When I was five, I had a stuffed rabbit...one of those nice big, plush stuffed animals not much smaller than I was. His name was Timothy. In order for you to understand this little incident which became such a learning experience for me, you need to know something about Timothy Rabbit and where he came from. I was given Timothy as a gift from a woman who won him at the county fair. Her name was Rita and she was a person who had not had an easy life....she had an alcoholic and abusive husband and three children, the two younger ones were just a little older than I. My mother was director of a nursery school and through the years had become a mentor for Rita as she sought to make her way apart from her destructive husband in a time when there were few social programs around to support her in the effort. I guess the gift of Timothy to me was a gesture of thanks from Rita.
I really loved Timothy...I was just the right age to find security in such a big, stuffed friend. One day, Rita's two youngest children were over at my house and I took them into my room to reacquaint them with Timothy. He was resting on a big shelf in the closet where I had also neatly arranged all my other stuffed animals...less loved, but a considerable collection of at least a dozen or so. (Other shelves of the closet were crammed with my sister's dolls and the floor was littered with my collection of toy trucks and a prized toy steam shovel which I still have.) S o we are standing around looking at Timothy and I got the idea that it might be nice to give Rita's kids a gift in return. (I am not sure whether this was a spontaneous gesture on my part or whether my mom had planted the idea in my head in advance.) I reached into this bundle of toys...and found a nearly forgotten stuffed bear, about six or eight inches tall which was covered with hearts -- it must have been a valentine gift from someone. It was in pretty good shape because I didn't care much for it and never played with it. But it was tiny...and I handed it to the two kids, saying "Here...why don't you take this."
I know that the reason that this little incident is burned into my mind is the sinking feeling that I got immediately after I had done it. These two kids just looked at me...looked at all the toys...and games around...looked at all the stuff which my sister and I had crammed into that closet and said, "no thank you."
You know, maybe as you hear the story it doesn't sound like much. What else would you expect from a five year old. I don't know how many years later I could verbalize to myself about what a jerk I subsequently felt like. What I do remember is the immediate feeling of embarrassment. I do remember realizing that I did not feel good about myself or what I had done. Being generous is supposed to make you feel good. But I had not been generous, and I did not feel good at all.
Mark's story this morning is about Jesus when he is in the temple with his disciples. They are watching the big display as the notables from the community were making their way in to pray. They were decked out in their finery...these were the people who felt very at home in the grandeur of the temple. Herod the Great who commissioned the building was a monument builder...and historians tell us that it was quite an impressive structure with massive columns supporting a soaring roof and a series of grand porches and colonnades.
With assurance the elders of the synagogue, the Scribes and Pharisees, moved around this space; knowing what to say, how to pray, and what it means to be one of God's chosen people. Jesus had taken a seat, apparently, in front of the treasury where visitors were dropping in their tithes and offerings.
Mark says: 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 .
Mark talks a lot in his gospel about the invisible poor, those whom the society and culture has marginalized, he also pulls no punches in relationship to the role of the elite and their lack of connection with or regard for these marginalized. Both themes reiterated here in this short narrative for sure. But Mark's central theme throughout the Gospel is not about criticism of the rich nor is it about veneration of the poor, rather it is around the in breaking of the Kingdom of God.
I think that the old widow's sacrifice is not celebrated because it "one-ups" the rich folks., and she is not noteworthy, I don't think, in Jesus eyes because she has been especially steadfast in her obligation under the Jewish law to give. Jesus points her out because her gift is such an extraordinary expression of the values of the reign of God...the Kingdom life to which Jesus is forever alluding. Hers is a generosity which, as one commentator notes, "strikes Jesus as overflowing..." an effusive expression of one who is freed from the logic of economics or the conventional wisdom of what is possible and what is appropriate to do in response to an experience of God's love.
In a time when the complexity of the economy is much on everybody's mind it is a bit daunting to think about how to divide up your income. "The [United States] is among the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet it is filled with people, rich and poor, who are anxious about their future and who feel they don't have enough. 1 Some of the best people I know make their own living as advisors to others about their spending and savings plans. Money management is a science, almost, and corporations, schools, not-for-profit organizations and, of course, thousands and thousands of people depend on the advice and counsel of professionals in the field to make decisions about how best to preserve and take advantage of their resources.
