The Story of God & Capital Campaigns (Guest Post – Author, Sean Gladding)

There’s this story in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is in the Temple with the disciples, and he’s watching people drop money into the treasury coffers. After some rich guys drop in sacks that make a nice jingle when they hit the pile beneath, an old woman drops in two small coins that barely make a sound. Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “This poor widow put in more than all of them; for they gave out of their excess, but she, in her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”

You may know this story. I’ve read it many times. I remember hearing it told in Sunday School and from various pulpits over the years. This story is often called ‘The Widow’s Mite’, and the general take on it seems to be that Jesus is teaching his disciples about how to give sacrificially. The story is a favourite for church stewardship seasons, or capital fund campaigns: we need to give like this woman so God can be glorified in our ministry or in our new church building. The message of the story is clear: don’t be like the rich who give what they can easily afford, be like the widow and give sacrificially.

The bible is full of stories. I love stories. Stories engage us at multiple levels. Stories draw us in. And stories often help us make sense of life. Many of us have the sense that the Bible is one big story – the Story of God. The trouble is, the Story isn’t told in chronological order, and there’s all this other stuff mixed in along with the narratives. So, if you are like me, when you first heard someone you respected say, “Here’s the story the Bible is telling…”, you were ready to believe their version of it. And usually it is something along the lines of, “Because of the Fall, we’re all condemned to spend eternity in hell. But Jesus died on the cross so that we have a way out, and if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then we will spend eternity with him in heaven.” Perhaps that sounds very familiar. And so we build buildings in which to tell that story, and invite people to come and hear it and be saved. And when they do, we need to build bigger buildings, and so maybe we turn to ‘the widow’s mite’ story to help get that done. But what if the story we’ve heard is not the whole story? What if the bible is telling a Story that is much more sweeping in scope than that version? How many of us have yet to hear that Story?

Ten years ago I heard that Story for the first time. I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary and took a course in New Testament Theology with Mary Fisher in which I was introduced to the idea of the meta-narrative of scripture. We read “The Challenge of Jesus” by N T Wright, which became a watershed moment for me – I experienced a conversion of my imagination. To that point I had approached scripture as something along the lines of an instruction manual – God’s guidelines for living on the way to heaven, perhaps. But that class, and the hours I spent with Mary in her office afterwards, profoundly changed the way I read scripture. For the last ten years I have read the bible as the Story of God – and one that does not begin with ‘the Fall’ in Genesis chapter 3, nor end with heaven and hell in the Revelation chapter 20, but a Story that begins in Genesis chapter 1 with life in the goodness of creation feasting on the fruit of the tree of life and that ends in the Revelation chapter 22 in the new creation, feasting on the fruit of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

The challenge I faced ten years ago was to lay aside the story I had been told the bible was telling, and begin to listen to the Story the bible is actually telling. Because if we miss that Story, then it’s quite possible we will miss what is going on in all the stories the bible gives us. Like, for instance, ‘the widow’s mite.’ The Story of God is a Story that tells us over and over again the very special place in God’s heart that the most vulnerable among us – the orphan, the widow and the immigrant – occupy. What if we read what Jesus said right before, and right after this story about the storytellers – the Pharisees – and the temple? Perhaps you can take time to do that: you can find the story in Luke 20:45 – 21:6. I wonder what telling this story during a capital funds campaign reveals about our understanding of the Story of God. Perhaps it reveals that it is indeed a Story we have yet to hear…

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Thanks to Sean Gladding for submitting this wonderful guest article.  He is the author of – The Story of God, the Story of Us. Below, is a bio from the IVP website.

Originally hailing from Norwich, England, Sean Gladding has made his home in the U.S. for the last two decades, where he has served in various forms of pastoral ministry, getting around on his ’84 Ironhead Sportster. During his time at Asbury Theological Seminary he first encountered the concept of the metanarrative of scripture, an experience that has deeply shaped his life.

