SERMON — Giving From Your Poverty

Today I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. And this is what I preached.

Lectionary 32 / Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

  • 1 Kings 17:8-16
  • Psalm 146
  • Hebrews 9:24-28
  • Mark 12:38-44

38 And in his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows ‘houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 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. 44 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.” (Mark 12:38-44 ESV)

Today we have Jesus sitting in a very public place, watching people as they come and go and do something very public — make their contribution to the temple treasury. And in doing so, as Mark notes, they show to the world who they are.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And no doubt they made quite a show of putting their contributions in the temple offering box. Think of how the wealthy in our day behave, donating money to causes and institutions, building and endowing and putting their names on things — so that everyone knows, and will know for some time to come, who is responsible. Who gave that cancer could be fought, or malaria combatted, or illiteracy and ignorance alleviated.

Or that knowledge may be spread, or God worshiped, in this place.

Who gave enough. To leave a lasting, permanent, named mark on the world.

Today we have press conferences, well managed affairs where reporters are invited and told a glorious story, that so-and-so has given such-and-such moneys — millions, or maybe even a billion or two — for some wonderful cause that will better our lives. Or make it possible to lead better lives in some far-off day.

There are some people who simply cannot give away their fortunes fast enough. I’m thinking of Microsoft found Bill Gates, though the foundations created by the 19th century robber barons — people like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who both died long, long ago — are still busy funding causes and research, trying to make the world a different place.

“Many rich people put in large sums.” And Jesus watched. He watched as those rich people, some of whom I’m certain made a show or even a spectacle of their giving just as the rich do in our day, of telling all those around them — whoever could see, whoever could hear — of the great and wonderful things they were doing in giving so very much to the upkeep of God’s house and the priests who keep it.

And Jesus does this not long after condemning the scribes — the officials of the temple — for their very public demonstrations of piety and probity. He is especially critical of the scribes for “devouring” the houses of widows, for leaving the old and very vulnerable destitute in their faithfulness — in their faithful giving to the temple — while they strut around in nice clothes, seek public honors, and and pray long and ornate prayers. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Jesus tells his disciples. And us. Though, to be honest, he is not entirely clear about the “the greater condemnation” is.

And honestly, I’m not sure I want to know.

So, is what this widow does when she pops her two copper coins into the treasury box — everything she had, Jesus tells us — is she being faithful? Or is she being exploited?

Is Jesus celebrating her contribution to the upkeep of the house of God? Or is he condemning a system that further impoverishes and exploits this woman? And her simple faith in God?

We know what the condemnation of Jesus looks like. We see it, in the very words he speaks earlier in this passage about the scribes devouring the houses of widows. We see it earlier in this chapter, when he tells the sadducees “you are quite wrong” after they ask him a very silly question about marriage in the resurrection. We’ve seen Jesus angrily teach in the temple that this house, which is supposed to be a place of prayer, has been turned into a den of thieves. We watched Jesus curse a fig tree, condemning it to permanent fruitlessness. We’ve seen him rather pointedly tell a crowd that his mother and his brothers are those who do the will of God, and not those related to him by mere blood.

So, Jesus is not condemning this widow or her giving, even as he rebuked the very system she is giving to. We’d know if he was. He is, in fact, celebrating her faithfulness.

And that’s hard. Because, if we can believe what Jesus says here — and I think we should always believe what Jesus says — she has given everything, all she had to live on, and put it in the temple offering box. She is destitute. Her house, her livelihood, has been devoured by this temple. How she will live, being a widow, with no income and probably no one to protect or care for her, is anyone’s guess.

She has sacrificed everything. Because she loves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so much, and she trusts that this place, this house so meticulously rebuilt, so vast and ornate, is the place where God in his glory and his fullness dwells.

Even as the fruits of her faithfulness are devoured by the scribes who squander her meager gift on their squalid lives, her faithfulness still matters. It is real, and true, and she gives not from her surplus, not from her excess, not from what she can spare. But from the very substance of her life. How she lives after this is anyone’s guess. But she clearly trusts God.

She clearly trusts God.

I want you to consider, however, the next thing Mark reports Jesus as saying, something not in this week’s passage. When his disciples remark at the beginning of chapter 13 that this temple complex is amazing, wonderful buildings made of wonderful stones, Jesus tells them:

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

In the end, no one’s gift to maintain this temple, whether two measly copper coins or a sack of gold, will matter. The Romans will come in force and great number and demolish this place, stone by stone, and almost nothing will remain. Every gift given for its upkeep will have been wasted.

I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to consider the impermanence of things. In fact, there are few thoughts that make me despair more than knowing that at some point in the far distant future, our sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel, begin fusing helium, expand, and then eventually collapse in on itself, with nothing left but a cold, dwarf star and a few ruined planets. That this is billions of years in the future doesn’t lesson my sadness about this any. Just knowing that someday, nothing will remain of humanity and our efforts, struggles, and passions seems to me to very definition of pointless and futile. Why do we bother living at all?

And yet … her faith mattered. Her life was likely precarious and short, her wealth squandered by those she gave it to, but her faith — the faith that compelled her to share all she had — that mattered. It mattered to Jesus. It mattered then, and it matters now, and it will matter long after entropy claims the light and heat of the last star in the universe.

Because Jesus matters. Because Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but the faithfulness of Christ will be there. Always.

I have spoken of cosmic things, things that drive me to despair sometimes. But scripture, scripture is not so concerned with the cosmic. Scripture is worried about a here and now that we live in, that we can touch. In our first reading, we have another widow, out gathering wood for a fire. She meets Elijah the prophet, and he asks her for water and something to eat. There’s a drought, a drought Elijah has effectively commanded upon the world. He is fed by ravens who bring him bread and meat, but eventually the stream he drinks from dies up. So he goes looking for water.

That’s when he meets the widow. Hungry, he asks for something to eat. And she says she has nothing. She is getting to ready to eat the last of her food, at which point, she and her son will lie down and die because they have no more. No more is coming. And Elijah tells her to make him something of her flour and oil anyway, and feed him, and do not be afraid, for the jar of oil and the bag of flour will not run out until the rains return.

Trust me, and trust God, Elijah says. And give me all that you have. Trust that you have not been forgotten. You have not been abandoned.

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has, several times, predicted his own death, just as he predicts the coming destruction of the temple. In Mark, whenever Jesus tells his disciples he is going to die, he always finishes by telling them he will rise again on the third day. He does not predict the restoration of the temple. But he predicts his resurrection.

Trust me, Jesus tells his disciples, do not be afraid. Give me all that you have — not some ostentatious show of your marvelous surplus, but every pathetic copper coin you possess, all that you have to live on, all that you are — and know that you will not be abandoned. You will not be forgotten.

Though what you give may be squandered and misused by those you give it to, the lives you live not valued by those who should value them, and all you contribute given for things that will in the end burn and collapse and be forgotten by the ages, what you faithfully give to Jesus will always matter. Because Jesus matters.

Because Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead. He matters. Now, and forever. Amen.

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