“A Different Kind of Stewardship”
“[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.’” Mark 12:41-44 (NRSV)
How many stewardship sermons have been preached on this passage? I suspect almost all of us have heard one or two and perhaps many of us have even preached one or two! Now before you stop reading, let me assure you that this is not going to be a stewardship message… at least not in any traditional sense.
I have to say, though, what makes this passage so appealing for a stewardship campaign, is it tells those of us whose gifts may be small but who give sacrificially, that it is not the size of the gift that matters, but the heart of the giver. At least, that’s the message I’ve heard preached. And there is certainly truth in that message and it is a message we all need to hear.
Many of us often feel inadequate because we have this nasty habit of comparing ourselves with others and therefore feeling as though our contributions – at the workplace, in the home, in our community – don’t measure up. With this text, we can be reminded that God looks at our gifts through a different lens, and that there is no offering too small that can’t make a difference, particularly in the heart of the giver themselves.
But when we start looking at this passage a little closer, when we put aside previous interpretations and look afresh at the context in which the gospel writer has placed this encounter, we notice that Jesus never tells us that this woman’s sacrifice is a good thing. (To be fair, he also never tells us that rich people contributing large sums is a bad thing, either….) Immediately prior to this story, Jesus had roundly denounced the scribes for their false piety, their jockeying for position, and how they “devour widows’ houses.”
“Devour widows’ houses.” That is quite an accusation! Want proof? Let’s sit down in the temple opposite the treasury and observe those who come with their contributions. Sure enough, along comes a widow and we see her place two small copper coins, worth less than a penny, into the treasury. We are not told her motivation, but Jesus makes clear her situation: while others give out of their abundance, she has given out of her poverty all she has to live on. All she has to live on! Two small copper coins!!
When we hear that we should be enraged! Enraged for two reasons. First, we should be enraged that her resources are so meager that she has so little to live on. What kind of society would allow widows to become so destitute? And second, we should be enraged that the religious system has convinced people to make gifts beyond their means because giving away all one has to live on somehow “pleases God.”
But instead of anger at the widow’s predicament, the wreckage left behind by the greediness and power plays of the leaders of her day, instead of lament for a system which could end in such destitution, we turn the widow into a hero, commending her for sacrificing all she had in a demonstration of faith and trust in a God who will provide.
Sacrifice is a dangerous notion because we often ask those who are the most vulnerable to give the most. If 2020 would have taught the church anything, between COVID and our racial reckoning, it should have taught us that.
And yes, the widow’s deposit of those two small copper coins may indeed have come from a place of deep faith and abiding trust in a God who has a preferential option for the poor and powerless of society, a fact scripture teaches us again and again if we would have ears to listen. And yes, our religious system continues to fall well short of taking seriously those teachings and thereby working to topple unjust systems so that all human beings might flourish and not merely survive.
What if this widow is asking us, especially those of us with privilege and power, to show our deep faith and abiding trust in God, not by giving away all we have to live on ( though Jesus certainly has been known to make such a request ) but by believing so thoroughly in Jesus and in the kingdom of God that we are willing to sacrifice our reputation, our comfort, our respectability, and yes our resources to make that kingdom a reality on earth as it is in heaven, a new reality that creates a radical reordering where the first are last and the last are first, a reality that turns upside down the predominant culture’s ideas of who is or is not deserving of love and compassion and human flourishing, a reality that may require us to sacrifice our ideas of political correctness or political expediency in order to start advocating for real systemic change.
This is a different kind of stewardship, one that asks a lot more of us than depositing a check into the treasury. Are we up to the challenge? May it be so. Amen.
Devotion By: Sheryl A.M. Johnson, Associate Pastor, Ginter Park Baptist Church, Richmond, VA
Treasurer & Communications, Virginia Baptist Women in Ministry