March 19th 2017
Mark 12 verses 38 – 44
Maggie Cogan - Reader
May the words of my mouth and all the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord our strength and our redeemer
Generous God –Generous People - The theme of our lent course this year
Today I would like to talk to about how we give. Notice, I said “how we give,” rather than “how much we give.” There’s a difference. How we give is just as important as how much we give.
A prime example of this is the story of the widow’s mite, which is our Gospel reading today. The Widow’s Mite–that’s the traditional name by which this story is known. The term “mite” is not a word we use anymore, and you don’t see it in the translation we use today. But in our text, where it says, “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins,” in the old King James Version it says, “She threw in two mites.” And the term “mite” stuck, when referring to this story. A “mite” is a small copper coin, with the least monetary value that a coin could have. And this widow threw in two of them. It wasn’t very much.
I find it interesting identifying the origin of popular words and phrases. No less so than the phrase many of us have often used, “But, that’s just my penny worth or my two pennies worth.” Where did those phrases come from? Depending upon where one searches for the answer, we would discover that the English language contains many specific terms for goods or services that cost two penny, two-pence, some of them very old. We also might discover that over time two penny also became descriptors of items that weren’t worth much, if anything. Finally, somewhere in the mid-1920’s, we discover the phrase became attached to the practice of offering unsolicited advice. But, the earliest reference to anything to “two penny” appears in the lesson of the widow's mite in the Gospel of Mark. In that earliest reference, the “two pennies worth” has a totally different meaning than how we’ve come to use it. For the widow, the “two pennies” was everything. For the wealthy who stood around her it didn’t mean much. I’m afraid we still take our “two pennies” to be worth just that—two pennies.
We know the scene. Jesus sits and watches as people put their offerings in the offering boxes around the Temple. There were 13 of them, in fact lined along the outside of one of the Temple courtyards. They looked like trumpets and it was quite something of a show to watch people go by and toss their coins into the horns. The noise would be predicated upon the type and number of coins a person dropped into the box. There were even some who would make a show of their offerings.
Jesus taught: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation”
Remember that “the teachers of religious law” were the experts in the Law of Moses. They were teachers of the Law in schools and synagogues. They expounded on the Scriptures and preserved them. They were also referred to as lawyers and served as judges in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. Jesus warns His disciples “beware of these teachers of religious law.” He gives several reasons for His warning, but note, one in particular: “they devour widow’s houses”.
They exploited widows. Jews and Christians have always been charged with a ministry of caring for widows. The Apostle James, in his letter says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled, this is: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world”. So, Jesus charges them with cheating widows rather than visiting them in their distress.
These “judges” tended to exploit widows and deny them justice.
Jesus is in the temple, in the week leading up to the cross. Amidst the upheaval of the entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple when Jesus overturned the tables, the disputes with the religious leaders and everything else that was going on, Mark and Luke record this quiet action of a widow as well.
And then this poor widow comes in. She has no bulging money bag. Her purse isn’t full to bursting. She has just two small copper coins. You’d hardly notice. It was hardly worth her while. Her contribution seems utterly insignificant compared to these great givers.
As Jesus sits watching, condemning those “teachers” or “judges,” he notices who is putting what in the Treasury, and he notices who makes the show of it. Doubtless, some of those who were putting money in were the very teachers and scribes Jesus was warning about and doubtless they were some of the very ones making a show of it.
Just how poor was the widow? The word “poor” suggests she was “utterly helpless, completely destitute, living in such absolute poverty that perhaps even needed necessities for survival such as food and shelter were lacking.” It was highly probable that she did not have another male relative to provide for her needs—no father, son, brother, or even a brother-in-law. Basically, there was no social safety net to capture this poor widow. No social security. No husband’s pension. No pension of her own. I’m afraid we don’t know the value of the two coins the widow placed in the Temple treasury.
We can’t fully grasp what it meant for her to put in her two coins worth. Jesus calls his disciples together and says ‘truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in than all more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. They all gave out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty, she put in everything, all she had to live on.’
Jesus knew that these are not just two coins, but the woman’s last two. It was all she had to live. This widow put her whole life into the temple treasury that day. The widow gave 100% of her money. She is down to two practically worthless little coins and trusts it all to God she laid her whole self before God. For the widow, it wasn’t just a matter of giving. It was a matter of giving all she had. The widow could easily have retained one of the coins for herself. It wouldn’t have been much but it would have been something. Instead, she gave her life.
For the woman the giving was sacrificial. It’s never the amount given that matters, but the cost to the giver. It’s not the size of the gift but the sacrifice of the gift. We might even suggest that her giving was never about money. It was always about her heart. That’s what she put in the Temple treasury that day—she put her heart. She was totally committed.
I’d like to tell you a story
A pig and a chicken were walking down the road. As they pass a church, they notice that a charity breakfast was under way. Caught up in the spirit, the pig suggests to the chicken that they each make a contribution.
“Great Idea!” the chicken cried. “Let’s offer them bacon and eggs!”
“Not so fast.” said the pig. “For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment.”
Jesus contrasted two different types of people. Those who put a lot in, but their heart wasn’t in the right place. It was more about themselves than about the Kingdom. Then, there was the widow who put all in that day. What a difference!
Today a lot of people categorize church into one of two categories. The first category would be those who ask, “What do we get out of church?” Or, they might ask, “What does the church provide in support for our families?” Or, “Does the service give us strength and encourage us?” Maybe, “What are we getting when we attend church?”
The second category would be those who ask, “What do we give to church?” We give praise to God in worship. We lead and teach children and Lent groups. We serve others whenever we have an opportunity. We use our gifts and talents to organize and plan ministries. We give our financial resources to the church. We join in a partnership with the larger connection of Churches Together in Sudbury. We share our story about what Christ has done for us, and so we are witnessing our faith to lead others to Christ.
These are briefly, both what we get out of church, and what we give to church. We must be careful which question we find ourselves asking, for therein lies the key to understanding the value of our “two pennies.” When we only ask the “what am I getting question”, we come perilously close to being the former in today’s text. Yes, they put in much from their abundance, but there wasn’t much heart in the offering. When we ask the “what am I giving” question, it reflects a heart tuned to the heart of God and to the needs of the world around us.
Someone may ask, “Well what good can I do? I am too old, or too young. I am too poor, or too sick. I have too many children to care for. I am a widow. I am too busy. I am too weak. The job is impossible for me to do. It’s asking too much. What can one person do?” God knows the motive of our hearts. Our acts of faith might seem very insignificant to anyone else. We might not seem terribly important or influential in the world’s eyes.
But from Jesus’ perspective–which is to say, from God’s perspective–this widow’s offering was indeed very much. It was the biggest and best offering anyone put in that day. And that is because of how it was given. Jesus commends this woman’s offering, and it serves as an example for us, of how we should give with our whole hearts
Lord God, all things come from you and of your own do we give you
What is “two pennies” worth? Everything