38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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.”
This is a passage that shows up frequently in the middle of stewardship campaigns. The passage seems to suggest that radical giving (“all that she had to live on”) is Jesus’ expectation and the standard by which we can measure our faithfulness. The risk of course is that we will seek to quantify and rank faith. But this is the same mode of thinking that the scribes used to justify their place in the hierarchy.
And though I do not think that is the point of the story, in FIRL, the passage stirred some frustration with the stewardship process. One man felt our campaign was a cold way to ask for money, another felt we were approaching our budgetary needs backwards. He wanted us to challenge every person, no matter who, to offer something of themselves to God’s work. Meeting the budget would follow.
As presented in the gospels, the scribes are the perfect foil to Jesus’ gospel of humility, love and inclusion. They are often presented as the intellectual elite passing judgement upon Jesus. They are portrayed as condescending, self satisfied, and blind to the very people they have been called to serve. And worse, in this passage, they are self servingly pious and are blatantly exploitive. It is hard to think of them as real people. It is one thing to oppose the traits and another to assume all people in a group have those traits.
When we start talking about us and them, the good guys and the bad guys, we avoid seeing how we are alike. Unfortunately we have far more in common with the scribes than we care to admit. But is important that we see the similarities or we risk becoming self satisfied and self righteous—the very traits Jesus opposed. In real life, the scribes’ attitudes surrounding wealth and position are very much like our own. Whether it is unconscious or intentional, it is hard to escape the human connection between wealth and prestige; between wealth and privilege; between wealth and power; and finally, between wealth and worth. Big donors are cultivated and deferred to. It is as true in the church as it is in politics. In the secular world, money talks and money has influence. It is all too tempting to seek our safety and security in our position and wealth rather than with God. We have met the enemy and he is us.
Even worse, most of us, like the scribes, do not want to know about the marginalized. At least for me, it is tempting to remain uninformed. If I notice, I will have to decide how, or if, I will respond. I will be visibly accountable. I think many of us would prefer that the homeless, the widow and the orphan stayed out of sight—and out of mind. We could simultaneously avoid our responsibilities and our limitations.
It was a cold night in Decatur last night. Several people were asleep on the sidewalk under the alcove as I arrived at church early this morning. Do any of us really want to know what it is like to be cold and hungry? Far better to keep distance. I can avert my eyes, I can ‘explain’ their plight. I can bemoan the systemic problems of our society. It is costly to see and is humbling to realize how little we can do.
I have considerable sympathy for the scribes. It is hugely difficult to hold on to spiritual values in a secular world. But that is exactly the challenge Jesus puts before us. We are called to engage the world and to love our neighbor. It is not ok to live blind and disconnected from the people around us while claiming to love God.
We, as much as the scribes, need to be held accountable. But if we stop there, we have a religion of guilt rather than love. The needs of the people in our immediate circle—our children, our spouses, our neighbors (much less the hungry of the world) can and will overwhelm us. Those are the times we are damned if we insist on believing our faith is about how much we do or finding ways to measure if we are enough.
The same values that puffed up the scribes diminished the widow. If we give extra credit to the big givers we diminish anyone who gives pennies. Both are sinful. When Jesus points to the widow, he lifts her up in a way the secular world does not. Her faith was not that she gave everything but what she gave mattered. How could two coins worth a penny be of any help? How does noticing a single widow make any difference? Jesus does not measure quantity. On that scale the widow counted for nothing. Jesus calls us to struggle with giving and trust that whatever we give matters. The rest is up to God.
We are called to live like love matters. That is a huge faith claim. Our faith promises that every act of mindfulness and regard matters. Every time we are willing to face our limitations matters. If we believe who we are and what we have to offer is inconsequential, we are just as sinful as the self righteous. By secular standards, one penny, one vote or one item recycled is meaningless. But that think is not Christian. We all matter and whatever we have to offer matters.
There is never an answer. There is never enough. Secular values that measure and rank worthiness or faith inflate and condemn. There is only the promise of God’s steadfast love and the promise that Jesus’ way leads to eternal life.
I want to circle back to stewardship. We do have an obligation to give—it is one of the ways that we love. Stewardship inevitably arouses a certain amount of discomfort. Every year, we are asked to take inventory of ourselves and our churches needs. It is never ‘one and done.’We must make a decision. How much for whom? And even if we allow that that money isn’t the only currency, money is usually the elephant in the room. Likewise, no matter how much we hear that Christian giving emerges from gratitude, our secular shoulds and oughts are also almost always present in our decision making. It turns out it is hard to keep focused on the gospel when bills need to be paid.
But this year, pause for a minute. Tolerate the discomfort. Do not avert your eyes by confusing wealth with special status nor dismissing your gifts because you are not enough or you can’t make a difference. The needs of the church, the needs of our families and the needs of the world are ever before us—and it is all too tempting to avoid facing them. It doesn’t really matter if we avert ours eyes out of self righteousness or self deprecation. Loving is always a challenge. It requires our noticing. It requires our engagement. It requires us to rely upon God for who we are.
Prayerfully struggle and give from what you have been given. The rest is up to God. Trust him.
Help us to remember we are all God’s children. We are all capable of something—and everything we do matters. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more out about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our Staff Page or FIRL.