Beware of the scribes (Mark 12:38-40
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering (Mark 12:39-44)
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
WHAT WAS THIS WOMAN THINKING? SHE PUT IN ALL SHE HAD TO LIVE ON? How is she going to eat tomorrow? How will she pay her rent next month? Was she so despairing of her status and circumstances as a widow that giving all her money away seemed as logical as any other course of action? Perhaps she had children whom she expected to take her in. Or was she trusting of the scribes to care for her in her utter destitution? Jesus certainly wasn’t trusting of the scribes. Maybe she had a house to live in now but according to Jesus, the scribes would “devour” it and then where would she be? Did she feel coerced by Temple culture to give whatever she had? To whom was she making this wildly extravagant gift anyway? And did she give it joyfully or grudgingly?
The interpretations of this passage that I’m familiar with, including one we used in a long ago Seekers exercise about financial giving, focus on the words of Jesus, who says that the widow’s gift is more (into which I read “better”) than the gifts of the more wealthy because she has given all – she has sacrificed mightily. It is not actually clear that Jesus is claiming that her gift is better – its just as likely that he’s merely noticing it as part of his critique of the scribes and wealthy donors, of income inequality in general, of the squeeze put on poor people, but praise of the widow’s gift is certainly a common interpretation. And I’m guessing that each one of us has had the experience of receiving great generosity from people of few means so this is an interpretation we can resonate with. Still, I am curious about the widow’s motivation.
What motivates you to give your money away –to individuals, to organizations, to Seekers and to the myriad places you can to engage in consumerism? How do you think about money generally?
At Seekers, we take money matters seriously. Mostly our work with money, in addition to and in the context of creating our annual budget, revolves around being good stewards of our resources and facing into the spirit challenges that money creates in our capitalist culture where it is, if not the One God, at least an important god. Over the years, we’ve had School of Christian Living classes, preaching and other ways to engage the subject.
This is the time of year when we at Seekers put together our budget for the coming year. In the November Stewards meeting, our Financial Oversight Group – FOG –presented a proposed budget to us. In December, after any necessary discussion and revision, Stewards will approve the budget for 2016.
Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about money in the last year or so. With a number of other Seekers, I attended a full day workshop at the Festival Center in Adams Morgan earlier this year to examine various aspects of our personal relationship with money as well as emerging models of small group sharing economies. I’ve written a money autobiography.
This sermon is my effort to sort though the work I’ve done, how I experience Seekers’ work with money and how, if at all, it relates to the extravagant gift of the poor widow.
First, a statement of my standpoint dependence. Unlike I’m guessing about 95% of others in this room – yes, even those who are or appear financially well off today – I have never experienced a day of financial insecurity in my life. Financial security is a circumstance for which we should wish and work for every human being on earth. The widow in our story did not have financial security even before she gave all her money away: the amount she gave – an amount that Jesus claimed was all she had – is described in one Bible resource as substantially less than the wage for an hour’s worth of a day’s labor.
Not only have I not experienced financial insecurity, but I grew up and still live with financial wealth and material comfort. Talking about the source of these is really a whole other sermon but for this moment, suffice it to say that it was not primarily my hard work, and that white privilege plays a big part. I name my financial circumstances with neither pride nor shame, but with the understanding that the Gospels warn us about the pitfalls of wealth: the story of the rich young man who was not ready to give up his riches led to Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kindom of God; of course, there are other stories as well. According to Jesus, wealth steals the heart’s affection and weans one away from God: Where our treasure is, so there our heart will be. So I am on notice about the spiritual challenges of my comforts. And I am aware of how very addicted I am to them.
In another context entirely but with words that seem relevant, Jesus said that to those to whom much is given, much is expected. (Luke 12:48) So what is expected of me, with my wealth, comfortable life and more than enough income to live on? I sometimes think of myself as generous – I like to take friends out to eat from time to time, I tip pretty well, I help my children and some friends out financially, with Pat I offer our house and our summer house to others, I give to Seekers, and to other organizations. But upon reflection, I have to acknowledge that this giving is all on my terms, within my power to control. And after I’ve given, I still have my comfort and financial stability; I’m giving out of abundance. The widow may or may not have given on her own terms but she certainly did not come away with financial security.
Having the ability to help people and to fix things with money is not without its drawbacks. I think it makes me less resourceful, less inclined to look for other solutions to challenges before me. It also puts me in the quandary sometimes of whether I am helping someone out of a bind by giving him a little wider financial margin in which to operate or enabling bad choices. Of course, if I’m giving money to you, I’m the one who will determine whether you are making bad choices that I don’t want to support. And helping another, especially financially, can change the nature of the relationship with that person, because of the power imbalance. While I have a lot of power, I also have a lot of moral ambiguity. I don’t like moral ambiguity.
There is another factor at work – in my own decisions about helping others, in Seekers’ decisions about how we help each other. We might call this the hazy boundary between personal responsibility/self reliance and the notion that “we’re all in this together” – a favorite Seekers phrase. I’m aware that, for myself, I like to know that the person I’m helping is doing what they can to care for themselves. But what does that really mean? What exactly is self reliance and how are we all in this together? Is self reliance the ability to provide for your own food, clothing and shelter from the fruits of your own labor? When it comes to financial assistance, are we all in this together to help each of us to get to that place of self reliance or for something more?
In the Book of Acts, the financial aspect of “we’re all in this together” is described this way: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:32-35
This passage certainly offers the picture of an economic system in stark contrast to the one in which the widow lived and the one in which we all live today.
