Here is a sermon about the widow’s gift. It questions the “what’s in it for me” mindset, and it asks whether the church is doing the right thing when we try to appeal to people primarily on the basis of “what’s in it for them.”
Givers and Takers
A Sermon on Mark 12:38-13:2 and Philippians 2:1-11
Jesus was a keen observer of people. He could see deep down into people’s hearts and discern what really was going on there. He saw the truth. And the truth he saw in the hearts of many of the scribes was not pretty. “Beware of the religious pros, the experts in God’s law” he warned. “They like to stand out in their distinctive robes. They want to be seen, admired, honored. They like people to defer to them. They like to be seated at the head table. They make a big show with their long prayers.”
And their self-serving attitudes and behavior didn’t stop there, Jesus pointed out. Some used their position to take advantage of the weak and the helpless. Widows were a case in point. Women’s position in society was precarious. They depended on their husband or a male relative for what they needed to survive. If a woman’s husband died, ordinarily she couldn’t inherit and hold property. If there was no male relative to administer the husband’s estate, a professional—one of the scribes—had to do it. Too bad if he charged an exorbitant fee for the service. The fee was usually part of the estate. A victimized widow had no legal recourse. She couldn’t sue because women were not allowed to testify in court. In Luke there’s a story of a widow who nagged a judge to help her.
Here’s one way to describe the kind of folk that Jesus warned against. They were takers. They were greedy, self-serving takers.
It wasn’t long before Jesus saw a widow who might have been one of their victims. He was watching people putting their offerings in the Temple collection containers, big boxes with trumpet shaped mouths. Many wealthy people put in large sums. You could hear the weighty coins clinking and clanking. No doubt Jesus also could see what was in their hearts, too. Jesus could see who was being genuinely generous, and who hoped to be seen, and who was giving out of the leftovers, what they would never miss.
But then a poor widow came to make her gift. From her dress it was obvious that she was a widow, and that she was poor. In her hand she held two tiny coins, the smallest, lightest of all. They were thinner than the coins we’re used to. I imagine them feeling noticeably lighter in the way that my grandmother’s aluminum spoon felt so much lighter than the rest, which were stainless steel.
This widow quietly approached the collection containers, put in her two halfpennies, and slipped away. Maybe some of the wealthier folk gave their gifts mostly to be seen. But I think it’s safe to say that this widow made her gift for some other reason. Perhaps she didn’t want to be seen making such a small gift. If other onlookers even noticed, perhaps they laughed and poked each other in the ribs, or they shook their heads with pity.
But not Jesus. He looked into the widow’s heart, and he saw something that touched him. “Did you see that widow who put two small coins in the box?” he said to his disciples. “She gave more to God than all the wealthy people, however many gold coins they put in. She gave all she had.”
It’s hard to know what was behind the widow’s brave, even reckless gift. Perhaps it was something like this story about a similar giver and a similar gift: This happened in a church in Gary, Indiana. One Sunday a strange woman showed up with “her two small sons. After the service she asked to speak to the pastor. When he sat down with her, she handed him $30.56, and explained that this was her tithe. She had been staying in a battered women’s shelter for several days, and had just decided to move south—away from her family, her friends, and her abusive husband. But before she went, she wanted to ask for the church to pray for her, and she wanted to give her tithe. The pastor protested and said she should keep the money for herself and her sons. Her response was clear, ‘You don’t understand. Even if I kept that ten percent, I wouldn’t have enough money to provide for me and my sons. So I want to give it to God. I trust that God will give me a new life. To show him I trust him, I want to give my money.’” (William Willimon, from Lectionary Homiletics, November 2000, p. 18.)
Jesus saw deep into people’s hearts that day at the Temple. He saw some folks looking out for number one, and he saw one poor woman who was focused on something else. He saw her give a gift that truly cost her something.
Jesus saw deep into people’s hearts that day, and he still does. He sees some hearts that are turned inward, intent on taking—what’s in this for me? What’s good for me? And he sees others that are turned outward, intent on giving—how can I help? How can I serve?
The spirit of “what’s in it for me” is certainly alive and well in our day. Recently I have been reading a book with the interesting title Bowling Alone. You know, picture going bowling by yourself. The author says that if it appears to you that Americans are not as engaged in working for the good of their communities as much as they used to be forty or fifty years ago, if it appears to you that many folks are focused inward on themselves, that’s not your imagination. The population in general has gotten disconnected from one another. The title Bowling Alone refers to the fact that people don’t join groups of any kind—bowling teams, civic clubs, affiliate with any group in the way they once did. For one thing, they’re scattered geographically, and many move frequently. Many, many folk live far away from their relatives and also without the kind of ongoing community ties that we enjoy with church family.
The spirit of what’s in it for me is alive and well in our day. The spirit of consuming makes itself known everywhere. You all are going to think I’ve turned into the Grinch. It seems to me that the Christmas spirit isn’t the only spirit blowing through as winter approaches. There’s a consuming spirit out there that overwhelms people. The sheer volume, the sheer weight of the paper of advertising in itself is overwhelming. The same pictures of the same stuff keep coming into the house every day via newspaper and mail and TV and internet. “We can help you in your pursuit of the perfect gift,” they all say. Is this the spirit of giving or taking? I know I sound like the Grinch. “I must stop Christmas from coming.”
The spirit of what’s in it for me is everywhere, shaping how people approach each other. Look at how much effort charities and all sorts of organizations put into enticing people to give. Honor rolls of gifts have been around a while. My alma maters put theirs out once a year, for example. “Remember, your contribution is tax deductible,” organizations remind us. And then there’s a practice that seems to me to be growing. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that more and more organizations are offering premiums, some kind of gift, in hopes of getting you to give, whether it’s a free photo of your family, or a CD or DVD. When public TV has their fund drives they announce over and over if you give at such and such a level, you get this gift. Is this giving, or taking? Serving self, or serving others? Seems kind of confused.
The spirit of consumption is in the church, and in the way churches attempt to appeal to people. They approach people with the idea, “Look at everything we can do for you. We offer this and this. Often the word “exciting” is used to describe what is offered. One congregation I know of offered chances to win a $100 prize for attending worship. The more times you attended over the course of several weeks, the more chances you had to win.
The church is trying to talk to people in the culture around us using consumer language. It goes right along with the message that’s coming from everywhere else which is “serve yourself. Fulfill yourself. Help yourself.” The church is yet another agency that can help you do that. But is that the truth of the gospel? What kind of language do we need to reach out, in order to tell the truth: that the gospel is not about taking, it’s about giving. It’s not about serving self. It’s about serving God and neighbor. It’s not about lifting up yourself. It’s about taking up a cross. And it is costly. It costs your whole life.
Jesus saw his own way reflected in the widow’s gift. It cost her everything. And the gift he was about to give us just a few days later cost him everything. Christ Jesus gave up all he had, Paul wrote to the Philippians. He did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, exploited, but he emptied himself and took the form of a servant. He became human, and as a human, he humbled himself and walked the path of obedience all the way to death, even death on the cross. For this reason God raised him up.
Make this way your way, Paul wrote. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The way of Christ was the way of self-giving love. That is the mind and heart of Christ.
Jesus sees deep into the human heart, and he can tell which way it is turned. He can see whether the focus is inward on me and my interests, getting and taking, or whether the focus is outward, on the interests of God and neighbor and giving.
Jesus can tell which way a congregation’s heart is turned. He can see whether it’s turned inward to serve itself, or whether it is turned outward, to take up the cross.