Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 11/11/2012

“The widow’s mite” is another one of those phrases that has become quite commonly used in the wider culture even though there are probably people who don’t know of its biblical origins in this story of a widow making an offering that amounts to about a penny.  It’s a phrase that is usually used to highlight the value of small contributions to a larger cause.  In church we hear this story every three years and when it shows up in the lectionary it’s always around this time of year when many churches are involved with or are just completing their annual stewardship drive.   Because of that, the story of the widow’s mite has become a classic stewardship text. 

There are different ways to approach it though, as a stewardship text.  Sometimes the emphasis is on “every little bit counts,” small contributions, like that of the widow, add up.  The other thing that gets emphasized is the woman’s generosity, her willingness to give everything, all that she has, in contrast to those who may give a lot but who have so much that giving a lot is easy.  The amount the widow gives is small, much less than the rich who put in large sums, but the percentage of her giving is way more.  Anyway,  those themes, every little bit counts, generosity and percentage giving are stewardship themes that you’ve heard talked about before and, like I said, if you’ve been coming to church for a long time you’ve probably heard this story used to illustrate these themes; but let’s think about this for a minute.

The treasury of the temple was there to support the religious activities and programs of the day.  It was not unlike our situation and the way that your contributions support the activities and programs of this church.  But, the truth of it is that every such institution, religious or otherwise, that depends on contributions is in need of and is thankful for the heavy hitters, those who can give large sums.  That’s just the economic reality of things and with the heavy hitters we don’t tend to ask about the purity of their motives.  The amount of their offering doesn’t make them better than everyone else and it doesn’t mean that those who give smaller amounts are not appreciated, but still, the financial reality is that you need the big guns. 

For example, when I send my $100 annual gift to my college I’m doing what I can; that’s my widow’s mite.  I think they appreciate it, they send me a nice calendar every year, I assume the same one that the big shots get.  But if all they got were contributions like mine they wouldn’t be able to compete with other similar institutions.  They need gifts like mine, but they also need the people who send gifts in the millions of dollars and there are some.  The temple wouldn’t have been all that different from this; the church isn’t all that different either. All of which makes me wonder about what Jesus was actually up to in this text.  He certainly knew these realities and that’s one reason I think this may be about more than every little bit helps and percentage giving.  Those are good things to talk about; it’s just that that may not be what this story is about.  As is often the case with things Jesus says, simply taking it as practical advice may be missing the point.

But there’s also a couple of other reason that this may not be a stewardship text.  One of the things that tends to be assumed, but which really isn’t there, is that Jesus praises the widow as a model of giving.  We read his praise into it when we make it about stewardship, but if you look at it, all Jesus really does is to make an observation. “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”  We read Jesus’ approval into it and maybe we’re supposed to.  But still, it’s not clear, and Jesus doesn’t say “Go and do likewise.” 

Another huge assumption we make when we equate this to our own stewardship programs, is that we assume that Jesus supported the temple as being worthy of the offerings of the people.  But one of the themes of all the gospels is how Jesus challenges the temple and the authority vested in it.  For example, just staying in Mark’s gospel, we heard the story last spring but it’s in the chapter just before today’s reading, the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph, the Palm Sunday story that we’re familiar with; but then what does he do?  Having arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple and drives out those who were buying and selling, overturning the tables of the money changers.  The cleansing of the temple we call it and it’s not exactly support for the temple and its treasury.  It’s kind of a tipping point in the whole Jesus story as it increases the intensity of the chief priests and the scribes in their search for a way to kill Jesus.

In the verses immediately following today’s story, as Jesus left the temple his disciples were admiring it which is understandable.  The disciples were all from little villages so it’s like people from rural areas like this going to a big city and being awed by the tall buildings.  But Jesus doesn’t share in the awe of his disciples.  Instead, he talks about how not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down and remember, for Jews of the day the temple was the very dwelling place of God so this is another affront on something they held very dear. 

Jesus wasn’t exactly a cheerleader for the temple and he wasn’t a big favorite among those who did support it.  If that’s the case, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus would have been encouraging his disciples or anyone else to give all they could in support of the temple and its programs, and that is further evidence that this story may not be about stewardship in the way that we think it is.

If not, then what is it?  One possibility may be that it is a stewardship text but a different kind of stewardship text.  One way to approach this is to see this story as something of a caution to those of us who do ask for money in the name of God, which is what we do.  The idea behind stewardship is that with our offerings of our time, talents and financial resources we offer thanks for the many ways God has blessed us; we return a portion to God.  When we do that the assumption is that what we return contributes to the work of the church and we assume that the church is doing work that God would find pleasing.

It’s all stuff that we church members just accept, but when you think about it, those are huge assumptions.  Giving to the church is not the same as paying for a ticket to a show or a game; it’s not the same as supporting public radio or TV where if you use the service you should help pay for it; it’s not the same as paying your dues as a member of the club.  When the church sends you a letter asking you to make a pledge in support of its operation, its mission, the church is claiming to do the work of God.  For all of us who are involved in this, we should take that claim very seriously because, number one, it’s a massive claim and number two, history tells us quite clearly that things can go bad, this claim of the church can be abused. 

In Jesus’ opinion, that’s what had happened in the temple.  What had been a godly institution had grown corrupt to the point where, among other things, it was unapologetically urging and allowing those with little means of support, like a widow, to give everything they had.  For people like her, this would make them even more vulnerable than they already were and it would seem that Jesus didn’t think that allowing this practice was doing the work of God. 

Moving that into our context, theologically, one understanding of Jesus is that he is the replacement of the temple.  From that, we understand the church to be the body of Christ, physically representing Christ’s presence in the world.  As the church then, we claim to be doing the work of Christ.  Again, that is a huge assumption, one that requires regular reflection because if what we do here doesn’t represent our best and most sincere efforts to do the work of Christ, we’re accepting your offerings under false pretenses.

For those of us in positions of leadership, we need to think about this.  As your pastor, being the one called to proclaim the gospel in your midst, I need to make sure I’m doing that.  I need to make sure that as best I can I am faithful in proclaiming the teachings of Jesus and faithful in proclaiming the truth that the church teaches about Jesus.

In terms of the broader mission of the church, all of us need to constantly evaluate whether or not we are serving and caring as well as we can for the neighbor, for the least of these, as Jesus called his followers to do and which he modeled throughout his ministry.  With every program we undertake, that question should be raised.  We also have to resist the temptation to be satisfied with what we’re doing, even when it is good.

That’s why we try to provide opportunities to give, the food table and Operation Christmas Child being two current examples.  This also gives me an opportunity to let you know that the discretionary fund is very low at the moment and a lot of work in helping and supporting those in need is done through that fund.  Not everyone can help with every opportunity, but collectively, as the body of Christ, we can do a lot.

When we are about proclaiming Christ and doing the work of Christ in as genuine a fashion as we can, it is then legitimate to ask for your support and then, whether your offering is closer to that of the widow than it is to that of the rich putting in large sums, together we help God pleasing work to be done, Christ is served, we are the church as it’s called to be.  I guess that means that the story of the widow’s mite is a stewardship text after all.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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