Jesus Changes How I Give
It’s funny the things that stick with you.
I have a very clear memory of a science project from first grade, where each of us was given a white carnation and some food coloring. I think we were supposed to learn about plants and water or something. We put the food coloring (mine was blue, I think) into some water and then left our white carnations in the colored water overnight. The next morning we came to class and, would you believe it? Our flowers had turned the color of the water in which their stems had spent the night. Anybody else do a similar science project?
This week in worship we begin four weeks of a series called Jesus Changes Me. We’re looking at stories from the Gospel texts about people who encountered Jesus and, after being immersed in who he was and the message he taught, emerged…changed…different from who they had been before. Every instance was different, but they were all the same in that, in every story, there was some deep and fundamental change that happened after they had come to know Jesus.
These stories should stand as warnings to us: we cannot encounter Jesus, we cannot learn his message and live in his way, we cannot do any of these things and come away unchanged.
Today’s passage is the story of the widow’s mite, and Sunday School teachers everywhere might tell you it’s the widow who was changed by knowing Jesus here…that she gave sacrificially and Jesus lauded her for it. Our passage for today tells the story of Jesus and the disciples in the temple, witnessing a poor woman, a begging widow, coming into the temple and giving her offering. It was two pennies…two pennies that made up everything she had in all the world.
We know if we study the giving of offerings in the temple back then, that this was kind of embarrassing—why would she even give at all, since she had so little? The temple coffers were out in the middle of the courtyard and they were made of metal, shaped like cylinders. The point of their shape was to shame people into giving more and to support the social pressure of making a good show in front of your friends. In other words, if you brought your piggy bank in and dumped all your coins into the temple coffers, they would make a big, clanging sound, and everyone would know how generous (and virtuous) you were. Give just a little bit, like the widow, and people would also know that you were not going to make the A list in Jewish society anytime soon.
But the widow gave what she had anyway, and isn’t she virtuous to do so? You can be too, is one way we pastor types love to interpret this story, especially for a Sunday like today, commitment Sunday, when we make our commitments of time and money to the work of God here at Calvary. It makes all kinds of sense for pastors everywhere to give their congregations stern (yet uplifting) messages about how we should give until it hurts, or give sacrificially, or give whether we want to or not. Something like that, anyway.
Sadly, however, a close look at today’s passage would make this kind of exegetical approach probably incorrect and possibly irresponsible. It’s not the widow in this passage who changes because of her interaction with Jesus…it’s the disciples. A more in depth look at this passage will lead us to conclude not that Jesus was setting pastors everywhere up for an easy stewardship sermon, but that he was saying something more vigorous and radical than we could ever imagine.
And the people who encountered him in the temple back then, his disciples, and we who encounter him now as we read this passage, cannot help but walk away from the experience like my first grade carnation…soaked in the water of Jesus and as a result, radically changed.
You know I always say that reading a passage from the Bible out of context is like sitting in a coffee shop listening to someone talk on their cell phone…you can usually make out the general gist of the conversation, but you certainly don’t get the whole picture as you would if you could hear what the person on the other end was saying in the conversation.
This passage, for example, you might be tempted to read at face value as I described just a minute ago, skipping over that inconvenient first part of the passage about religious authorities who walk around in their flowing robes showing off all the time, and just jump straight to the widow who gave everything. I know I would.
But let’s instead look closely at this passage in its context and see if we can’t get a bigger picture of what’s going on, understand how the disciples are being changed, and see whether our hearts are open for the kind of change Jesus was bringing to all of those who encountered him. (Turn to page 825 in your pew Bibles).
As you can see, there are two little situations in this passage…the first is Jesus’ warning about the hypocrisy of the temple leaders, and the second about the widow who gave everything she had. If we take a longer view at the text, however, we can see that these come right in the middle of a host of fiery entanglements Jesus was having with the temple leaders. In fact, in the chapter immediately preceding this chapter, we find the story of Jesus upsetting the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.
Remember that Jesus came into the temple courtyard enraged by what he saw going on there. Among other things, there were merchants selling animals for sacrifice. Any observant Jew had to come to the temple certain times of the year to make appropriate sacrifices, you had to use approved animals. You might imagine the corruption that was taking place—those who sold doves, for example, the smallest animal appropriate for sacrifice—sometimes marking their approved animals up 99%! Jesus was enraged by the exploitation that was taking place in the temple, the house of God, just to line the pockets of the temple establishment.
Cut to today’s passage. Just a few days prior Jesus had overturned the merchant tables in the temple, all the while Jesus’ disciples were standing on the side, watching open-mouthed. Today, Jesus goes straight into a tirade about the scribes, the temple leaders. They like to walk around in long robes, they like to be greeted with respect in the market place, they love the prominence of their positions…but to get there and to stay there they were bilking people out of their money and exploiting such vulnerable ones as widows…women who were all on their own with no man to protect them, begging for their meager subsistence and sometimes not making it at all.
