November 11, 2012

Mark 12:38-44

After criticizing the religious leaders of his time for both a lack of humility and taking advantage of the poor, Jesus sits down near one of the offering boxes at the temple to observe as the worshippers come to make their gifts for the temple. Having watched both the rich and the poor placing their gifts in the treasury, Jesus comments that a poor widow has contributed more than anyone else because the rich people “have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

In practical terms for the temple budget, Jesus’ statement simply isn’t true. The widow’s two coins wouldn’t have made much difference at all for the institution’s ministry. They would have represented the tiniest of drops in the biggest of buckets. The small copper coins (Greek: lepta) were the smallest coins circulated, and sixty-four “pennies” equalled one denarius, or a day’s wage.

The rich people had the resources to give more without much of a thought. They might have given a whole denarius, or maybe even more than one, and those larger offerings would have sustained religious life at the temple, feeding and clothing the religious leaders and maintaining the central place of worship for the Jewish People.

But Jesus says that the widow’s offering is greater, not because it has a larger impact on the temple’s ministry, but because it requires a larger sacrifice on her part.

Perhaps it’s like the impact of a homemade gift… Even if the store-bought present would have been both more expensive and more perfect… the homemade version took time, effort, and care. It was made with love, and that’s what makes it worth more.

Or think about it this way… You’re driving out on the highway in a terrible snow storm. The visibility gets so bad that you lose your way and end up driving off the highway and into a shallow ditch. You’re stuck, and you need help.

Two possibilities… You pull out your cell phone and call a friend with a tow truck. The friend drops what they’re doing and comes to your rescue, hooks up your car, and easily pulls you back onto the road, and then leads you back into the city.

Or, stuck there without a cell phone, you wait for a passing motorist to come to your aide. Soon someone comes along, slows, and puts on his four-way flashers as he pulls onto the shoulder.

The wind and snow continue to blow, and you wonder if he’ll be safe there with other cars continuing along the highway. But he gets out and trudges through the snow to your car.

“Are you stuck?” he asks. “Yes I am. Do you have a cell phone?” you reply.

“No, but I can push if you like.” “Are you sure? It’s pretty cold and wet out here.” “You’re right about that, but we’ve got to get you out, don’t we?”

And so he gets behind your car and pushes with all his might. He’s not a big guy, but he puts all his weight into it. And after a lot of work, your tires finally find some traction and you drive easily up onto the road. As you look back, you see that your rescuer is covered with wet snow and he’s breathing heavily from the exertion.

The still-falling snow is starting to pile up on his own vehicle, and the lights are only barely visible. You express your thanks in the best words you can find, and then both of you drive off into the storm.

The friend with a tow truck certainly offered you a gift. But the stranger with only his willingness to offer himself gave the greater gift, didn’t he?

Jesus’ comments about the poor widow and her offering only hint at a point. Maybe he’s saying that we should all be as generous as she was, giving all our resources for the benefit of the temple or the church today.

Or maybe he’s reminding us that people at different income levels will be able to give at different levels. We shouldn’t give more thanks and praise for the people who can give large amounts. But we should value the gifts of the poor ones as well. Even tiny amounts given by someone who is almost destitute represent extremely generous gifts.

Most of the commentaries notice the fact that Jesus’ point is not clear: “It’s hard to know whether Jesus’ example of the widow giving all she had should be taken as a good thing or as another condemnation of the workings of the temple,” the New Interpreter’s Study Bible questions.

Imagine a system that encourages poor widows to give their last coins for the sake of the religious leaders walking around in long robes and sitting in the places of honour at banquets! Maybe Jesus is drawing attention to an injustice. Poor widows shouldn’t be called upon to give their last coins. Or if they do, the religious leaders should at least be putting them to good use!

It’s a good practice, when reading the Gospels, not only to pay attention to the particular passage that shows up in the lectionary cycle, but to notice the stories that come immediately before and after it. Oftentimes the editors’ of the Gospels have placed the stories of Jesus in a very intentional order to make some important theological points.

In this case, just after Jesus’ comments about the widow’s offering we find him outside the temple predicting that the whole thing will soon be destroyed: As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”

Just think… the poor widow has contributed out of her poverty. She has given everything she had, all she had to live on… And the temple for which she gave her offering is going to be completely destroyed. In a short time, it will all be gone.

