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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Luxury of Giving

Mark 12:38-44
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, November 19, 2006

“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving,” wrote English novelist George Eliot. George's real name was Mary Anne Evans. Mary Anne realized that if she wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, she'd better sound like a man, one way or another.

When the wealthy men saw the poor widow approach the treasury box, they would not have taken her seriously. If they noticed her at all, they likely scowled and wondered what she was doing there in the first place. Her clothing would have identified her as a widow. It wasn't that widows were prohibited by law from putting money in the treasury. Rather it was that by law widows received money from the treasury. The faithful, wealthy men would have known well the law of Moses. From the first books of scripture, God's law dictated that widows and orphans – who had no male head of household to provide for them – were to be treated with mercy, and given a portion of each offering. This was part of Israel's welfare system. While this woman might have been ignored, she wasn't completely forgotten.

So, what was she doing there, in the first place? Before we can answer the question about the poor woman, we have to ask, what were the rich men doing there? Listen again to how this passage begins.

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.” Giving was a very public act. You could see how much the other givers were giving to the treasury, and the other givers could see how much you were giving. Even more, there was apparently a place where an audience of observers could sit down across from the giving place and watch the givers as they gave.

In the church, giving is a private matter. Very private. Aside from a few members of the Stewardship and Finance Committee, no one -- not even the minister -- knows how much you give. Unless you, yourself, choose to publicize your giving, no one would ever know the amount of your contribution. You are set free to give as much or as little as you like. Is our way better than the way of Jesus’ time? It’s certainly more comfortable. How would you feel if the secrecy of giving was taken away? Would you give more? Or would you stop giving altogether?

And yet, in other ways, charity or philanthropy is still a very public act. But we sit down opposite other treasuries. Magazines like Forbes profile the giving habits of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. People magazine keeps up with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, telling the world that they’ve had to hire a personal philanthropic advisor. Oh, to have such challenges that we'd have to hire an advisor to help us give our money away. We watch the spending lifestyles of the rich and famous on TV – from President Carter building homes for Habitat for Humanity to Snoop Doggy Dogg entertaining his friends on MTV’s “Cribs.” Perhaps we’re more discreet, but we do watch how other people spend their money. On one hand we’re looking for clues on how we ought to be using our money. But on the other hand, watching how other people spend money, or stockpile money, or lose money, or give money away is pure entertainment.

As it is and ever shall be, so it was in the beginning. Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched. Perhaps the audience could even hear the money as it fell. A large bag of coins from Mr. Pharisee. Clank! Several really large bags of coins from Mr. Jolie-Pitt. Clank-clank-clank! It was theater both for the rich clankers and for the poor clank-ees. It was giving as entertainment. According to Mark, when Jesus watched the wealthy putting their money in the treasury, he saw them entertaining themselves and entertaining the onlookers. To hear Mark tell it, that’s all the rich men were doing at the treasury.

Alone in the line of wealthy men, waits a woman dressed in black. She is so much the opposite of everything around her. Poor among the rich, a woman among men, a mourner among the entertainers. When her turn finally comes, we can imagine the crowd growing quiet in anticipation. Did her husband leave her some hidden fortune? Has a rich relative provided a gift? She holds her hand over the bowl. She releases one copper coin. It drops, then pings, then spins and falls. She releases another coin. Isn’t it strange, how sometimes the quietest sounds are louder than all the clanks?

What is this woman doing here? Where did she get these coins in the first place? It may well have been that these were the same coins she had received from the treasury. It may well have been that this widow was like a first-century Rosa Parks, who had had enough of the back of bus and the bottom of the barrel. If these coins had come from the treasury, on account of the law of Moses, then Jesus and his followers were witnessing one woman’s singularly bold act against society. She may have been saying, “Here. Take back your pennies. I refuse to pardon your guilt. I refuse to be the object of your entertainment. I refuse to allow my existence to be your luxury.” If Jesus was right, that this really was all she had to live on, and if the money had come from the treasury as it was supposed to, then when given the choice of living a cast-aside life on the cast-offs of people who wouldn’t miss their money or her, this woman would rather starve.

Jesus makes a very strong connection between giving everything and the kingdom of God. When the Rich Young Ruler comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a boy, tell me, what must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” Jesus says, “You still lack one thing. Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me.” It’s not that Jesus disapproved of wealth – his ministry was often supported by the generosity of wealthy persons, such as Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus. If Mary and Martha had sold all they had and given it to the poor, there wouldn’t have been much left for Jesus. Our hearts are made good by God; in our hearts we’d love to be able to give away our wealth – all of it if necessary – if doing so would help church or charity. But we know we can’t walk away from our responsibilities without causing more problems than solutions. Earthly realities intrude. The widow gives away everything she has to live on. Whether that’s two coins or two billion, the point remains – she has nothing left in this earthly reality. Therefore, her entire existence must be focused on a different reality – God’s reality: the kingdom of heaven.

We live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the earth. But what does the way we use our wealth show the people in line around us? In so many ways, we are starved. We’re starved for entertainment, even though there’s more entertainment around us than we’ll ever watch. We’re starved for friendship, even though we have more ways to talk to each other than we’ll ever use. We’re starved for worth, even though our bank accounts say we’re worth more than eighty percent of the rest of the world. If we’re living for our own luxury, if we’re giving out of our luxury, if we’re existing for our own entertainment, it’s not that we might as well be starving; we already are.

What is the widow doing at the treasury in the first place? She’s doing exactly the same thing Jesus is. Both she and he are calling us to live in a different reality, maybe the only real reality, the only lasting reality. Both the widow and Jesus are calling us to live. But instead of living for our own entertainment, they’re calling us to live for the kingdom of heaven. Both the Son of God and this daughter of circumstance are calling us to listen for something more meaningful than the clanks. They’re calling us to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, guiding us to use not just our money, but everything we have to transform this world into the kingdom of heaven.

“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving,” wrote Eliot. But if your mind is set on the kingdom of heaven, giving isn’t a luxury. A luxury is something frivolous, something you can live without if you have to. It’s entertainment. When it comes down to what’s really important, most of us wouldn’t give two cents for all our luxuries put together. The goodness God put within our hearts tells us God’s kingdom is the only wealth that really lasts. We know that. We hear its whispers. But the pressures of keeping up in this earthly life are really, really loud. And very immediate.

We kept asking, what were those rich people doing at the treasury, and what was that one, poor widow doing there. What are you doing at the place where your treasure lies? Which would you rather have – wealth or worth? If we’re really trying to turn this world into the kingdom of God, if we’re trying to claim our value as children of God, then we know giving isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. If your mind is set on God’s kingdom, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter if your check is large or your money goes plink. What matters is that you devote yourself and all you have to a life of true worth.

You’ve really got to admire the widow in today’s story. Not just because she gave what she had, but because of the way she did it. She could have found some less public way to give away what she had. She could have slipped it to a friend who needed food more than she did. She could have kept it private. But instead she stood in that line. She stood up alongside all those rich young rulers. She stood up in front of Jesus and everybody. With her two coins, she said to them all, “I may not have much, but by the power of God Almighty, I am somebody. I am worth something, and nothing can take that away. I may choose to give it away, but by God Almighty nothing – and nobody – can take my worth from me, and you WILL take me seriously!”

I think God wants us all to experience that world-defying, that heavenly freedom. I think that’s what Jesus did when he surrendered everything for the sake of God’s kingdom. What he did was no luxury. But it had infinite worth. What if you were more like that woman, boldly declaring your worth? What if we all were?