Toorak Uniting Church

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"About Just Giving"

Mark 12: 38 – 44
Rev. Ian Brown
9 November 2003

God our true Light, help us to see with more than our eyes, and to hear with more than our ears. Then, with your grace, we will come closer to the one who turned the values of the world upside down, and established love as the greatest treasure. In Jesus we pray. Amen!

I’d guess that for many of us our attitudes to money were shaped in our families. The sort of values and assumptions we use to handle the resources that come through our hands are often shaped in us from a young age.
My father was a child in the depression of the late 20's and 30's.
His father died young, leaving a family without an income in difficult times. I grew up in a caring home that wasted nothing - absolutely nothing. I think my dad used to re-squeeze the toothpaste tube - and very carefully roll up those old metal ones. When I got my first bike it was an old frame and he’d bought the parts - we put it together over two weeks. That taught me a lot about bicycles and more about the value of the gift. - I must confess my father’s "waste nothing" attitude rubbed off - and I still have that bike!
Such old and well entrenched habits die hard!

When we come to the gospel though, it’s very clear that Jesus was willing to challenge established attitudes, to criticize entrenched practices and to make clear the values of God’s kingdom. There are many terrific aspects of giving, Philanthropy is a wonderful thing and needs to be shaped in more of us - but it doesn’t come near Jesus ethic of giving!
Generosity is a marvelous attribute and should be shaped in all of us. But it doesn’t come near to the value Jesus gives with!
Matters of security and tokenism are fundamental to tackle, but Jesus teaching soars well beyond these!

How to manage money is not advice that Jesus gives - instead he deals with the values behind our decisions on money - and then with consequences. "Where your money is, your heart is" said Jesus. In the New Testament alone there are some 120 references to riches, money and wealth. It’s a very significant biblical subject.

But our gospel reading from Mark starts with a stinging criticism of religious hypocrites. The context of Jesus words about giving is important even if it's an uncomfortable reading that could make us feel a little embarrassed. Jesus slings off at all the scribes in a broad generalization about how they rip off widows.

I was tempted to follow a trend in modern preaching; to ignore the negative, tell a few nice stories about inspiring givers, based on the widow's mite and leave us all feeling comfortable. This is, after all one of the favorite passages for stewardship campaigns, used to encourage sacrificial giving.

.....However, I believe, that would be to ignore Jesus and to ignore both the truth and the good news of the gospel here for us.

Can we fail to notice here that this story of the widows mite happens at a critical point in the drama of Jesus story.
We ought not ignore where this story of the widow’s giving happens or who it might be aimed at. It crops up right in the middle of some of Jesus sharpest words. Words reserved for those who use positions of power for their own gain and who abuse those who are least able to look after themselves.
"Beware", Jesus says, "Beware of the people in powerful positions in your community who expect the most important seats. Beware of those who always want the important seat at annual meetings, Beware of those who always want the prestigious positions on boards and committees and who like to be greeted with respect when you see them down the street."
"Beware," says Jesus "because these people often use those they have power over." We must beware how we use the power and position we have.

Now I guess not all the scribes were into ripping off widows and orphans. But it hasn't just been in the modern age that power has corrupted those who hold it.

And the clever religious people who can say long prayers in public may seem like good role models to follow, with their unashamed piety and obvious display of faith, but Jesus says don't follow them.
He questions their motives and says "look at their example" rather than their piety. All of this is said as Jesus teaches in the Temple, then he moves his group across to the temple treasury for an object lesson.

And along comes a poor widow. The rich had made a great show of putting their large contributions in and this widow drops in two of the smallest coins. Just for the financially minded that was 1/64th of laborers wage for a day's work.
The tiny amount contrasts with Jesus praise of her generosity. "She has given more than all the rest", the widows devotion was genuine and her giving costly.
This is one a passages that has been often used to encourage or coerce people into giving to the church. If a poor widow gave all she had and was commended by Jesus, how much should we give, so goes the argument. In effect to do this is to follow the way of the scribes who set down the rules and directions for what should and shouldn't be done, it's really joining them.

Far too often the widow has been used by the church as badly as she was used by the religious leaders of her day. Look at the context of the story. The widow is an example of the sort of extortion that Jesus was criticizing in the scribes. In it's context the poor widow is a glaring example of how the helpless poor are exploited by a powerful but hypocritical religious system.

We have to wonder what sort of society allows a widow only 1/64th of a day's pay to live on and then lays the burden of giving to the temple on her as well. Is it any wonder then that the next story in Mark is Jesus prediction of the destruction of the temple?

What example then should we follow if we want to know what really constitutes "just giving"? If Christian faith turns away from the legalism that often oppresses and away from rules that can’t bring freedom - what guide do we have then as an example?

My rather obvious suggestion is we try looking at Jesus for that example.
Instead of demanding and taking for himself, Jesus calls us to follow his way, of giving one’s self for others. How much of himself does Jesus give ?
Instead of ordering or coercing, he shows us the way with his own example and he gently invites us to follow. How far does Jesus himself go ?
Instead of demanding that we give, he gives himself in love and calls to us to follow his way. How much of himself does Jesus give ?
And, yes, it’s also true that the small gifts that the poorest give do make a tremendous difference, they confront us and they challenge us, there is offering and then there's offering. Her gift, so small in the economics of society meant so much more than money could buy. And, yes we should note that Jesus notices one insignificant gift from one un-named widow and in this there is some hope that we too are noticed.

So today, next week, when ever you give consider what it means - consider it as an exercise of faith, consider your giving as a part of your following of Jesus who gave his all for us.
Indeed, it is the gift of one poor, unemployed and homeless man that brings us more than our economics could conceive; salvation and hope, through Jesus.

God give us grace and the faith to follow Jesus, the giver.

Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2003


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