I remember a wonderful guy with whom I used to work in Albany, New York at my first church. He was the fellow with whom I planned and led numerous camping and canoe trips with the youth group up in the Adirondack mountains and lakes. We got to be good friends. Professionally, he was a trust officer at one of the New York banks and in that capacity; he would often call me up for advice. His calls would be in situations where a client doing estate planning, setting up a trust, needed, for tax purposes, to identify some charitable cause to receive a portion of their estate. He knew about the big ones, scouts, the YMCA or Cancer Society, but he also liked to be able to suggest a local cause which might benefit from this kind of giving.
I often would muse about who his client might be, of course he never told me. How, I wonder, did they take this advice that they “ought” to give some of their money away? Ambrose Bierce, a journalist and writer from the turn of the century who had something to say about a lot of different things, was famous for his Devil's Dictionary, which offered definitions of a variety of terms from the “cynic's” point of view. A philanthropist, he defined as "a rich old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket." 2
It may be that that was the kind of giving which Jesus saw occurring among the richly robed leaders in the temple who dropped their contributions in the treasury....but it is not what was going on with the old woman. She was not giving out of conscience or even because of some because of some religious rule or compunction. She certainly was not giving because it would benefit her tax status. There was something else motivating her, it was a “Kingdom response” to money management which made her gift in Jesus' eyes amount to more than any of the others.
William Willimon, now a Methodist Bishop, writes the following:
As a young minister, I was an associate pastor at a large church that hired a church fundraiser to help us with a large capital-funds campaign. At the initial meeting, the fundraiser asked the board about our goals for the campaign.
"You have to understand that we are a church that has a high percentage of older people, mostly widows on fixed incomes. So we really can't expect to raise too much money."
The fund-raiser asked to see a list of our major givers. He took the list with him at the close of the meeting.
The next meeting, he told the board that he had done an analysis of our congregation's giving.
"Please note," he told us in his report on his analysis of the church's giving patterns, "that the majority of your top 50 contributors are 'widows on fixed incomes.' Please note that, according to my calculations, those 'widows on fixed incomes' pay about 60 percent of this congregation's annual budget. I'd say if you want to improve the giving in this congregation, you need to talk to those women first, find out why they give, then try to infect the rest of the congregation with the faith of these 'widows on fixed incomes.'"
This money manager had it right, I think. As University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain points out, faith communities, "are working on a different notion of economy. Let's call it a gift economy in contrast to a money economy....[or in Mark's parlance, Kingdom economy...the economy of life in that wonderfully transforming world of God's reign.] In the money economy's world of calculation of marginal utilities, giving of one's time and self makes little sense - unless you can run some sophisticated calculation that enables you to tote up monetized or other instrumental benefits down the road. If you can't do that, the giving of time and self constitutes a depletion, a loss. But from the perspective of a [Kingdom economy]...one is enhanced, not denuded, through the giving of time and self..." and part of self, is our income because that is what makes life possible. "In [kingdom] giving, we create more rather than use something up." 3
The widows in Willimon's church and the old widow in Mark's story knew what Timothy Rabbit helped me learn a long time ago. Some gifts have little meaning...for the giver or the recepient either. They are motivated by conscience or by some notion of what one ought to do. But there is another way of giving which helps you feel whole...giving which comes from true gratitude for the joy of being able to respond to God's love with whatever you have. It is giving which draws you into the Kingdom mode. Gifts like these which come from the heart are the gifts that are blessed. These are the gifts which bless our lives. Amen.
1 Sarah van Gelder, "Real Wealth: Redefining Abundance in an Era of Limits" Yes Magazine
2 Started as weekly installments in one of Abrose Bierce's newspaper columns in 1881, many of Bierce's definitions were soon popularised in everyday use. The Devil's Dictionary published in 1906 was originally titled The Cynic's Word Book
3 Jean Bethke Elshtain, Tikkun , vol. 15, no. 1.