His first book, The Story of God, the Story of Us, has its origins in a Bible study Sean led during a summer internship at Mercy Street, a church in Houston, Texas, for people in recovery from addiction and from bad church experiences–often both. Sean went on to co-pastor Mercy Street for seven years, during which time he and his wife Rebecca narrated the “Story of God” with people who had never heard it before or who had only heard a fragmented version. Hearing the “Story” with both the enfranchised and those on the margins has continually deepened their understanding of scripture, and shaped their lives and the way they tell the “Story.”

Over the years they have made “The Story of God” narrative freely available to anyone who wanted to use it. The “Story” has been told in homes, churches, college campuses, coffee shops, pubs and laundromats, spread over five continents.

Sean and Rebecca have two children. After their time with Mercy Street they returned to Lexington, Kentucky, to rejoin friends at Communality–part of the family of New Monastic communities–where they are seeking the welfare of the city.

  • http://newwaystheology.blogspot.com/ Mason

    Brilliant post Sean! I'll definitely be linking to this one.

    • Sean Gladding

      Glad you found it helpful Mason.

  • Darrin

    Sean,

    What I'm seeing in context is the same oppressors who devoured the widow's house are now (possibly) the ones contributing to the temple treasury, while the widow continues her faithfulness and obedience irregardless of the extortion. The judgement of AD70 would be in part a result of this oppression/corruption.

    Is this anywhere close to what you were thinking?

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Sean Gladding

      Darrin,

      I think your reading of the text is faithful to the Story as it unfolds. The scandal is that this is the temple treasury, and as such has divine legitimation. I agree with you – it is those Jesus critiques who now drop in out of their excess, whereas this poor widow drops in what would be less than 2% of the daily wage for a laborer – yet all she has left to live on. The temple system is involved in injustice in not simply failing to care for those the God of Israel has told them to care for (see also Acts 6:1-6), but in actually depriving them of what little they have – in the name of God. Jesus has to critique the system – and declare prophetically God's coming judgment upon it. This story should haunt us. So again I ask, what does it say about our understanding of the Story when we 'use' it in preaching (divine legitimation) to raise money to build bigger buildings?

      Peace,
      Sean

  • Penny

    I actually just finished "The Challenge of Jesus" last night. It was so interesting to read your post on the heels of this book. I can totally see how this book is going to change the way I read scripture and live my faith. Loved your post.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    I am total agreement. It is somewhat paradoxical that what in the Lukan narrative, especially in its Markan parallel, serve as a critique of the Temple system’s corruption and economic exploitation legitimated by the Imperial demands of Rome is often employed in modern contexts to warrant similar economic appropriation. We have yet, at the popular level, arrived at the reality that the historical Pharisees were not “legalists,” but served as retainers for the temple, emphasizing purity codes that solidified their socio-economic positions. Our Gospel’s are a product of Galilean peasantry under the hegemony of Rome and their elected provincial elites and thus, they represent the hopes and aspirations of economic liberation as well as freedom from sin or whatever. It is great to see blog’s that are willing to step outside of consumer/capitalist shaped presentations of the Gospel. Great work, I will continue to follow this blog.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Oh, and N.T. Wright did the very same to me!

  • http://www.academiachurch.com Nathan

    Great writing Sean! It really makes one assess "the building fund." It comes as no shock that this story about the widow with her two mites is sandwiched between the logion about scribes "who devour widows' houses," and Jesus explaining that the temple will be destroyed with "not one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." With the scribes being people who interpreted the scriptures on behalf of the elite who ruled in the temple, and thus being rewarded handsomely as a result of their imperial hermeneutics (so Lawrence), the widow giving all she had serves as a rebuke to the rulers and scribes devouring her livelihood and as an encouragement for poor (and rich) folk to continue honoring God with their finances. Are church leaders preying on people today who simply want to worship God in this manner by telling them that he has commanded them to donate to the mysterious "building fund"? If so, it may be that building will not have "one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."


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