Twenty-Fourth Weekend After Pentecost (B/RCL): “How Much? Not Less Than Everything”
November 7-8, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Is it okay or not to stare at what people put into the offering plate??
I’d never noticed this before, but in today’s Gospel Jesus is watching “the crowd putting money into the treasury.” (Mark 12:41) The treasury we’re talking about was located in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were 13 offering receptacles into which people could put their money: to pay the annual tax to cover Temple expenses and to provide for the priests, or to donate the cost of oil, wine, corn, whatever was needed for sacrifices. It wasn’t so different than us donating flowers or the cost of bread and wine, the eternal light, or bulletins. Those 13 offering receptacles were called The Trumpets, because that described their shape. ‘Reminds me of our Lord’s words in St. Matthew’s Gospel (ch. 5) that we hear every Ash Wednesday:
“2So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
In the first part of today’s GospelJesus is criticizing the scribes, experts in the Law, for doing stuff to be admired by humans, instead of out of love for God. They wore robes longer than anybody else’s so people would know they were special and didn’t have to worry about long robes tripping them up as they worked hard or hurried along. They liked it when people saw them on the street and bowed very deeply to acknowledge their importance. The worst thing our Lord said about them was that they “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40), meaning they bilked, cheated, poor people out of the little money they had. Scribes weren’t supposed to charge for their work. But some scribes convinced some people that if they supported the scribes, God would bless them….
A widow shows up both in the first lesson from 1 Kings and our Gospel from St. Mark. The widow of Zarephath in the first lesson was a foreigner, a pagan, a Gentile. The widow in the Gospel was Jewish. God loved both of them. Scripture tells us in many different places that there’s a special place in God’s heart for widows and orphans. This is because they are so vulnerable and need someone to protect them. In Jesus’ time, and long before, and long after, if a woman’s husband died or deserted her she was left with no income. She had to depend on kind friends and faithful followers to provide for her and her children. It’s still that way in some places and some situations today.
Our psalm for this weekend (printed in the Celebrate insert) is Psalm 146. It says:
The LORD cares for the stranger;
the LORD sustains the orphan and widow…. (Psalm 146:9a-b)
The Lord often does that through us. When people are left in a pickle, without what they need, they may blame God. They should probably blame us instead, because sometimes we forget that many of the blessings given to us are meant to flow through us to others. Sadly, sometimes we’re stingy instead of generous with money or encouragement or love and we hurt others instead of helping them.
So if being really rich depends on the size of your heart and not the contents of your wallet, who does Jesus say is the wealthiest person in the Temple the day He sat there and watched people drop money into the Trumpets?
Jesus watches because Jesus cares. He doesn’t ask a little of us. He asks a lot. Actually, He wants everything from us. Not every penny in our bank account, though – more importantly, He’s hoping for every drop of devotion, every ounce of energy, every moment of our time, every iota of our love. When you lay it all out, I’d say money, necessary as it is to fuel ministry, symbolic as it is of our spiritual commitment, is the least of what our Lord asks of us. I don’t believe God has angelic financial secretaries who tally how many dollars we give. But I do believe He knows well how much of ourselves we invest in our relationship with Him and with His Church.
Good news and bad news: the Lord is probably asking more of us than we are currently willing to give. The definition of idol that I like the best is: any god that asks of us only as much as we’re willing to give. When we begin to realize how much the Lord requires of us, we can rest assured that we’re dealing with the one true God and not with an idol we’ve created for our own convenience.
This past week I heard two statements that challenged me. One was actually a question: are we doing as much for the poor as we should? We decided: of course not. Now we could take ourselves off the hook by saying, “But we can only do what we can do.” Or we can continue to do what we’re doing and keep asking the Lord how else He wants us to help. We should never dumb down the Lord’s expectations: the Lord wants everything from us. And what the Lord desires to happen, the Lord enables to happen.
The other statement that struck me was a friend’s expression of guilt for not having helped a person-in-need more fully, more immediately. I saw deep regret and painful sorrow. And I admired the person who expressed those feelings for realizing how high our Lord sets the bar. Sometimes I forget that and I’m like the person in the Temple who calculated his tithe and proudly plunked it in the treasury, rather than like the little lady who threw arithmetic out the window and lovingly gave her all. Someone has said of her offering of a penny:
“It has proved to be one of the world’s mightiest financial transactions.”1
Maybe we’ve given a big part of ourselves to Christ, but not all. He’s waiting for us to hand over whatever it is we’ve held back. We may hesitate because we’re afraid that the Lord doesn’t approve of “something” or “someone” we love and we’re afraid He’ll take it away. If that were true, though, He would replace the person or thing that needs to go with something much better! Or maybe we feel what we have to offer is too imperfect, too little, too ordinary, too broken to give. Then we need to remember that beautiful verse of Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
The Lord is watching and He wants all of us, with nothing held back. Remember what the widow in the Temple exemplified and what T.S. Eliot said we signed on for in Holy Baptism? “A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything).”2 Amen.
1The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1951), p. 853.
2T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Little Gidding V).
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham