Godlike generosity

Sunday, November 11, 2012

REFLECTION

“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”. (see Mark 12:38 - 44)

I’m sure you have heard this story lots of times. It’s one of those classic stories which seems to come up often when we talk about giving and stewardship. This un named widow is held up as an example of faithfulness. Jesus says that she has given more that all the other rich people who had given to the treasury. The rich gave what they could out of their abundance, but the widow  gave out of her poverty and everything said that she had to live on.

Many years ago, when I was training to be a minister, I did one of my field placements in Warnambool. There I met a man who reminded me of this widow. He was 35 and has suffered a work place injury and could not work. He was on a pension and lived in a tiny flat with his wife and two children. He had missed church over the past few weeks because of illness related to his injury. When I went to visit him he produced the twenty five dollars from a tin on the mantle piece and asked me to put in in the offering plate for him on Sunday. I was stunned by his generosity. He was a poor man struggling to pay the bills and support his family out of a tiny pension. He was a fringe church member not known by many. And he was able to save up the money for the offering at church.

His action challenged me the way in which this story of the widow challenges us. I give out of my abundance and he was giving out of his poverty.

I imagine that you have heard sermons describing the Godlike generosity of this woman and calling us to follow the widow’s example. This Godlike generosity is not just in our giving of money, but by giving everything we are to God. This challenge cuts to the core of our selfishness and calls us to generosity of spirit.

But, somehow that interpretation of the passage does not satisfy. If God like generosity requires the poor to give everything they have to live on, then I’m still uncomfortable. I wonder, have we missed the point of this story altogether. Here we are making this poor widow seem like a saint, but she still goes away with no money. What is she going to eat tonight? Does she have children to support? Where is she living? What is the state of her health? Why should the Warnambool man feel compelled to put money in the offering plate at church? Does he think he has to buy favour with God and the church community? What will his children go without? What will the church do with his money -fix the organ? 

I think we better go back to the story and have another think about what is going on in Mark’s narrative. Let’s have a look at the setting of the story and the context of this passage in the gospel. 

Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem for the last time. It is nearing the end of his three years in ministry of teaching and preaching. There is a series of discussions and interactions between Jesus and different Temple officials. You probably remember some of the stories: Chief priests scribes and elders have questioned his authority; some Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap him by asking questions about paying taxes. Sadducees tried to trick him with questions about the Resurrection. Then some scribes tried to pick a fight with him about which is the greatest commandment. That was the lectionary reading from last week. So there has been lots of theological debate and discussion going on and Jesus keeps coming up looking pretty good. Well, he looks pretty good to us, we’re on Jesus side after all.

But to all the Temple officials he was becoming more and more frustrating. He was preaching a new vision for being God’s people. He was challenging the official systems and structures and criticising the Temple officials.

 “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at the banquet”.

The scribes probably wore robes during temple worship and official occasions, which is all very well, but Jesus is critical of them wearing robes all the time and strutting round intimidating others and trying to looking official and important.

Beware the people who think they are important because they have social status: Status in their appearance and the market place, in the synagogue and at banquets. Beware those who think they are important because of their worldly status.

Well, Jesus tells us that social status and power can lead to corruption.  He accuses the scribes of ‘devouring widows houses and for the sake of appearances saying long prayers’. What is that about?

In Jesus’ time, the status of a widow was pretty tentative. They had lost their husbands with him they had lost their major source of protection and identity. While sons and other male relatives could provide some degree of security, widows were seen as people in need of special moral concern. At that time a practice was developed to assign a temple scribes to manage a widows affairs. That might sound like a good social policy, but corruption was inevitable and scribes would often take advantage of the widow and use her estate for his own gain. So Jesus condemns the scribes who devour widow’s houses. Jesus is critical of the grave injustice against widows that was supported by the social and religious system of the day. I wonder what you are starting to think about or original interpretation of this passage that praises the widow’s generosity?

It’s starting to sound like Jesus is not really praising this widow’s generosity but criticising the social policies of the temple and the time. God like generosity is not simply about individuals being generous, but about the whole social system that cares for ever player. 

The next question for us is to ask what are the policies of our time that undermine Godlike generosity. What policies would Jesus accuse our governments of as devouring widow’s houses? Let’s remember that orphans and widows in biblical language is code for the poorest of the poor. What policies devour the livelihood of the poor? Who are the poor?

Beware Jesus says, and indeed we need to be wary of corruption. We need leaders and we need systems and organisation. But we must also beware that power which accompanies leadership is not misused and social policies don’t end up exploiting the most needy.

Jesus was a radical social activist who was spending time in the Temple promoting an alternative way an alternative vision. He was promoting an alternative to the dominant ideology of rabinic Judaism which he believed was distorted and corrupt.

So, when Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. He saw many rich people put in large sums of money. And then came a poor widow and she put in two small copper coins, which were worth about a penny. Jesus called his disciples together and speaks 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”.

Perhaps the story is about the nature of giving – about the woman’s Godlike generosity. What matters to God is not the amount we give, but the nature our giving. The widow gave her whole living. She didn’t just give one of the coins, she gave them both, the Greek words mean literally ‘a tiny thing’, but that tiny thing she gave was everything she had to live on.  We are to give ourselves to God without reserve and trust in God for everything.

But, Mark has just been telling us about this series of theological debates Jesus has with temple officials, then come the big personality attack on the scribes and then this story about the widow’s offering.  And after that, in the passage we will read next week, Jesus comes out of the Temple almost in disgust. He turns around and looks back at the temple. There was probably a crowd of people around going to and from the temple. And Jesus says out loud: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Who are the scribes of our day of whom we must beware?  What is the corrupt temple of our day? And who are the widows who are trapped in a poverty cycle by a system which bleeds them of their money? And I suppose the hardest question of all is what are we going to do about it? 


 

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