Mark 12: 38-44
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 8, 2015
The following story is one that Jesus could have told alongside the story from Mark’s gospel of the robber baron scribes and the widow’s offering of all she had. It comes from Calcutta, India, from the Missionaries of Charity and their former superior, Mother Teresa.
Unfortunately it was nothing unusual for her, just an entire family in one of the slums of Calcutta that was suffering from malnourishment, nearly on the brink of starvation. Mother Teresa put some rice into a sack, a few handfuls—all that she could spare—and delivered it to this desperately hungry family. The woman who received this gift was so thankful and joyous, she instantly took the bag of rice into their small cooking and living space. In a few moments she came out with half of the rice in a container and rushed down a small alley. Puzzled, Mother Teresa called after her, “Where are you going with that rice?” The poor woman replied, “I know another family who has nothing to eat, who also needs rice.”
We can see how these two stories could be intended for a Stewardship Sunday. There are two interpretations of the reading from Mark. The traditional understanding is that Jesus is praising the widow’s religious devotion, for giving all she had to live on, in contrast to the offerings of the rich, who are giving what will not be missed. The other explanation is that Jesus is lamenting that this poor woman is being taken advantage of by the religious authorities, paying for the expenses of the temple out of an already impoverished pocket. Both of these interpretations are entirely valid.
I would like to propose a third approach to reading this passage. The widow, having no one else, sees herself as connected to a larger, wider family, that of her faith. Like the poor woman in Calcutta, in her giving the widow helps to create community; she does not wait for community to trickle down to her. She realizes that she too can give, like those around her. The widow knows her worth as a child of God and gives accordingly. What Jesus praises is that she knows her own worth, that she has not devalued herself because she is a poor widow.
When Jesus observes the scribes in their long flowing robes, sitting in the best seats, requiring acknowledgment and respect from others, and saying long prayers just for show, I doubt these scribes saw themselves as connected to the poor, the outcast, to the orphaned and the widowed. Most people who strut have not only an inflated sense of self but, more often than not, are also fearful and insecure. They are more likely to be disconnected, lonely, and isolated. When Jesus says that they will receive the greater condemnation, it can also mean that not only will they suffer the consequences of their actions and attitudes, but they will do so alone—separated and apart from others.
The great gift of the incarnation, of God with us, is the realization that we are all connected, one to another, and to the earth, to the creation itself.
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,
‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Jesus could also be lamenting the rich scribes because they don’t yet realize that their worth is not dependent on money or influence or power or education or achievement but simply that they draw breath. In the first creation story, when God made human beings and breathed life into them, God declared them good before they had done anything. When as yet Jesus had not yet begun his ministry but had simply risen out of the waters of baptism, God affirmed that he was a beloved child.
But we human beings tend to size up others based on appearances and actions rather than seeing the deeper kinship we share. Too often we put ourselves in the place of God, forgetting that it is God who judges “people and nations by [God’s] righteous will, declared through prophets and apostles.” It takes a lot of hard work to see all people the way God sees people—as beloved children. And that is because we don’t yet recognize our own worth. We don’t yet see ourselves as rare and precious. We don’t yet fully realize the hope that God has placed in each and every one of us.
The Son of God lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need; our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!
We would hardly classify ourselves as behaving like the scribes. And yet, more often that we wish, we come face to face with someone else’s inability of behaving or giving what we think is reasonable to expect. “I said what I meant. Why didn’t they hear me?” “I can’t believe that person’s attitude!” “I only asked for a simple favor.” “Why can’t they just accept the situation?” “Why are you resisting me?” “Don’t they realize I need their support?”
One of the hardest lessons is to accept that on any given day, people may not be capable, may never be capable of giving what we need from them, for whatever reason. Usually it has nothing to do with us. They give what they can, out of the poverty of their spirit. We all do this, and some days are better than others. We are better on some days than others. The measure of grace we extend to others is the measure of grace we extend to ourselves. If our treasury of grace is running low, how often do we put ourselves in the mercy seat and receive the outpouring of God’s overflowing love for us? Or have we made a habit of getting by on what we’re willing to receive rather than living abundantly on what God is willing to give?
All she had to live on. And the soul felt its worth.
We don’t come to know our worth just on our own. In Africa it is said that we become a person through other people. It is through our connections, our relationships, through a sense of belonging and nurturing those bonds that we know our own worth. The more connected we are, the more engaged we are with others, accepting of what they and we have to offer on any given day, we begin to see ourselves and others the way God sees us: as something so much more than an impoverished spirit or our resume or our ego, what we’re capable or incapable of giving; as something more precious than one of the many labels that have been placed on us or that we own with pride; as something greater than one individual who feels one person can’t make much of a difference.
Do we, New Ark United Church of Christ, know our own worth as a body of Christ? Do we realize how rare and precious we are in the eyes of God? How do we experience and share the hope that God has placed in us? How do we value what we give and the community we create with it?
When we know the truth about ourselves and embrace who we are, we give not out of our abundance what we won’t miss but put in everything we have, all that we have to live on, to the fulfillment of God’s kin-dom. We give so that others may know that we are kin to them and they are kin to all of creation. And the soul felt its worth. All she had to live on. Love is its name.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.