November 8, 2015
Money talks. That sounds like an overused cliché doesn’t it? Yet cliché’s are based in truths, and I think this is a prime example. Money talks. It talks in business, politics, sports, academics, everyday life, and in matters religious. The implication of these two words is that the more money you have, the louder it speaks.
I became fully aware of money’s power to talk when I was a new pastor and attending presbytery meetings on a regular basis. We are a denomination of great love and compassion. We are also a denomination of great conflict and controversy. Nowhere are those dynamics reflected more clearly than when we gather together in large groups. As I said, I first started noticing how money talks at presbytery meetings. As our denomination would wrestle and debate over some particularly difficult and controversial topic, churches who felt that we were heading the wrong way would show its disapproval through its pledge to the presbytery. A church would withhold its pledged money as a way of stating clearly and succinctly that it did not agree with whatever was happening or not happening.
I have no statistics whatsoever to back up my next statement. This is only a pattern that I have observed over the years. Yet I have noticed that large churches that contributed large sums to the presbytery, and ultimately the denomination, seemed to be the churches that most often withheld financial pledges because of theological disagreements with the larger body. While every church, large or small, does matter to a presbytery and the denomination’s well-being, at the presbytery level when a large church withholds pledging, it is felt. Why? Because money talks. Lots of money talks loudly.
I do not dispute an individual or a congregation’s right to not financially support something with which they radically disagree. There are lots of things I do not want my money to support. Beyond the church walls, I think it is vital to be mindful of not only how I spend my money, but where I spend my money. Thinking globally and buying locally is another phrase that may seem overused, but it is also of utmost importance. Boycotts and divestments are all used to express people’s desire to stop supporting practices or policies that are believed to be wrong or unjust. Money does indeed talk. We may agree or disagree with how much or how little money contributes to a conversation, but it talks.
So how does money talk in our story from Mark’s gospel? This is perhaps a story we think we know quite well. It is one that is used intentionally at this time in the church year when stewardship campaigns are in full swing. It seems to emphasize the importance of giving our financial all to our church – no matter how large or small a sum that equates to.
This widow who gives all she has to the temple treasury is lifted up as a shining example of “the cheerful giver.” As Jesus said, “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 their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
It would be so easy, and make for a much shorter sermon, if I just said, “See, we all just need to be like this poor widow. We need to give our all, and all shall be well.” Alas, I cannot do that. What I can do is paraphrase theologian David Lose and say that there are two ways we can hear Jesus’ words. We can hear them as commendation or lament. Is Jesus commending the widow? Or is he lamenting her great sacrifice? There are indications from the larger context of this passage that it is the latter. Looking at the timeline of Jesus’ life shows that if Jesus was sitting opposite the treasury of the temple, that means that he was in Jerusalem. He had made his triumphal entry into the city. In the timeline of our church year, this story happens during Holy Week. Jesus is most definitely headed for the cross. In Mark’s telling, Jesus had barely crossed the city limits when cleansed the temple of the merchants and money changers who made his Father’s house a market place. Immediately following this story is Jesus’ prophecy of the temple’s destruction, so it would seem odd that he would lift up a poor widow giving her all to the temple as a model of stewardship.
In the first verses we read today, Jesus condemned scribes who put greater emphasis on appearances and status then they did on faithfulness. These scribes may be greeted with groveling respect and get the best seats at the table, but “they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
If Jesus warned against being like those scribes and denounced them for exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable, also known as widows, then why would he laud the widow’s great sacrifice in the very next breath? Cause and effect suggests that what she did was the end result of that exploitation. She shouldn’t have had to put into the treasury all that she had; her whole life. This is not to say that the wealthier people who put in greater amounts were stingy. But I suspect that they felt their giving less. The widow in giving all that she had, probably felt the consequences of her generosity a great deal more. To use yet another cliché, she gave until it hurt.
But here’s the thing, no matter how we want to interpret the actions of this widow, it seems to me that our interpretations do not grasp the complexity of this story or this woman. We leave her as little more than a two-dimensional character. She was there only to be used as an example, an illustration, by Jesus and by us. But whoever she was, she was much more than that. I do not doubt that she was exploited by the larger systems in play around her. This is not a critique of ancient Judaism. In that society, and quite frankly in most societies, she would have been one of the weakest, most vulnerable of persons. In any patriarchal culture, a woman with no man in her life has no protection. Marriage, family, kept you safe. Is it really that much different today?
The thing is, I think this widow knew that. I think she was well aware of where she stood in her culture and what that culture was capable of doing to her. I don’t think she gave blindly. She gave because she had to, certainly. There was a temple tax. But I do not think she was unaware of how her giving affected her and how it contributed to a greater injustice that worked against her.
She gave her whole life. I wonder if she did this not because she had to but because what else could she do? She was driven by her need. Not giving was not an option, so she went all in with everything she had, everything she was. What did she have to lose? I think, I believe, she gave out of her need. I’m not saying this to taint her actions. In fact, I think it shows how faithful she truly was. Going all in with all of her money, with her whole life may have been driven by her great need, but it also required an even greater trust. Did she go all in with her money, her life because she trusted her leaders? Or did she go all in because she trusted God? She went all in, giving her whole life, because she trusted that she was in greater hands than those who sought to exploit her. She went all in because she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
I know I’ve used the movie, Leap of Faith, in sermons before, but there is a scene in the movie that astonishes me every time I watch it. Steve Martin plays a traveling evangelist, aka con-artist. Debra Winger is his steadfast partner in crime. One of their busses breaks down outside of a small, broke, drought-stricken Kansas town. Martin’s character decides to set up shop anyway based on his thinking that the town may not be able to afford him, but they really need him. Liam Neeson plays the skeptical sheriff who tries to do everything he can to stop them from taking advantage of and exploiting the desperate people in his town. At one of the revival meetings, he tries to dissuade the people from giving to this “ministry,” by exposing Martin’s character for the fraud he is. He looks at one woman and says, “The bank is about to foreclose on your farm. You and your husband haven’t worked in months. How much of your hard earned money did you put into that bucket? $20?” The woman looks right back at him and says defiantly, “I put in $40. I need all the help I can get.”
I need all the help I can get. We can look at this woman in the movie or at the widow in this story and cry foolishness. Why would they give to a system that they know is exploiting them, taking advantage of them? Why would they give anything at all much less go all in with everything that they have, with their whole life?
Maybe because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Maybe because when you are in desperate need, going all in with your money, your time, your whole life is all you can do. Or maybe you go all in because you trust God more. This widow who gave her whole life is an example, but not of a cheerful giver or of someone exploited by an unjust system. She is an example of someone who trusted God more. She went all in with everything she had, not knowing what would happen to her, but trusting, somehow, that God did.
We are called to go all in – with our money, our time, our resources – because we trust God more. It sounds easy. Yet it is so hard to do. But still we are called. Over and over, we are called to go all in without expectation or knowing the outcome. We are called to go all in, giving up control over what might happen. We are called to go all in because we trust God more. And here is the good news. God has gone and is going and will go all in for us. Think about that. Let those words sink in. God has gone. God is going. God will go all in for us. Let us go all in for this God who goes all in for us. Let us trust God more than our fears of what we’re giving up. Let us trust God more. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.