"Coins and Corn Meal" – Mark 12:38-44
As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He 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.”
Many of us have heard this one before, haven’t we? This story of “the widow’s mite” is pretty popular in Christian circles. She’s one of the superheroes of the faith. She does a lot with a little and her story has gone a long way for generations to teach us about giving and generosity and faith and sacrifice and more. I’m not sure what’s left to be said on her behalf…what I and others haven’t said before…so I thought I’d tell a different version of the same story…a modern-day example, like this woman from the Gospel, who gives in ways that are faithful, inspiring, generous, sacrificial, and surprising.
See, all of this made me think about one of my favorite widows – Madame Jean, the grandmother of Bervincia, the little girl my family sponsors in Fondwa, Haiti. (You may also know her as “the cutest little girl on the mountain,” but that’s not really what this story is about today.) Madame Jean raises Bervincia because Madame Jean’s daughter, Bervincia’s mother, died giving birth to another child when Bervincia was about 8 years old. That was the same year Madam Jean’s own mother died, from grief as much as anything, it seems, because of the losses they all suffered as a result of the earthquake that rocked their world, in 2010.
There is no father or man or bread-winner around to help. As far as I know, the only job Madame Jean has is to sell coffee to mission trippers, like us, when they come for a week at a time, a few times a year.
The last time we were in Haiti, I spent a couple of hours one afternoon, with Madame Jean and Bervincia, and some of the boys from their family, while Madame Jean worked on dinner. By “working on dinner,” I mean she was pounding dried kernels of corn into a powdery meal, using a tree-stump and a small log as a mortar and pestal. Like your fine china, or best hammer or saw or screwdriver; rolling pin, cookie jar, or mixing bowl, maybe – this tree stump and small log – turned mortar and pestal, were tools handed down from Madame Jean’s own mother and grandmother.
Anyway, she would pound and pound and pound. And pound and pound and pound. And she would sift and shake the powder through a rusty colander. And then she would pound and pound and pound it out, some more.
I get the impression Madame Jean is pretty efficient at all of this, because when one of the older boys would offer to help, she either wouldn’t let them, or she would steal away the tools after giving them a shot at it for a spell and, with some measure of exasperation, a smile, a tsk, and a roll of her eyes, she would show them how to do it the right way.
Even done the right way, it takes a long time – and and some serious elbow grease – to turn dried kernels of corn into a powdery meal you can eat for dinner, using a log and a hollowed out tree stump, anyway. And it’s surprising, too, how much corn it takes to make a small amount of meal and how far she must have to stretch a bowl of powder into some kind of supper.
Even more surprising was that Madame Jean insisted I – her well-fed, soft, and pasty, uninvited guest – take a mug-full of that meal, the hard-won fruit of her labor, and eat the whole of it while she finished pounding out the rest of her dinner.
It looked like her last two copper coins. It felt like all she had to live on. In her poverty, she gave me something as valuable to her as anything else she or her family could get their hands on, really.
Today, Jesus has a seat across from the collection box where the people come to leave their tithe. Remember, back in Jesus’ time, it was the religious law for Jews to give 10% of their livelihood to the Temple. Their tithes to the Temple were as expected of them and accepted by them as their taxes to the government.
But the tithe had lost its meaning. The tithe was supposed to be seen as an opportunity for people to give back to God in thanksgiving for the many gifts God had first given to them. But, the people had forgotten what their 10% was all about. It no longer had the sense of gratitude and thanksgiving attached to it, as had originally been intended.
And it’s become that way for too many in the Church today. “Tithing” is a dirty word in many congregations because it has the feeling of “mandatory” and “Law” attached to it. Too many of us give reluctantly because we feel like it’s something we have to do. Too many others refuse to give generously because we don’t like to be told what, when or how much to give. Too many of us give the bare minimum and expect accolades and applause. And too many others don’t give what’s right because we’re too busy trying to figure out what we have left. What was happening back in the Temple when Jesus was around is still happening in churches all over the world today.
Enter the poor widow with her two copper coins.
She makes her way to the treasury and drops in the last of what she had. Not because she had to – otherwise she would have done the math and only given 10% of the penny they were worth. Not because she wanted to be noticed – otherwise we might know her name. And not because she couldn’t find something better to do with that money – it was everything she had to live on, remember.
As we dream and pray and plan for the Building Fund commitments we’ll make next weekend and in the days to come, let’s look at our offering not as an obligation but as an opportunity; not as a judgment but as a joy; not as a hardship, but as hope for what God can accomplish – for us and for others – through our giving. Let’s not make our gifts stubbornly because we have to, but generously and with happy hearts because we get to.
Because giving to the Building Fund or to the General Fund or to the temple treasury is never just about those things. Giving to God is about learning a new way of being in the world, and today’s widows have a great deal to teach us about generosity and gratitude and sacrifice and God’s kingdom, right here on earth.
- So, let’s learn that our faith and our lives aren’t to be staked upon money and things and stuff, no matter how much the world or our own selfishness and fear try to convince us otherwise…
- Let’s learn that the things and stuff in our lives are all gifts from God in the first place, and that it’s not a sacrifice to give away what isn’t really ours…
- Let’s learn that we have more than we pretend to have so much of the time and that it really can be a joy to share it …
- Let’s learn that when something truly is a gift, the recipient matters more than whatever is in the box or the bag or the coffee mug or the coffers…
- And let’s learn that, when it comes to the love of God, there aren’t enough coins – or corn meal – or Building Fund commitments – that could ever overstate our gratitude, or out-give our God, for the blessings in our lives anyway.