to God’s work in the world? I might need to think about that.”
As the first disciple searches for a calculator to show Jesus his mathematical error…and as the second disciple pulls out paper and pencil to recalculate his faith commitment to the Temple for the year, a third disciple is trying to find the connection between the earlier lesson Jesus was teaching about the scribes doing things for show and this widow giving everything she has. What was it Jesus had said in his earlier lesson? “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” Oh, yes. This was it–“They devour widows’ houses….”
“I wonder what it means to ‘devour widows’ houses’? It’s true that widows without family are left in the care of the temple, which means the scribes become their landlords. So, maybe the scribes ‘devour widows’ houses’ by charging too much rent to people who have no means of support, people who are the poorest of the poor in the community.
“So, Jesus says, ‘They devour widows’ houses,’ then boom! one of those widows comes to give an offering. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Why does she give everything she has? Is it because the unjust practices of the scribes have robbed her of everything else? Is it because religious law requires her to give something to the temple regardless of her circumstances? Does she give everything she has because she has no choice? Is Jesus calling the whole offering system into question because it allows, maybe even encourages the powerful to exploit the powerless? The well-off have a choice about whether or not they’ll give sacrificially; the widow doesn’t have a choice at all. Is that just?”
As the third disciple goes to make an appointment with his temple representative to see how he might work to change the unjust laws of the system, a fourth disciple pulls out his checkbook…..not to write a check, but to look at the check register to see where he spends his money, to look at how he spends his money, to see if there is some way in which he himself is contributing to the widow’s poverty. It’s easy to see how the temple authorities exploit the poor….but this disciple begins to ask the really hard question: “Am I exploiting the poor, too, without even realizing it?”
What is our relationship with the poor? Do we have some responsibility for the devoured houses of widows? Is there some way in which we participate in that devouring without realizing it? Do we contribute to the poverty of others? I don’t think there’s a person in this room who does not want to act and actually does act the poor into well-being. We serve lunch at MUST; we’re looking at doing a Habitat build; we’re always collecting things for MUST and for Wellspring; there are other exciting opportunities on the horizon as well. I’ve never had to encourage or challenge anyone in this congregation to engage in service for others.
The thing I wonder, though, is if—as important as all those ministries we’re involved with are—I wonder sometimes if we’re only scratching the surface of very deeply seated problems. “Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement—an organization active in social justice ministries—once wrote, ‘Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” (Common Prayer, 533)
Brazilian Bishop, Dom Helder Camara commented even more bluntly on the difficulty of asking hard questions about poverty. He said, “When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor they called me a Communist.” (Common Prayer, 136)
So, which first century disciple was right? Whose example should we follow in the 21st century? I’m thinking we would do well to follow all of them. The disciple with the calculator was right on the money, so to speak—doing ministry, doing church does take real dollars. Can’t deny that! The disciple refiguring his faith commitment to the church, contemplating not so much the size of his wallet as the condition of his heart– his is also a good example to follow. We do well to ask if our offerings stretch us, if the gift is sacrificial enough that we really feel like we’re giving something.
The third disciple—making an appointment to meet with her representative to look at unjust laws—that’s a crucial thing to do if you want to go below the surface and ask hard questions about why poverty exists and do something about it. And though it’s the hardest example of all to follow, we also will do well to ask how we ourselves might be contributing to poverty.
Following any and all of these fictional first century disciples would be good discipleship for us 21st century disciples. But now I’m starting to wonder if there might have been a fifth disciple there at the temple that day, one who had a different response, one we might also follow….I wonder if anyone went up to the widow, asked her name, invited her to lunch, and got to know her as a person?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.44For 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.”