Give Until It Helps
A sermon on Mark 12:38-44
[to access an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
A quick reading of this Sunday’s texts, in the context of this particular day, seems to suggest a rather obvious theme. Any ideas what it might be?
Let me give you a few hints:
The context of the day is Veteran’s Day, and not just any Veteran’s Day! Today is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice – the end of the fighting – in World War I, which is the origin of this holiday. It’s a day focused on remembering the sacrifices of those who have served the cause of freedom, and the sacrifices of their families.
It is in that context that we hear today’s readings:
The first reading, tells of a poor widow who sacrifices her last food to feed God’s prophet, with only a promise that she won’t then starve.
The gospel tells of a poor widow who sacrifices her last penny to serve God’s Temple, with absolutely no promise that she won’t then starve.
And the reading from the epistle, tells that Jesus came “to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26).
Any guesses now?
Of course! Sacrifice. How could I NOT preach a sermon about sacrifice, right?
Well… I’m not going to. At least, I’m not going to preach a sermon that exhorts us all to live lives of sacrifice. Because sacrifice is not an end unto itself. It is not an independent good. And exhortations to sacrifice run a very real danger of fetishizing the kind of loss and pain that, on their own – separated from the needs that cause them – are not good. They are loss and pain.
To explain what I mean, let me speak briefly about a heart-breaking sacrifice in my husband’s home-town, Thousand Oaks, this past week. The thirteen lives lost in the shooting at the Borderline Club on Wednesday night are clearly a tragedy. At least one of those losses could also be described as a sacrifice. Sergeant Ron Helus, a Veteran police officer ran into the dance hall to try to save lives, and he was killed in that attempt. His actions were noble, and brave.
But it would have been so much better if he didn’t NEED to sacrifice himself, wouldn’t it? If the deep evil of violence that has such a disproportionate hold on American society didn’t create the repeated scenes of police officers HAVING to risk their lives to protect innocents. This kind of sacrifice is only good in response to the reality of evil. The dying part is not good.
But when our rhetoric, or our morality, elevates the idea of sacrifice in itself as a moral good, that can too easily mutate into the myth of redemptive violence. A myth the glorifies violence as the only solution to violence. And we need LESS violence in our society, not more.
As a balance to the glorification of sacrifice in which we elevate “giving your all,” I want to offer a different understanding of sacrifice. In his book Wishful Thinking, theologian Frederick Buechner offers simple, thought-provoking definitions for basic ideas of the faith. For sacrifice, he writes one sentence:
“to sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love.”
It’s the last two words of that definition that change everything for me. It’s not the act of the giving that is the operative factor. It’s the REASON… the motivation…. “for love.” Sacrifice is not good for its own sake… the giving is made good, even made holy, because it is done for the sake of the other. For love.
That understanding of sacrifice is an important idea to bring to the interpretation of today’s gospel – because it draws our attention to the heart of the failure that Jesus is pointing out: a failure of love.
[In studying this gospel reading this week, I read an essay by Rev. Gary Charles that opened my eyes to what Jesus is teaching in this story. I will be referring to it several times]
To begin with, Rev. Charles points out that the whole seven verses of today’s reading are ONE story, not two. This might not be obvious, because there is a break in the action. Jesus is teaching, then he sits down and watches the crowd for a while, and then he offers another lesson. But it’s not really a new scene. As Rev. Charles explains, “(Mark) has a habit of telling one story in two parts that look, at first, to be two different stories; but as you dig deeper, you learn that you cannot understand one story without the other.” To understand the connection, we have to dig into both parts of the story.
The first part, verse 38-40, are a mini-rant from Jesus about the scribes – who were essentially the religious elite in the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus is calling out these leaders for their hypocrisy in general, but also specifically for their greed, which takes advantage of the poor. That’s what the comment about “devouring widow’s houses” is all about.
As the leaders of the faith it was their responsibility to makes sure that the weakest and most vulnerable in the society were cared for. The gifts given to the Temple weren’t for the purpose of buying long robes for the scribes or ensuring them the wealthy status to get place of honor at banquets. The Jewish faith clearly teaches the obligation to care for widows and orphans and immigrants… those on the margins of the economic system. But the scribes whom Jesus targets for his rebuke are actually part of the problem that they are supposed to be fixing.
