Tuesday, 3 November 2015

“The Widow’s Mite”: Was it really a good thing?: a sermon (Mark 12:38–44)

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel is part of a larger section which is found in three of the four gospels. It took place during the week before the crucifixion. Jesus was teaching in the Temple and, in the process, was soon involved in arguments with representatives of many of the religious factions. 

In both Mark and Luke, this section ends when Jesus noticed a poor woman, a widow, put two small copper coins into the Temple’s offering box. Jesus commented that the widow gave much more than everyone who gave much larger amounts, because she gave all she had.

Traditionally, this passage has been used in some churches to encourage painfully sacrificial giving, with the “widow’s mite” presented as an example of such painfully sacrificial giving. “Give until it hurts,” was the message that many preachers derived from Jesus’ comment on the poor widow’s offering.  

But nowhere in this passage did Jesus declare that it was a good thing that the poor widow gave all that she had. Jesus stated that the woman gave more than the others, because the others “...have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty ...”, but nowhere do we find a “Go, and do likewise.”

In fact, some biblical commentators today do not regard Jesus’ comment as a recommendation of the woman’s painfully sacrificial giving. Rather, they believe that Jesus here criticised those who caused the widow to believe that, even in her poverty, she was obliged to donate to the Temple “all she had to live on”, money that she needed just to buy food. 

Many New Testament scholars believe that Jesus did not regard "the widow's mite" as being a good thing. Personally, I agree with them.

The context of the lesson bears this out. In the paragraph just before Jesus noticed the widow and her offering, Jesus criticised the abuses practiced by some religious leaders. At the climax of his criticism, Jesus condemned those religious leaders who “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (in today’s terms: lengthy, ex tempore prayers, which call attention to the piety of the person praying, and which are loaded with plenty of “justwannas”). Jesus condemned the over-the-top piety that ignores the call to practice social justice.

So when the poor widow came trudging up to the offering box to drop in her last few coins …her “bread money”…, that was the last straw. Jesus said that this poor woman gave so much more than the others because the others “...have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty...”. I don’t think that Jesus’ comments praised the woman’s faith and commitment. Rather, I believe, he felt sorry for her. I think that Jesus spoke out of a combination of exasperation, anger, and horror at the way that unscrupulous religious leaders were able to manipulate a simple person’s simple faith for their own financial gain.

Now, let’s not con ourselves into thinking that this was just something that happened two thousand years ago, in other culture, among people of another faith. If this abuse was happening in Jesus’ culture and era, it’s been well-and-truly perfected among Christians today. Many Christian leaders in our own day and in our own culture are very expert at using manipulation to get money from people. 

For example, watch any television evangelist (… if you have the stomach for it. I frequently don’t. ...) … Watch any television evangelist and you will find that a major part of his broadcast is an appeal for money. Some are more blatant than others in their approach, but an appeal for money is a major part of their message, often with a manipulative tug on the heartstrings. As in our lesson, unscrupulous religious leaders today continue to manipulate the simple faith of simple people for their own financial gain.

And it's not merely in the world of TV evangelists, and among the wild-and-woolly fundamentalist churches, where this happens. In many congregations of a variety of mainstream denominations, the "stewardship programme" is often an occasion for guilt trips and emotional manipulation. Many people feel compelled to give money that they really cannot afford to give: lonely people, ... unsophisticated people, ... people with a guilty conscience for one reason or another, ... and other easily manipulated people. Many people feel compelled to give money that they really cannot afford to give. 

This all provides us with quite a complicated lesson.
 · On the one hand, Jesus challenges those who are well-off to give generously.
 · On the other hand, Jesus challenges those who are not so well off to give intelligently.

This is relevant to us both as we consider our support of the church and as we consider our personal support of human need both in the local community and among our global community.

Jesus saw a poor widow put a few coins in the offering box. He commented on her donation that others “...have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty...”. I believe this comment was not in praise of her sacrificial giving. Rather, it was a reflection of Jesus’ pain that others manipulated the woman into believing she needed to give “all she had to live on”.

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