The Gospel lesson for today includes the story of the widow's mite. It is a well-known and favorite Bible story, and as is the case with most well-known and loved Bible stories, it is widely misunderstood.
You remember the story. Jesus and his friends are at the temple in Jerusalem. They see the rich and famous enjoying their status by fine clothes, dramatic gestures, and ostentatious gifts to the temple treasury. Jesus is profoundly unimpressed and warns his friends of people who behave that way. As he is speaking, an elderly woman identified as a poor widow, comes to the treasurer and quietly deposits two small coins, each worth half a cent. The old word for that coin is a mite. Jesus praises her for her generosity, and in so doing, introduces the concept of proportional giving--the idea that our gifts to God are not given value by their raw buying power but by their portion of the total assets of the giver. The poor woman is praised for having given all she had, while the rich and famous are condemned for giving small portions of their great wealth.
It is a lovely story and it provides us with a powerful principle. It is almost impossible to have that story as a text and not preach on giving. I'm not going to be able to resist that temptation. The topic is an important one, and most congregations within the reach of my voice are probably doing something about raising funds for next year, so it's timely for us as well.
In thinking about this story and the idea of giving, I want to share with you something of a heresy. The heresy is that I think that giving is actually a bad idea. I'm coming out against giving in this sermon, and it is my hope that after you hear it, you will give up on giving and follow the path that the widow in the gospel has cut for us.
The first point against the idea of giving is that we can only give things that are ours. In other words, we have to own before we can give. For centuries, our God and our faith have referred to us as stewards of our resources. What we do with money is called stewardship. You've heard that term forever. What you may not remember is that stewards are managers. That's the literal meaning of the word. And managers are not owners. Managers are people who handle resources on behalf of the owner. Managers act in the interest of the owner.
Our owner is God from whom all blessings flow. This is not just a case of religious semantics. The wealth of our households is not ours in any permanent sense. It passes through us. It can be said that we own our individuality, our principles, and our character for we shape these things, and they will cease on the day we die. But our money existed before we did and will continue after us. It passes through us. We manage them. We do not own them. It's like owning a parcel of land with a river running through it. You can own the land but not the river. That's the way our money is, and that's why we are called stewards. And what we do with our resources is called stewardship. We are to manage them in the interest of God.
At this point, our little calculating minds always want to say, "Well, how much are we supposed to give? How much are we supposed to hand over?" And you must realize that that's the wrong question, for that's a question that owners have, not stewards. If you opened an account with a broker, would you be surprised if the broker asked you how much of the account he or she was supposed to manage? Certainly, because your expectation is that they would manage all of it in your interest. So it is with God. Would Jesus say that we are to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and 2% of our income? Not likely. To talk about giving creates the impression that we are owners who can choose to give or not to give. The fact is we are managers, and the only question is whether we manage in the interest of God well or badly.
And here is where the story of the widow's mite comes in. The popular interpretation of the story is that it is a celebration of smallness. We look at her tiny gift and we marvel at what God can do with that little bit. We do the same thing with the mustard seed story and think it's about having just a little bit of faith. No so! The Gospel is not about little things; it's about big things. The widow gave all she had --100 percent. The mustard seed is meant to grow into a great big bush. We are to manage all of our assets in the interests of God--spiritual, financial, and otherwise. The point is not giving some portion of what we have to God's work but managing all that we have in God's interests.
I found another problem with the idea of us as givers. Not long ago, I was part of a mission team from our church to explore the possibility of developing a relationship with a church and school in Central America. One issue in that community is a much needed replacement of buildings. This naturally cast us in the role of potential donors to the project--givers, if you will. The leaders of that community certainly saw us that way, and we saw ourselves that way to a certain extent. Those expectations were honest and not inappropriate to our reasons for being there. But on this trip, I realized that giver is not quite the right word. I was not there to give. I was there as a buyer.
I'm certainly willing for money to do its part and for it to change hands in this relationship. No one could deny that was why we were there. But I wasn't there just looking for some place to dump excess cash. Giving implies a one-way transaction; I wanted something more -- something in return. I wanted a sense of doing something worthwhile. I wanted to do something with the money that would make a God-centered difference in the people of that place and in our own church at home. I wanted a relationship in which I could learn and grow. I wanted to be involved in something that would stretch our faith and deepen our experience of Christ. And, frankly, if we were not going to get those things, I was not much interested in putting my money there. In other words, I was not there just to be a giver. I was there as a buyer. I wanted to give something and I wanted to receive something. And isn't that true of all of us? We do not just send money hither and yon, looking for tax deductions. We want some sense of doing right, of doing good, of serving God and making a difference.
The upsetting reports about some major charities mismanaging funds seem to be rooted in the leader's idea that people were just givers who did not care where their money went. That was a huge mistake because we are not just givers. We're buyers. We do care what's done with our gifts. This time of year many people are asking us to be givers, and we will not make good decisions about those requests unless we acknowledge that we are really buyers and that what we want is to be able to make donations that give us a sense of worth, of doing something that makes a difference in our world and in ourselves, of somehow expanding, deepening, and stretching that which is most important about life. I do not think that many of us are givers, but I hope that we will all be wise buyers.
Another problem about giving is that it's a verb--something you do. And it carries with it the implication that it's something that sometimes happens and sometimes does not. In this sense giving fits alongside words like running, cooking, smiling, working, singing, and flossing. It is something that one can do or not do. It is something that can be done and when it is done, we can move on and do something else. But that is certainly not how it's supposed to work.
Do you think you can love your neighbor once in a while and satisfy the expectations of our Lord? Is loving a verb like that? Can you say that you fed Mrs. Schlotsky's cat while she was gone or feigned interest in a boring dinner partner and thereby took care of loving your neighbor for this month so you don't have to do it anymore? By the same token, can you drop a few dollars in the plate and take care of generosity for the week? Certainly that is not the point of loving or giving. For loving and giving are not only verbs, they are also adjectives. They describe our lifestyles and the lifestyles we were made for. Life is meant to be lived outward, toward the world, not inward toward ourselves. Life works best when we do it that way. We are, in fact, hardwired for generosity.
Let me prove it to you. Think for a moment of a person in your life who embodies the idea of loving their neighbor, of living generously, someone who is generous to you. Now, remember their eyes, think of the lines on their face and the turn of their mouth. Hold that image. Now think of someone who never seemed to think of anyone but themselves. Someone who is self-centered. Remember their face. Can you see their eyes, the lines on their face, and the turn of their mouth? When you look at those two faces in your memory, can you see one who is living the way we were meant to live and one who has completely missed the point? Which one do you suppose looks most like the widow in the Gospel story?
We are hardwired for generosity and when we live that way, it shows in our faces and in our lives. It's not about giving, not about making a gesture. It's about the way we live, and the key word is generosity.
Let us pray.
Lord God, you have entrusted this world's goods to our care and responsibility. Help us to keep always in mind the larger interests we serve with our management of your wealth, and may we like the widow in the Gospel, manage all we have to your purposes, to your honor, and to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.