Sermon for November 10th, 2019

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Coins: The Widow's Mite

Our scripture reading today can be found on pages 49 and 50 in your pew Bibles. Turn to those pages, but then hold your place there. I'm actually going to intersperse the scripture reading with the sermon today, and you'll want to follow along carefully, to make sure I'm telling you the truth! In the meantime, let us pray.

(Prayer for Illumination)

I recently went to a coin factory. Walking around, I was amazed at all of the machines and moving parts that filled the factory. At first, I didn't understand what was happening, but then it dawned on me. It all makes cents.

For the next three weeks, we'll be talking about coins in the Bible, and how Jesus uses coins to teach and transform the perspective of his followers. So you might say this is a sermon series...about change.

Our first "coin trick" is the story of the widow's mite, found in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12. If you're already familiar with this story, or if you've ever it preached as part of a sermon, chances are *you* are the one who has been tricked. But before I get into that, and before we read the scripture passage, let's talk a little bit about widows and mites.

A "mite" is simply a coin of very little value. We often associate it with a penny, but it was probably worth more than that in this story. In Greek, the word is λεπτόν (lepton) which would have represented about six minutes of an average daily wage. According to the El Paso Times, the average wage for all occupations in our city is 17.78 per hour, divided by 60 minutes in an hour is 29.6 cents per minute, times 6 means one lepton today would be worth 1.78 cents. Two leptons (the amount featured in our story) would equal approximately $3.56.

A "widow" is, of course, a woman whose husband has passed away. But in 1st century Israel, where our story takes place, it meant more than that. The Greek word χήρα (chera) literally meant "bereft" or "barren." It usually applied to an elderly woman with no husband and no children, no family to take care of her, no means of employment, no property, someone who would have been destitute, completely dependent on the charity of others to live.

So. With that said, let's read our scripture passage. Or, rather, the most famous part of our scripture passage. I'm going to start with just the middle part, Mark 12:41-44. This is the part called the story of the widow's mite. It's a very frequently used story in churches around this time of year. We'll talk about why later.

Mark 12:41-44

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

The Generous Widow

Now, the way this story is usually preached goes something like this: A poor widow shows up all the wealthier people, because she is giving a larger percentage of her income--100%, actually--while they are giving larger amounts, but amounts that don't really cost them much. The widow's gift is a sacrifice, and therefore a "better" gift than all the others. Jesus praises the widow's gift, and the moral of the story is we should all try to be like her, and give sacrificially, a greater portion of our income than we can afford.

If you've ever heard that sermon, I apologize. It's completely wrong on so many levels.

First of all, if you're ever in a position where you're down to your last few coins, all you have to live on, please your common sense. Don't give them to the church. I would much rather the church suffer hardship than any one of you.

Second of all, this understanding of the story goes against everything Jesus himself has taught up to this point. Just a few chapters earlier, in Mark 7, Jesus had confronted and criticized the religious leaders in his day for encouraging people to take money meant to support their elderly parents, and give it to the temple instead as a religious offering.

Third of all, in the story of the widow, if you look closely, Jesus doesn't ever praise her gift, or her. He says that she has put "more into the treasury than all the others" but he never says that's a good thing to do, something we should all strive for. If you read the rest of the passage (and we will) you'll see that in fact he thought this was a very "bad" thing to do, although he doesn't blame or condemn the widow for doing it. His criticism is aimed at the people and institutions who would allow a widow to give her last remaining coins to an institution Jesus despised and condemned.

Let's read the *whole* passage this time, backing up a few verses before the widow enters the picture, and continuing a few verses after she's gone. In this light, the story of the widow becomes an example of the larger point Jesus is trying to make.

Mark 12:38 – 13:2

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

1 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Wasted Coins

In the year 70, a few decades after the events in our story, the great temple in Jerusalem, with all its massive stones and magnificent buildings, was torn down, leveled to the ground by the Roman Empire. In other words, what Jesus knew, was that the widow was giving everything she had...for nothing. For someone else's dream. For a magnificent building that elevated the status of religious leaders, and did absolutely nothing to take care of the poorest and most desperate people who funded it with more than they could afford.

Jesus did not have a high opinion of the temple in Jerusalem. In the chapter right before this one, he barged into the temple and started turning over tables and driving out merchants, accusing them of turning it into a "den of robbers." It is highly unlikely that Jesus approved of anyone--rich or poor--contributing to an institution like that.

I'll never forget the awkward conversation I had with my childhood best friend, Mari Connor, when she found out that I worked for a church, and promptly shared with me the story of how she had walked away from Christianity years ago. She had been traveling in Italy after graduating from college, and she visited the Vatican in Rome. She should have been impressed with all the amazing beauty and architecture of the buildings. Most people are. But instead, all she could think about was her throughout so many years they had given money they couldn't afford to a church that took better care of the buildings than it did of the people entrusted to its care.

Wasted coins. The disciples of Jesus, like so many of us would, saw the massive stones and magnificent buildings, but Jesus saw what everyone else missed--the destitute widow giving her last paycheck to something that wouldn't last and couldn't save her. His words were not praising her actions, they were lamenting her fate.

I wish I knew what it was that motivated her to make that last, desperate gift. Did some religious leader guilt her into it? Did someone promise her that if she gave all she had, God would multiply her gift and bless her with wealth and riches? Because unfortunately, that still happens in our world today.

We are not told, in the story, what happens to the widow. The last thing Jesus says is that she gave all that she had to live on--a statement with pretty clear implications--and then Jesus leaves the Temple, not in a good mood. Four days later, his own life and ministry comes to an end, with his betrayal, arrest, and death on a Roman cross. His story, and the widow's, come to an end.

If we let the story end here, I can see how it would be tempting to just walk away from it all--from generosity, from giving, from the church, from faith in a God who allows things like this to happen.

But if we do that, I think we miss the point--every bit as much as those who interpret this story as being about a widow's "generosity." If we're honest, most of us are not the widow in this story. We may feel stretched financially, we may struggle with debt, we may even live paycheck to paycheck, but most of us have more in our bank account than $3.56.

I suspect that most of us are also not among the "rich people" in this story, throwing large amounts into the treasury, while devouring widows' houses and seeking prestige and recognition from our giving. At least, I hope not.

So who are we in this story? I think we're the disciples, the ones who are easily distracted by big, fancy things, and completely miss the real need in our midst. In short, we're the ones Jesus is trying to change.

Jesus wasn't opposed to giving or generosity. In fact, he called his followers to both. He wasn't against the church, and in the gospel of Matthew, expresses a desire to build or establish his church among his disciples. Jesus wasn't even against buildings, and often preaches in them and uses them to further his ministry.

The change that Jesus asks of his disciples, and by extension, us, is to consider the ramifications of our giving, our generosity, our churches, and our buildings. Are these things giving life, or are they taking life away? Are these things directing focus and attention to themselves, or to the people we are supposed to love and care for in our midst?

November is the beginning of our annual pledge drive here at First Presbyterian Church, the time when we remind our members of their commitment to give generously to the ministries of the church. I'll be honest: when you give to the church, some of that money goes to the building, to things like air conditioning, roof tiles, and toilet paper. We love our building, our worship spaces, our pews and our stained glass windows.

But if that's why you give to the church, I have just one word for you: Don't. It's not what we're about. First Presbyterian Church is not a building--we are a people, and our primary focus is people. We use our buildings, our resources, our finances, to be a spiritual home for Wanderers, for Wonderers, and Seekers of Wisdom.

In fact, the most important things that happen here at First Presbyterian church, typically don't happen on Sunday mornings. They happen on Wednesday nights, when over 100 children come here to learn about character development through our scouting programs.

They happen on Friday and Saturday evenings, when Kids N Co stages a performance that gives children their first opportunity to experience the performing arts.

They happen on Monday mornings when our Homeschool Co-op gathers, and throughout the week when our preschool teaches children and parents the dignity and worth of every child.

They happen every month when our Faith and Grief ministry provides comfort and counseling to those who have lost loved ones, and when our deacons reach out to the elderly, the widows, and the disabled.

They happen among the poorest in El Paso, who are served by the medical clinics and housing programs of Project Vida, and around the world through our global partners, who are translating the bible and planting churches in Central Asia.