November 11, 2012
“I just heard something pop!”
Remember those words for a minute while I share this story.
I’m sure my children would be amazed to discover that once upon a time I rappelled down the side of a cliff. It’s true. In my early college days, I went with some friends out to a rural area in Tennessee and we rappelled down a cliff. Let me make it clear that the people I did this with were actually knowledgeable about such things. We didn’t just decide to throw ourselves off the side of a rock for the heck of it. They did this on a regular basis. They had all the proper equipment, ropes, tools, etc. for rappelling. A day of rappelling wasn’t a surprise either. I went with the full knowledge that this was what we were going to do. I had never tried anything like this, and I wanted to.
They decided to let the newbie – me—go first. They harnessed me in all the necessary ropes. One person was down at the bottom of the cliff holding the main rope, belaying me from below. And my other friends were standing at the top with me as I prepared to make my descent.
If you aren’t sure what rappelling is, it’s fairly simple. You walk backwards off whatever high place that you’re rappelling from, and you bounce your way down to the bottom. Now the people who were helping me, who knew what they were doing, had strapped me into this rope harness pretty well. There were two caribeeners that held the ropes in place. Caribeeners are a particular kind of hook. One of them had this extra safety fastener and one didn’t. According to my friends, that was the way it was supposed to be.
So I’m trussed up like a turkey, and I begin this backwards walk to the cliff’s edge. Let me say that this wasn’t a Mt. Everest kind of cliff. It was not insanely high, but certainly high enough that you wouldn’t want to fall off. Back to the backwards walk. I’m walking backwards, one step at a time towards the edge, the movement of my feet contradicting the voice in my head screaming, “You’re walking backwards off a cliff! Cease and desist!”
I took my first step off into air and something on my harness popped. I stopped walking. I very calmly said, “I just heard something pop.” When my support system of friends didn’t respond immediately I said it again, this time with a little more intensity.
“I. Just. Heard. Something. Pop!”
My friends jumped into action then and rushed to my aid. They pulled me back out of the air and began looking for the source of the pop. It turned out that what had popped was the first caribeener, the one without the extra safety lock feature. They showed me what had happened and how all the ropes were still tied the way they were supposed to be. All good. All fine. Was I ready to go again? Believe it or not, I said yes.
I retook that backwards walk. I made that first step into nothingness, then my feet found the side of the cliff and I rappelled all the way down. Midway I started to hotdog it, bouncing as high as I could because I was having so much fun. My first words when I finally reached the ground were, “Can I go again?”
This was an incredible experience and one that I’ve never fully had the chance to replicate since. But I remember this moment in my life, not because of the thrill or the adrenaline rush that came along with it. I remember it because it was the first that I truly understood what it meant to be terrified – literally shaking, cold sweat terrified – to do something and yet I did it anyway. I was scared before I took that first step. I was petrified when I heard that pop. I was so scared I felt a little faint from fear. Stepping off that cliff a second time went against every impulse I had, but I did it. Because I knew that the people who were guiding me through this were good. They weren’t reckless or careless. They were trustworthy. I trusted them so I walked backwards off a cliff and had a great time in the process.
I trusted them. That’s the critical factor in this story. I trusted them. I was still terrified, but I trusted them. That idea of trust seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to talking about faith. I know it’s a recurring theme, or maybe the better term is issue, for me. Do we trust? Whom do we trust? How much do we trust?
But what does trust have to do with our story? The widow in this story in Mark’s gospel is most often lifted up as a paragon of generosity. Just in describing her as a widow says something about her status in that society. Without a husband’s protection, she would have been one of the voiceless ones, one of the least ones. Her status stands in stark contrast to the scribes that we see in the first verses of this passage.
We meet her when Jesus and the disciples are seated outside of the treasury, watching the crowd of people putting in their money. Wealthy person after wealthy person went and put in large amounts, but this widow came and put in only two small copper coins. But those coins were all that she had. Jesus, on seeing her gift, tells the disciples, “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.”