This understanding is linked back to Mark’s account of the cleansing of the temple, a chapter earlier: Again, Rev. Charles helps us see this connection: “Jesus enters the home base of the scribes and accuses them of fraudulent piety (11:15-19).” (that’s the reference to the earlier temple cleansing; THEN) “He faults them for feeding upon accumulated privileges of their position while charmingly extorting the very ones the Mosaic laws charge them to defend – poor widows (12:40).
The second part of the story is the evidence for Jesus’s accusation of extortion.
While many rich people are bringing large sums to the temple (and, we can assume, drawing the attention of the scribes whom Jesus is accusing), a deeply impoverished widow offers two small coins – the equivalent of just one penny.
It’s an almost meaningless gift on the scale on Temple collections, but it is not meaningless to her. It’s all that she has. She leaves the Temple that day utterly destitute.
This is the opposite of what is supposed to happen when she comes to the Temple. She’s supposed to have her needs met, not be called on to give her last cent to meet the voracious appetite of the institution.
Charles’s analysis cuts to the quick: “The widow in the Jerusalem Temple gives to an institution that has forgotten that it is to care for widows…. to an institution that no longer notices those who are in the greatest need and has forgotten why it exists.”
It’s not that these leaders are evil people with malicious intentions. They’re just distracted from their purpose. The responsibility to maintain the massive Temple system – and the seduction of the power and status and comfort to which their roles gave them access – made them lose focus on why they were there in the first place. What they were supposed to be using the resources for.
After this rebuke of the scribes, Jesus sits to observe the evidence of his critique play out in front of his eyes. He sees business as usual: the parade of “big givers” while the widow’s devastating poverty goes unnoticed. And then he makes a comparison: He declares that the widow has donated MORE, “for all of them contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)
When we read that evaluation in the context of the WHOLE story, we realize that Jesus is not glorifying the widow’s sacrifice. He is critiquing those who left her in the situation of giving everything she has to live on because everything she has in only a penny!
Contrary to many a sermon I have heard on this story, the lesson Jesus is teaching is NOT “be like the widow.” If it were, we would all be lost, because we can’t realistically give EVERYTHING. Of course, we can’t! Of course, that’s not what Jesus wants us to do!
Rev. Charles makes the important point that “Jesus does not want to leave us destitute, impoverished, unable to care for ourselves, much less unable to care for those in need.” That would be missing the point just as clearly as the scribes did.
And besides, Jesus is the one who gives all – and he give once for all (as the reading from Hebrews tells us). We aren’t called to repeat his sacrifice.
But ALSO, Jesus does not want us to just give “out of our abundance” – out of whatever we can spare. Jesus wants us to give what is needed to actually accomplish our purpose. The point isn’t the sacrifice… it’s what the sacrifice accomplishes.
So, after all that, how do I connect this teaching to my final sermon on our Fall Stewardship theme? How does this story and this deconstruction of the nature of sacrifice connect to giving as a way to grow our faith?
It’s pretty simple, actually. Our faith grows through our participation in actually doing the work of the church. And that’s what this story is about.
The lesson of this gospel for us is NOT to give until it hurts….until we are impoverished like the destitute widow… The lesson is to give until it HELPS.
In the pew sheets that explain different parts of our worship service, it says this about the offering: “As part of worship, we gather monetary blessings not as a charity drive but rather as an act of worship, in which we give of ourselves for the sake of others, both those served by this congregation and by the larger church.” That’s why we give. So that this congregation can do the work of meeting needs.
Through our worship;
through our pastoral care;
through our church garden;
through our food pantry;
through hosting recovery groups;
through growing faith in our youth and adults;
through all the ways that God is active in our lives and our community through the work of Abiding Peace.
As we put our pledge cards in the offering basket today, and as we give from what God has given to us going forward, please remember… the point is not about sacrificing. We aren’t giving to earn a gold star. We are giving so that the work can get done.
And we know that when we are part of that work, it grows our faith.
Thanks be to God.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, New York: Harper Collins (1973), p.101.
 Gary W. Charles, “Nothing Left Behind (Mark 12:38-44)” in Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2002), p.201.
 Ibid, p. 201.
 Ibid, p. 203.
 Ibid, p. 204
 See the lectionary reading from Hebrews 9:24-28, esp. verse 26.