Next, the text says, Jesus sat down across from the temple treasury—something like what I described earlier. He and his disciples watched as people came and went, the rich people dumping their piggy banks in for show, clang, clang, clang.
Eventually a poor widow came along, and you know what happened. She put in two small coins—clink, clink—all she had in all the world. Jesus observes this and turns to his disciples and says she is giving so much more than the rich people who came and gave offerings that made such a show.
But is Jesus saying here that we should give away everything we have? Is he teaching the disciples a lesson in sacrificial giving? Is he registering the widow’s place in heaven and damning the rich show offs to hell, as so many stewardship sermons would have us believe?
No, he’s not.
Probably, in fact, Jesus wasn’t making any commentary on giving at all. In pointing out the widow and her giving to the disciples, Jesus was probably saying something like: “And the exploitation continues, even down to the very least and most vulnerable people in society. For shame! Look at how scared that widow is about angering those in power in the temple…look at how desperate she is to make them happy, and, in her mind, make God happy…look at how the temple—the holy place of God—is complicit in hurting the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Do you think being important and powerful and rich is what it really means to follow God? I don’t think so, disciples. That’s not what it means at all.”
Whew! This is a new way to look at this passage. Jesus is giving a scathing critique of the temple, of organized religion, and the way its leaders use it to gain their own personal power, wealth, and prestige.
Now is probably not the best moment to make a plug for supporting the church, huh?
But let’s take a step back. Remember, whenever we encounter Jesus we are profoundly changed by his radical message of inclusion for those who are excluded and justice for those who are suffering at the hands of oppression. And the people who are changed most radically in this passage are Jesus’ disciples, his followers.
You might recall that just a few chapters ago in Mark’s story, the disciples were having an argument among themselves about which one of them was the greatest. They were bickering and asking Jesus to intervene, trying to insure that following Jesus would get them what they’d always known was the pinnacle of success—positions of power, wealth and influence.
When Jesus encountered the moneychangers and the scribes and the widow in the temple, he was pointing out to his disciples, and to us, the extreme fallacy of that system of belief.
The way of Jesus, in other words, is not a way in which we scramble to climb over each other and to step onto one another in our clawing quest for more, more, more: more power, more prominence, more position, more fame, more money, more social status. Sorry disciples, that’s not the way of God.
Instead, we don’t exploit people who are suffering. We work to lift up the weak and bolster those who can’t keep up. We include those who are marginalized and we open doors of expansive welcome to everyone who might come. We make sure that everyone has what they need, and we don’t use guilt or threats to greedily take the most and the best for ourselves. Can’t you see, disciples? The leaders of the temple have it all wrong…we are not here to gain prominence and position. We are here to give ourselves away in the service of God for the sake of others.
Jesus had harsh criticism for the leaders of the temple and their greedy exploitation of the poor. And he had severe words of warning for the disciples…you’d better change the way you view following God. It’s not about what you can get and how things best work for you. It’s about a totally new way of living. And it’s time for you…to change.
And, to those disciples’ credit, change they did. Those men who were quarrelling among each other and jockeying for position finally got soaked in the water of Jesus long enough that their color started to change.
When that change happened, they, scared and unsure, set out to teach the way of Jesus and to establish communities that followed in the footsteps of this one who rejected conventional standards and age-old expectations. They changed so much that they eventually did give everything they had…even their lives…in the service of God’s kingdom.
Rather than gathering all they could to themselves and meanly questing for position and power, they realized that the way of Jesus was a vast and generous way, a way of giving whatever it takes for the sake of the kingdom, of giving expansively because it’s our holiest honor to play even a small part in the work of God in this world.
And so, what about us?
What our passage today really means is that Jesus came to teach us a new way to live, to turn convention and expectation on their heads. He came to create disciples who live expansively, unconcerned about our own accumulation of position, wealth, or power, but concerned instead with the propagation of God’s kingdom on this earth. He came to teach a message by which we can found, build, and nurture communities that advocate for justice and peace. He came to help us learn how to change.
And because of this, Jesus changes how I give…Jesus changes how you give.
There should be no more grasping, limited, grudging approach to giving. Our accumulation of wealth, power, and position, remember, are no longer what’s first in our minds and hearts.
Instead, we long desperately, just like those disciples whose perspectives were radically changed, to be changed, too, and to be agents of change in this world.
To that end, we give generously and expansively of our money…of our very lives. Because knowing Jesus changes us, and when we allow ourselves to be changed, we become part of a greater change of bringing about God’s kingdom in this world.
Today is commitment Sunday. You have received a commitment card over the last few weeks and I encourage you to turn those commitment cards in; you’re welcome to put yours in the offering plates or up here at the altar today.