I’ve read two different interpretations of this passage. The first is the more traditional interpretation. Jesus is commending this woman for her generous giving; her piety. Even though she had the least to give, she ultimately gave the most, because she gave everything she had. What she gave, the amount she gave, didn’t matter as much as the attitude in which she gave. She gave generously of her first fruits, probably her only fruits, because she was giving to God. This is the more traditional and widely-accepted version of this passage.
But there is an alternative understanding as well. Beginning with his teachings on the scribes in the earlier verses, Jesus is calling attention to a bankrupt and abusive religious system.
The scribes have come to enjoy the honor and prestige that goes with their position. In fact they enjoy the prestige and position a little too much. It’s become more important than their religious calling. In deference to their position, the scribes wore long linen robes with fringes, and they commanded the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets and parties. The common people were expected to stand when the scribes passed them by on the streets.
It’s important to note that the scribes did not take money for what they did. There were no professional scribes, rabbis or priests at the time. In fact, the scribes would probably be considered downright poor by their standards or ours. They depended on the generosity of the common people to house them, feed them, etc. When Jesus teaches that the scribes “devour widow’s houses,” the most recent interpreters feel that Jesus is actually commenting on the fact that the scribes and the religious system they represent prey on the people who can least afford it. When the widow puts her two coins into the treasury, she is unwittingly buying into this corrupt system.
So which is it? Which interpretation is the correct one? It would be far easier just to ignore the latter and stick with the more familiar former, and in many ways, easier reading of this story. But it seems to me that both interpretations have to be considered because I think that both are true. We have to hold them in tension with one another, and we have to wrestle with that tension.
We may have officially observed our Stewardship Emphasis Sunday last week, but stewardship is ongoing. Certainly it is not only about caring for what we have been given, but also being generous with what we have been given. There aren’t too many better role models of this than the widow is there? She is generous. As I said earlier, even though what she gives is meager by comparison, it is her attitude of generosity that sets her apart. And yet we cannot ignore the words that Jesus had for the scribes. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Is this widow having her house devoured for a false religiosity? Maybe. And if so, what does it have to do with us? Because that’s ultimately what we have to figure out from this passage. What does it have to do with us? Is it asking us to be generous; to adopt a spirit and attitude of generosity? To give all that we can, even if what we can is small? Or is it a warning to us in the institutional church to avoid preying on those who can least afford it? Is it a warning to check our attitudes about our piety, to NOT be like the scribes who put on a good show, but their hearts aren’t in it? Again, I think it’s both.
And what’s really hard about this passage is that it deals with that word we don’t like to deal with – money. How do we deal with our money? The church, this church, has to have money to stay open. It takes money to run the heat and turn on the lights and operate the sound system. It takes money to have the music and the preaching. My internship supervisor was a gifted preacher and administrator, and he told me once that he dreaded the stewardship sermon he had to give every year because it felt like he was passing the hat. But his livelihood depended on the giving of the church. So does mine. There’s not a professional clergy person out there who isn’t acutely aware of that fact. So yes, when I call on us to be generous, I know that in some form or fashion that generosity supports my family.
One commentator summed up this passage in these terms. It comes down to value. What do we value? The scribes valued prestige. They valued personal honor. They valued position. The poor widow valued God. I’m sure that duty and religious obligation were part and parcel of her giving, but in the end I think she valued God. And she put her money, she put everything she had into what she valued.
That brings us back to where we started. It takes trust to do what she did. It takes trust to give wholeheartedly and unselfishly and generously to what we value. She placed her value on God because she trusted God. Placing every cent she had into that treasury took enormous trust in God. She had to trust that she would be provided for, cared for, that she would be okay. It took trust.
William Sloane Coffin once wrote that “faith is not believing in something that we cannot see; it’s trust without reservation.” I think this widow had that kind of trust. Do we?
Let us give all that we have, all that we are to the One who does not forsake or forget us. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”