Looking back later, that widow might have kicked herself for giving her last two coins to the temple now lying in ruins. Or perhaps she didn’t regret her costly gift, because she may well have been the kind of person who gave without counting the cost, who lived for the sake of giving herself and her gifts for others. She couldn’t be dissuaded from giving just in case it didn’t work out, because that was just the kind of person that she was.

She was like the person who gets out of his car to push another vehicle out of the ditch even when he’s not sure that he’ll be successful.

She was like the person who sits by the bedside of her dying friend even when she has no way of knowing that her friend even knows that she’s there.

She was like the person who makes an offering to a church, not knowing whether the congregation will make it through the next ten years or even the next one year.

She was like the person who volunteers at a food bank or a soup kitchen, wondering what can be done in our society to end the need for food programs, and yet wanting to fill the need for people who are hungry right now.

She was like the Canadian Peacekeeper today, filled with questions about Canada’s role in armed conflict, and yet determined to serve in the hope that somehow his offering might contribute to a world where there is greater justice and peace for all people.

And, of course, as many reflections on this scripture text point out, the poor widow was like Jesus. Her two small copper coins represent more than money. They represent the faith-filled offering found in presenting all of who we are to God for service to the world.

This kind of offering does not ask for a guarantee of success or a measure of the effectiveness of the gift. In fact, the offering is not really calculated or counted as we might expect, because it’s not so much about the act of giving or receiving, as it is about the act of being… of living for others.

I think that must be what Jesus was pointing out with the poor widow’s offering. She offers a glimpse into what Jesus himself is about. Just as she gave all that she had, all that she had to live on for the corrupt and condemned temple establishment… Jesus is on the way to giving the whole of his life for something that is also corrupt and condemned: all of humanity, the whole world.

I can’t help but think of Cleopas and the other disciple walking away from Jerusalem after Jesus had been arrested and killed on a cross. In that moment they felt disappointed and disillusioned by what had happened to Jesus. He had committed his whole life and all his energy to building a kingdom of love and peace, healing and hope… and he ended up tortured and killed.

They had gotten excited about his mission and had committed their lives to following him, and learning his ways, and promoting his message. But it was a disaster! They had offered so much, and now it had all come crashing down.

If Jesus hadn’t come along to walk beside them on the road to Emmaus, I imagine their lives might have taken quite a different course. But he did come, and he talked with them, and walked with them, and shared a meal with them… and their eyes were opened and they recognized him. He was not dead, for he had been raised. He had given his whole life… not for nothing, but so that he could draw all people to himself.

And although we don’t know what happened to Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, we can imagine that they renewed their commitment to Jesus’ mission and ministry, and that they continued to offer themselves and their lives and their gifts to proclaim the Gospel in words and in good deeds.

There is a global, ecumenical, women’s prayer movement called “The Fellowship of the Least Coin” that has flourished since the late 1950’s. The key to the movement’s success is its simplicity. Individuals or groups may join by committing to pray for peace, justice, and reconciliation among families and communities, and worldwide. Each time a woman prays, she sets aside the least coin of her local currency as a symbol of the prayer. Women’s national groups collect the coins and send them to a central fund at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. The prayers offered and the least coins collected support projects for women and children around the world.

The idea for the Fellowship of the Least Coin emerged as a vision from God to Mrs. Shanti Solomon of India. She was part of the Pacific Mission Team of seven women from different countries that traveled in Asian countries after World War II. Shanti Solomon, who was refused a visa to Korea, went to the Philippines while other members of the team proceeded to Korea. While there she reflected on the experiences of their travel in the war-torn countries of Asia and was inspired to promote reconciliation, justice, and peace.

On the return of the team, she suggested that prayer could transcend every national boundary. She challenged the Christian women of Asia and the women from the Presbyterian Church of the United States to combine their efforts and resources and launch a project of justice, peace, and reconciliation on an international basis. It was to be a project of Christian prayer and positive action in which every Christian woman could participate, no matter what her economic position was. Every time a woman prayed she was to set aside a “least coin” of her currency. It was an encouragement to the women of the team to demonstrate their unity in Christian faith, regardless of their country or economic circumstances. They all accepted it as their sincere desire to express their solidarity with suffering humanity and with women of every nation.

Remembering the poor widow who offered her two small copper coins, we are invited today to offer our least coins, our prayers, and our lives for God’s good purposes in our community and our world. May God give us the gift of faith and trust to give of ourselves without counting the cost, and may God bless all that we offer to promote justice, peace, and reconciliation in our families, communities, and throughout the world. Amen.