I confess that I am not evolved enough in my commitment to economic justice to be ready to create the Acts’ version of a sharing community. How about you? Does the early church economy speak to you? Is there something in this picture that you wish for this church community? What I would like, for starters, is for us to recognize that self reliance is not a very cut and dried notion, that many societal factors and public policies influence any particular individual’s circumstances and that really, none of us is totally self reliant.
Right now in Seekers, we have two specific ways we express our caring for each other financially. One is through the Growing Edge Fund, which supports individuals taking a risk to explore something new in their lives. The grants are relatively small, but the idea is to have Seekers behind you in your endeavor. Even these small grants have led to life changing experiences for many of the recipients. The other is through the Holy Spirit Fund. It is used to help those among us when we have expenses that cannot be met through our own or other resources, usually unforeseen or emergency expenses. Are there other mechanisms through which we might express our desire to be “all in this together”?
Each of us has had the privilege or good fortune to be able to help another, whether financially or otherwise, so we all know there is no easy formula for when to step in with help and when to hold back. Life is messy; while I may not want to support your bad choices, those choices may harm innocents. And there is always the matter of what are wants and what are needs. The distinction between the two is insidiously blurred for us by the advertising industry. But even recognizing that, making decisions can be complicated.
Beyond considerations of how we personally and as Seekers decide about helping individuals, there is the matter of the Seekers’ budget – one expression of “we’re all in this together”. Our budget does include amounts for helping each other as I’ve just described but has other components worth looking at as well. How Seekers gathers and spends its money is interesting to me. First, we do not have a pledge Sunday, as the church of my childhood did. We do not ask anyone to tell us in advance what they plan to give for the coming year. We do ask Stewards, as a practice to which they commit, to “give proportionally of income, beginning at ten percent.” The ten percent – or tithe – has been much discussed in Stewards for more than twenty years. Some consider it an unfair burden on people with modest incomes that is not supported by the Gospels. Others argue that it can be a goal for people to work toward as a spiritual discipline. The language remains. But even with that commitment by Stewards, our budget planners still do not have a lot of information, because the language does not define income – it could be gross income, taxable income, income after necessary living expenses– and if you lose your job mid-year, you may have no income at all with which to meet that standard. So the commitment creates an individual spiritual practice, but not much of a budget planning tool. The income identified in the budget is determined mostly from FOG’s assumptions about how close to this year’s giving next year’s will come (there are a few other sources, but our own giving comprises about half of our income). But what’s also really interesting about Seekers’ budget is our commitment to spend only about 50% of our income on ourselves – on the building maintenance, salaries and general church-related expenses. We give away – through domestic and international giving programs as well as a few line items for partners such as Dayspring – about half of all we get. And here’s another cool thing: every one of us gets a chance to give some of Seekers money away to an organization we’re directly engaged with. Every one of us. Anyone who wants to can join either of the giving groups (domestic or international) to have input into the process for choosing which grants to make, but even if you don’t join one of the groups, you can make a proposal for a grant.
Here’s a thing about control. I have a lot of control over the decision to give money, the amount and in individual situations, whether I give you money directly or pay a vendor on your behalf. But once I give to most organizations, I lose control over how my money is used. To a large extent, but not entirely, that is true of giving to Seekers. I can educate myself and ask questions about the budget, challenge budget decisions and have input into the domestic and international giving grants, but really, when I put my money into the collection plate, I am acceding to the principle that we are all in this together and that we will share the making of decisions about how the church’s money is spent.
So. Do you give money to Seekers? Why? Is it out of obligation? To help you feel that you belong, that you are a contributing part of the community? Out of a sense of generosity? Of gratitude? Do you give joyfully, grudgingly or just automatically? Does it matter to you how we spend our money, or that you can have some say in that? As Stewards has considered the tithing standard over time, we’ve asked ourselves these questions. Most of us have some or all of these motivations and feelings about our giving at any particular time. As to our widow, there is precious little – well really, nothing at all – in the story as given to us to tell us her feelings and motivation. Was she embarrassed to be giving so little – did she try to make herself nearly invisible as she made her offering? Was she resentful, thinking that a gift was required of her, perhaps almost coerced from her, despite her abject poverty? Or was she experiencing some inner delight, some belief that God had more in store for her than her immediate circumstances would suggest, that made it easy and joyful for her to give all she had? Was she putting her treasure where her heart was?
I mentioned not much liking ambiguity. I know my motives for giving are mixed and complicated, but I’d like to make more robust the part of me that gives out of gratitude. Gratitude for being alive, for being a part of God’s creation and for all that has been given to me.
After I wrote my money autobiography, Billy Amoss invited me to read it to him in the context of Interplay-like movement and forms. I found this idea intriguing and accepted his invitation. As he prepared me for the first portion of the exercise, I started crying. What got me crying was not anything I had written. It was remembering the day after Samantha graduated from Oberlin in 2005 and finding a note and a book from her awaiting Pat and me on our dining room table. In the note, she thanked us for making possible her time at Oberlin. The book was Freakonomics, something she’d been turned on to while there. I was so moved by her expressed gratitude. As I sat with Billy, it occurred to me, with a rush of shame, that I had probably never thanked my parents for paying for my college education or for any of the many opportunities they had provided for me in my life and now they are dead. I then danced a dance of gratitude and grief – gratitude for the lesson from Samantha and for all my parents had given me, and grief that I cannot express it to them. Tears were flowing during the entire dance.
We can’t know what motivated the widow, what her feelings were upon dropping her two coins into the box – or how she ate the next day. Perhaps her story is told not as an example of sacrificial giving but as a condemnation of the scribes’ practices of squeezing even the most destitute. Perhaps she was putting her treasure where her heart was.
What we can and do know is that money matters, whether we have a lot or a little, and that it behooves us to take stock periodically of where our own treasure is, for so there our heart shall be.