November 8, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
It is the last week of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. He has gone into Jerusalem, welcomed with shouts of “Hosanna!” Now, he is continuing his work, teaching and healing, observing the life of the city and the religious people around him. As we’ve heard in the last few weeks, Jesus has had several confrontations with the religious authorities. Then, just last week, we heard about a friendly and respectful dialogue with one of them, a scribe, a teacher of the law. Now, Jesus and his disciples are in the synagogue, and he is watching people come and go. When they leave the synagogue, their next conversation will be this:
“As he 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.’” That will come much later, the destruction of the temple, but it is worth bearing it in mind as we listen for God’s word to us today in Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them,
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
It was stewardship Sunday at the small town church, and people were giving their testimonies. One after another people stood up to share stories of God’s faithfulness, and to share stories of generosity.
Finally, a man stood, a home town boy who had made good. “I’m a millionaire,” the boastful parishioner testified, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I can still remember the turning point in my faith, like it was yesterday: I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I had only a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give all I had to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.”
The congregation applauded, and as he took his seat a little old lady stood up, looked directly at the man, and said, “I dare you to do it again!”
I know you’ve heard that story before, but I do love telling it! In the context of this scripture you’ve heard today, the rich man is more comparable to the scribes who devour widows’ houses than to the widow woman herself. Or perhaps, when he gave that one dollar, he was like the poor widow, but when he gave that testimony, he was more like the unscrupulous scribes.
I have here two tiny coins, two actual lepta, copper coins from the 1st century. These are the same coins that are in this story – the smallest denomination of coins in existence at the time. Their value at the time was very small, but more than a penny of our time. The modern value of a lepta, relative to the standard day’s wage of a denarius could be compared to a few dollars in modern money – less than even an hour’s wage – not enough to buy much.
These little coins date back to the first century, when there was no uniform coinage system in Jerusalem. These coins would have been used primarily, perhaps exclusively, by Jews. As I look at them I like to think about whose hands touched them then.
Could it have been someone who saw and spoke to Jesus?
Could it have been one of the disciples, even Jesus himself?
I wonder what they were used for – to purchase a dove for a sacrifice?
To give to the treasury? To be saved for some future giving plan?
These tiny coins have very little weight, but they did have value.
The two coins could easily represent the two parts of the great commandment – love of God, and love of others. I’ve begun to think of these coins as representing two aspects of stewardship: faithfulness and trust. Loving God is an act faith; loving others is an act of trust. The first part of this story demonstrates the opposite of those two aspects. The scribes Jesus condemns are those who are not faithful, and certainly are not trustworthy.
You can certainly think of contemporary examples, those in our time who like to be seen, those well-dressed, powerful religious figures, who like to be invited to political gatherings and rub elbows with politicians, who are the featured speakers at big events, and who arrive in chauffeur-driven limousines, and fly home in their personal jets. They like to offer lengthy prayers on behalf of the rich, and be invited to their luxurious homes. They wear custom suits, and they travel in grand style.
Back in April, the televangelist Creflo Dollar put out a call to his supporters. It seems he needed a new jet. A sixty-five million dollar jet. To share the gospel, of course. It is certainly not for me to decide, but you have to wonder if that’s the sort of thing Jesus was talking about when he said, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” I can assure you that in this congregation, we don’t have to worry about whether or not the pastor needs a jet. Truth is, I hardly even use up my mileage reimbursement!
Not much has changed, since Jesus gave this warning – there are still unscrupulous religious leaders who will use their power and status to enrich themselves rather than for the glory of God. They may sincerely believe, but are they good stewards? Are they faithful and trustworthy?
In comes this widow, this woman who has so little. She has so little, but she gives it all.
She has only two coins, two small copper coins. But she give them both – all she has.
We joked in Bible study that perhaps she only intended to put in one coin, but her hand slipped and she accidentally dropped in both of them!
I think her gift was an act of faith and trust. Her faith was in the promise of God – that God would not abandon the covenant. Remember, her gift was not an act of Christian faith, because no such thing existed. She was giving to the God of Israel, the God of the covenant, who promised that she would be cared for. She demonstrated her faith in God, and her trust that her community would follow God’s commandment to care for the widow and the orphan.
The first coin, the coin of faith, represents love and devotion to God, our faith in God’s providence and provision for us. For one who is found faithful, making a sacrificial gift is closer to the original meaning of sacrifice – to perform an act that is sacred – to do or make something holy. Our gifts of faith are not sacred in and of themselves; they are made holy in the giving. When we offer that first coin, the coin of faith, God makes it holy.
The second coin, the coin of trust, represents trust in God and in others, a love of others that rests in our faith. Maybe it is the one that is most difficult to let go of. The first coin was faith – given freely. But the second coin, giving that was an act of deep trust. This widow could give all she had, her entire substance, because she could trust in the community of faith that surrounded her, and she knew her trust would not be disappointed. It was no risk, really, no sacrifice at all, because God had commanded that widows and orphans were to be cared for.
Most of us don’t really like to talk about sacrificial giving when it comes to our stewardship pledges for the church. In fact, most of us like sacrifice best when someone else does it! We nod approvingly at this story of the widow, and we applaud Mother Teresa, or the story of any person who gives up a brilliant career in order to serve the needy. But truthfully, it is more comfortable to watch someone else do the giving.
Oh, we don’t say that! We want to be found faithful in our giving, in the way we use our money, our time and our talents. We don’t want to be stingy.
But we also …don’t….want…to give up….that second coin…
Maybe we are struggling with our faith, not sure about God,
maybe not quite willing to give that gift of gratitude and love.
Maybe we are struggling with our trust, not sure about our community,
maybe not quite certain that our gifts will be used well.
Maybe we tell ourselves that our money is going to be used to help people who don’t deserve it. We miss out on the truth that it was never our money anyway! So we try to find good reasons to hold back one of those coins, to hold back on that pledge increase,
to wait and see…
And by holding on, we lose out. We lose out on the joyful freedom of faith and trust, on the delight of seeing our small gifts multiplied into big actions. When we try to hold on tightly to our material blessings, we have to let go of the joy of generosity! When we freely let go of our gifts, in faith and trust, we learn how to hold on to gratitude and joy.
The way we learn the joy of generosity is by giving. The way we learn to be faithful is by faithful actions. The way we learn to trust is by trusting. It may start small – perhaps with pledging for the first time, or by a small monthly increase in the pledge you’ve already been making. Perhaps it is a small percentage increase, or a gradual increase. Maybe the first coin was easy, the second coin not so much. Each one of us must make that decision with God’s help. What we pray, no matter what our gifts, is that we will be found faithful – and that God will take our gifts, given in love and devotion, given in faith and trust, and make them holy. May we each be found faithful in even the smallest of gifts.
 Rousseau, John, Jesus and His World, an Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary. p 56.
Accessed online at googlebooks, 11/7/2015