There is an old maxim that if you want to preserve peace and harmony with your friends, family and co-workers avoid discussing three subjects: sex, religion and politics. I’d say that advice has pretty much abandoned. How could it be otherwise? This election involved all three. It’s hard to talk about one without sliding into the other.
This much seems true: politics, sex and religion are stables of our life together, both in society and in the Church. It’s no coincidence that the issues our country is struggling with are also being struggled over within the Church. We belong to both communities. Our most divisive conflicts center on religion, sex and politics; with people of good will on every side. There are at least three questions to frame the conversation.
How do we understand and rightly order our sexuality to embody authentic love that honors God who is love?
What religious practices will deepen our love for God and neighbor?
How can our politics lift up the most vulnerable and strengthen the common good?
Yet, there is a fourth subject that is avoided more than the other three. Some would argue it is as important, if not more so, than the other three. That subject is money, and its influence on our relationship with God. Given our public debates and private anxieties, one might think that sex is the subject that holds the focus of the Bible; that would be wrong. As important as it may be to our well being – and it is – the Bible gives it very little attention when compared to the subject of money and its capacity to become a idol, displacing God as the source of our life and the object of our obedience. Over 180 passages in the Bible deal with money and God. Jesus famously offered this counsel: lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither rust nor moth will destroy, for where your treasure is there where your heart be also.
He seems to be saying if your heart – the moral center of our lives – is right with God all else will be well. Money has the power to capture our hearts and delude us into thinking that it – and not God – is the true source of all joy.
Let’s think about this rival god. Financial indebtedness is the source of national alarm as we approach a fiscal cliff; it is creating a large class of economic slaves, whose decisions are determined by the master (card) to whom they are indebted. We are in peril; no getting around it; and this is why it is so important that we have an honest conversation.
Jesus directs our attention to a marginal person whose life is an example of the virtues he desires for the rest of us. Sitting near the treasury, he watches those who give a portion, even a large portion, yet his eye is on this widow who with only a few copper coins offers everything. What do you suppose this is all about? What does Jesus want the rest of us in the hearing of this story – you and me – to examine and for what purpose? (By the way, you can get a guaranteed authentic, gold encrusted widow’s mite for $599 on eBay.)
Many years ago, while serving a large congregation as a young, associate pastor I had a pastoral visit with a widow that has stayed with me for nearly twenty-five years. She had received a financial stewardship letter from the church and wanted to talk with me about it, so I went to her home.
Before I could apologize for the letter, she said, “I want to give more, but I don’t have anything more to give. What should I do? Now that Arnold is gone, I don’t heat the rest of the house; just a few rooms, and I like to give a little something to the Alzheimer’s Group, since they did so much for us. Then there’s my grandson, I really want him to go to school. I don’t have anything left.”
I was stunned. I never heard the accusation I was bracing myself against: how dare the church ask her to give; didn’t they know? Instead of the scolding, she wanted to discuss how she could give more than she already is. On second thought, I was not surprised. This widow lived gladly on next to nothing. I was humbled and embarrassed by her generosity compared to my own. Years after her death, I still am.
While sitting in her living room sharing a cup of tea, I wondered about my own life. Only a few days ago I witnessed again the kindness of Haitian people who survive on a dollar or two a day, yet they shared with me much more. I am clinging to things this widow has long ago let go, and my Haitians friends never had. Her life is built on the principles of giving. My life walks among the minefields of keeping this and giving that; a little bit here and a little bit there, walking clumsily around the question, Lord, how much is enough? Too often my question is how much do I get to keep? Her question is how can I give more away?
Nor can I stop my mind from drifting toward those whose income and contributions far exceed hers; yet have so much more to give. Clearly, those who give little are no happier than she is. In fact, some are deeply unhappy, enslaved not because of too little, but the complications of having too much.
So, I wonder: is the gospel story about money or something else? Both? Jesus seems to be turning our attention to something more life changing than fulfilling a financial obligation. Watch the widow, he says. She gives her all. Pay attention to her.
She gave everything she had to a flawed institution – the temple. Jesus gave everything he had to a flawed humanity. What comes from Jesus’ giving? Forgiveness, new life, grace and community; this is the greatest gift of all. The poor widow shows us what Jesus means with something as mundane as our money.
Watch her! Someone said she’s a percentage giver all right, 100%! She holds nothing back. This is the heart of stewardship – the essence of our relationship with God. We get side tracked thinking it’s only about money. It’s about the whole of life, including our money.
Generous people teach us that your giving portion of our income is a doorway into a good life, one filled with gratitude and friendship. Ultimately Christian stewardship means to bring everything our lives under the eye of God. There we find joy.
I do hope that you will give generously to the ministry of Saint Mark, not only because we truly need the money – we really do – but more importantly so that you can experience the deep joy of sharing with others. Give all that you can, and see what God will do.
Watch the widow, says Jesus. Learn from her.