A Generous Spirit

This sermon was preached on November 11th, 2012, titled “A Generous Spirit.” The text is Mark’s version of the Widow’s Mite, found in Mark 12:38-44.

Growing up in my family, if you asked what’s for dinner, the answer was always the same.  No matter what smells were coming from the kitchen, Dad would always gear up and sing, “We’re having Beefaroni, it’s beef and macaroni, Beefaroni’s fun to eat, Beefaroni’s really neat, Hooray! for Beefaroni!”  As a kid, it drove me up the wall that I could never get a straight answer. But as a camp counselor, I began to understand why Dad never answered that question.

It was my first week as a camp counselor, and already I was tired of answering the same questions over and over. What are we doing next? When are we leaving? Why do we have to leave now? What are we going to do when we get there? Are we there yet? What are we doing next? One by one every camper would go through the same questions, almost like they’d gotten together and formed a plan to drive me bananas. I had suddenly developed a real appreciation for the beefaroni song

On the second day, my patience cracked. After breakfast, we were walking from our cabins to the main building to make our lunches for the day, and one of the kids asked me, “Are we going to have lunch?” and I gave him a smart alec answer. “Nope, I said. “Not Today. Lunch and Dinner only happen on Wednesdays and Fridays. All we get for the rest of the day is half a cookie and a little bit of water.” While I thought my little joke was funny, the campers took it with deadly seriousness. They wondered how they were going to survive. They were already feeling the beginning pangs of hunger, and half a cookie would never be enough.

One girl was so upset at the thought that she began to hold her stomach and moan that she could never survive. And something incredibly sweet happened. Another girl saw her in distress, and offered what little she had. “You can have half of my half of the cookie.” It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen. She didn’t worry about what she would have to eat, she saw that someone was in need and moved to fill it. Even with as little as she thought she had, she shared it, without concern that she might not have enough. Rarely do you get to observe such kindness in nature, and when you do, it warms your heart.

On the surface, the story of the widow’s mite is another example of genuine generosity found in nature.  A widow gives two tiny coins to the treasury, and Jesus, who is standing by watching says that she gave more than any of those who dropped big pouches of gold, because she gave all that she had to live on. If we focus on this part of the story, like my little camper who would share her last meal with a stranger, it’s beautiful and romantic, a tale of self-sacrifice and devotion.

Students of the Bible will note that widows are often standbys for the weakest and most vulnerable in society. They have no one to care for them, and no means to care for themselves. But this woman, in spite of how little she had, was willing to give everything to the Temple treasury. She didn’t hold anything back for tomorrow. She saved nothing for a rainy day. Maybe she had heard Jesus’ teaching that we should consider the lilies of the field, and trust that God will clothe us as beautifully as God clothes all of Creation. Or maybe she just held on to God’s promise that any who call out to God will be cared for. In any case, she gave her everything, and put her trust in God to provide.

When we talk about faith, we are often talking about what we believe. But saying that we believe that God will care for us is a very different thing from putting our last two coins in the offering plate. That is faith. Faith is belief put into action. There is no doubt that had she tried, this woman, with her faith, could have moved mountains. She didn’t worry about herself, she knew that God would care for her and that would be enough. She just wanted to care for others. I hope that each of us can find this kind of faith.  That we can find the faith to say, God, I don’t know what tomorrow will look like, but I will give my everything to you today. I hope each of us can give, even when we feel like we don’t have enough, and put our trust in the promises that God will provide.

As much as this narrative is beautiful, if we pan out for a moment, the tone of the story changes. Our passage begins today with a warning about the scribes, men of the cloth who enjoy great respect and honor. Jesus says they devour widow’s houses and say long prayers for the sake of appearance. It’s unclear what Jesus means by devouring widow’s houses. Scholars suggest that it may have been encouraging widows to give beyond their means, paying themselves lavish salaries while mismanaging property donated by widows to support the Temple, or sponging off the hospitality of those who have so little to give.[1] We don’t really know. What we do know is this: On one hand we have religious leaders who devour widow’s houses. And on the other hand, we have a widow whose house has been devoured. And in this moment, the widow is giving her very last coins to the Temple.

When I think about my generous camper, who would share her last piece of food with someone she’d only met, the taste in my mouth isn’t sweet, but bitter. I’m amazed at the genuine kindness of this girl, but I’m also reminded that it was my pettiness and impatience that made that sort of sacrifice necessary.  Here was a little girl willing to share what little she had for the needs of a girl she’d only met the day before, all because I thought it would be funny to tell them they wouldn’t’ have anything to eat. I was put in charge of my campers, who were powerless to control what their day would look like. How could I have abused that responsibility? How could I make cruel jokes instead of reassuring them that everything would be alright.

Traditionally preachers have zoomed in on the widow and the amazing faith that she shows. But if we pan out, Jesus comment moves from praise to lament.[2] It is suddenly a shame that these men, who wear long robes and have an appreciation for the finer things in life would ask this poor woman to give up everything for their support. They have devoured her house and still they ask for more. How could they ask so much from someone who has so little? How could one praise her devotion without lamenting the need that she experiences?  Over and over again God’s prophets tell us to care for the widow and the orphan, to protect the weakest and most vulnerable. But these scribes had turned it on its head! Instead of supporting the widow, they have asked her to support them!

The funny part about my story, is that it all happened just a few feet from the camp dining hall. And sitting in the dining hall, a feast had been prepared. Bread and meat and cheese and peanut butter and jelly were laid out for sandwiches. Apples and oranges and bananas, and little bags of chips and cookies were all laid out for us to make our lunches from.

The shameful thing about the reality of the scribes’ world, the reality of our world, is that there is a banquet prepared for us. There is enough for all. No one needs to go hungry because of our selfishness or fear. No one needs put their last two cents in the offering plate so that we can wear long robes and read long prayers. The widow’s story is a story of a woman who had faith that we should all envy, but need we should never allow.

The good news for us is that a feast has been prepared for us. The Lord has prepared a banquet, and everyone is invited, even those who do not deserve it. Let us, in our daily lives, never forget that God has provided a feast for us. Never think that we are running low on blessing without remembering that there is more where that came from. Let us not obscure the reality of God’s bounty to the people who need it most. Let us give with generous hearts, as the widow did. But let us never let the generous hearts of those who need us most go empty.

[1] See Smith, Geoffrey. “A Closer Look at the Widow’s Offering: Mark 12:41-44” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society vol. 40 no. 1 (March 1997): 27-36. for a rundown of the various scholarly hypotheses concerning Jesus meaning in that phrase.

[2] for the scholarship behind this interpretation of Mk 13:38-44, look to Wright, Addison G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament? A matter of Context.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly Washington, DC 44, no. 2 (1982): 256-265.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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