The Widow’s Motivation

This sermon was preached by Mieke Vandersall at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church on October 16 and 17, 2016 and is based on Mark 12:38–44 as part of our contract to engage the congregation to explore their own relationship with money and motivation for giving.

38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.”

There is a problem in the system. Our reading tonight describes a system of injustice. Here at St. Lydia’s I know you talk a lot about systems of injustice. Systems that give some people more political and financial capital in the world than others, that creates the breeding ground for racism and sexism and homophobia. Systems are in place that interact with police forces and prison industrial complexes, and governmental institutions, and yes, even churches. And so often systems of injustice are fed by money. Money gets a bad reputation from all the ways that it can be used so poorly.

There is a problem in the system and far too often money has to do with so much of it. Money, in its own right, is necessary. We all need it to survive. It makes our lives so much easier when we have it. Having worked in the non-profit sector and in churches who are truly trying to make change in the world, I sure know that money is critical for allowing important work to take place — for the confrontation of these systems that Jesus raises up for us today. But boy is it complicated.

Way back in the day, we find a temple system that is run by the manipulation of money. Through public prayers and large donations the scribes who serve the temple system force others to respect them, and in turn it is acceptable somehow to devour widows homes. The temple system, the religious system has largely gone astray and the people are suffering.

The sermons I have heard on this reading in the past have often revolved around this woman, this widow who showed the scribes a thing or two and gave all of her money. Her devotion, her humility, they outshined the scribes who walked around in long robes, who gave of their wealth, but not enough so that it hurt. This is a sermon that is often preached around stewardship season, to show all of us that we need to give generously and selflessly. This is a sermon that often makes us feel bad, not virtuous enough, greedy.

But let’s think of it a bit differently tonight. Upon closer look, I find this reading to be much more complicated, just as complicated as many of us find money to be in our lives.

We have a widow who probably by the skin of her teeth was surviving, somehow she was spared as the scribes devoured the homes of widows, and she gave all of her money, everything she had to the very temple system that she knew full well cared nothing of her or for her. When we are intertwined in systems of injustice, we all know they are unjust but often we don’t know how to change them. We don’t know what to do with them; we don’t know how to change our reaction and our response to them. Is this why she gave, because she felt she had to?

Or did the woman act selflessly, wanting to give all she had to God, and since the temple symbolized God, giving she did? Maybe. Maybe not. Did she give away everything she had to a system that she thought housed God? Maybe. Maybe not.

How should we decide to give to the church? Because we feel we have to? Because we sometimes think the church houses God — it’s where we find access to the sacred?

In ancient times it wasn’t a requirement for the poor to give. By giving everything she had she might have been making a claim, a stake. Did she believe in the possibility of the temple, was she investing into the future of possibilities?

Do we give to the church because we believe in what we can do together?

Way back then, as is the case now, there are so many motivations for giving our money. I wish I knew what the widow’s motivation was. Perhaps to exemplify that still, despite the reality that she was in a terribly corrupt system, she wanted to show her devotion to God, because whether we like it or not, that corrupt place was still the place where they believed that the sacred was found. Maybe she was duped. Maybe she was guilted. We can’t really know. But what we do know is that it was much more complex than a selfless modeling. It had to have been.

When I teach fundraising classes with church leaders and congregations, we think through this very simple question: what is your first memory of money and the church? What has the church taught you about money? Someone I know who wasn’t “churched” said this: I always thought the church manipulated money out of people by telling them how much they had to give. It is a common perception.

For people who were raised in the church, often their first memory of money is a memory associated with church: grandmothers giving them dollars to place in the plate, which they now associate with a holy act. Collecting coins, portions of their allowance each week to give back. For others there are stories of the 10% biblical tithe being an important family ritual. To give 10% to the church for some of these folks was an act of displaying their dedication to God, their trust in a God who provides abundance, even when it is hard to make ends meet. For some, the only time money was talked about was during dreaded stewardship seasons. They would avoid church during those few weeks and then come back when it was done.

Others remember fights about money in their church leadership — I myself remember one of the biggest fights in our congregation over whether or not to raise the price of the coke machine in the basement. In retrospect I have no idea how this took so much energy, and I can’t remember who won that battle, but it seems that this fight was over much more than raising the price on the soda machine, this was a fight over control. And so somehow or another I got in my head that money and control in the church go hand in hand.

The church teaches us so much about money, consciously or not, and that teaching goes back so many generations, so, so many. For us, is money, and giving, associated with the corrupt system and structure of the scribes, of the temple system that destroys the homes of widows? Or is it associated with a Jesus who rejects this system and attempts to replace it with a system of radical justice, and fairness, and abundance? For me, it is the later.

Why did that widow give? Why did she empty her handbag and put in her two copper coins? Was it to glorify God? Was it to show a thing or two to the unjust system that she was still beholden to, that may have even still fed her soul? I can tell you that once I have been able to figure out for myself why I give, once I have been able to be conscious of the role and power that money has had in my life, I have been able to trust more deeply that it can be used for good, for change, for long, systemic, concrete, powerful change. This is how I choose to give where I do. Where am I fed so that I can work for justice in the world, and who is accompanying me in that giving? This is what I ask, and this is where I give, and when I look at it this way I find so much more joy in my giving, knowing I am investing in a vision of the world that I believe in, and that I think God believes in too. It is why I give to St. Lydia’s even though I am not a regular participant in this community. It is why so many others support this ministry, without ever having even been here. Hopefully it has something to do with why you give here too.

With a challenging widow and a justice-seeking Jesus, we are going to spend some time talking at our tables tonight about our first memory of money and thinking about what power this has had in our lives — but after we discuss that we will talk about our reasons for giving. Why do we give to nonprofits and charities? Whey do we give to St. Lydia’s? What is our motivation? What do we get out of it? What is valuable to you?

And so tonight things will be done a little differently than usual. I ask for our Leadership Team members to guide these conversations:

1) What is your earliest memory of money in the church and how did that memory form you?

2) How has your relationship with money changed since then?

3) Why do you give? What are your motivations?