Homily: Rethinking Stewardship

Okay, so today’s Gospel provides a real challenge in this story about the widow and her two coins. At least two possibilities present themselves.

First, and more traditionally, we would imagine that Jesus is praising the widow. He lifts her up as an example of profound generosity and faith. Jesus, in fact, says her two pennies equal far more than the much larger sums given by the wealthy. Why? Because while they have given out of their abundance – and so probably are hardly impacted by their gifts – she has given all that she has. Now that’s faith, Jesus seems to say, inviting us – especially you, when I have just sent you our parish financial report– to do the same.

The second, and less common, interpretation links these few verses with the hypocrisy of the Scribes. The scribes were the educated class of religious leaders, the lawyers of the synagogue, if you will. And while they love to appear pious and wise and expect to sit at the places of honor at a banquet, yet they not only do nothing for those who are poor and vulnerable but actually enrich themselves from their losses. This is part of a much larger critique Jesus levels at the Temple and its practices more generally, a critique that began with the clearing of the Temple in the previous chapter and continues in this one.

In this context, Jesus’ emotional comments about the widow are less a matter of praise than a lament. I wonder, that is, if he says what he says, not so much to praise the widow but to indict those who would accept all that she has. Is she one of those widows that the Scribes are devouring? Is she a victim of a sacrificial system gone corrupt?

If so, then this doesn’t make a very good stewardship text after all. Instead, it should give us cause for concern: are we wrongfully accepting the gifts of those who are giving too much of their income while we praise, and give influence to, those who give greater sums but hardly feel the impact of their gifts?

If we decide the second interpretation seems the most likely, the question still remains: what do we do with this interpretation? Do we stop giving, even our meager two pennies, altogether? Do we remind people that, over the la st half century, as individual wealth has increased, personal giving has decreased? Or do we look inward at our own parish budget and ask whether we are using the gifts of our people well or possibly instead devouring their livelihoods?

And it’s true on the larger scale, the scale of nations themselves.  In 1970, the rich nations of the world made a pact to surrender seven one-hundredths of their gross national product each year to help the underdeveloped nations. Last year the United States contributed two one-hundreds of their GNP to this endeavor. Who gave the most? Who made their goal? The small countries – Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxemburg.

I don’t know what we should do. I do know it makes me nervous about using this text to talk about increased offertory giving.

And maybe that’s actually where my greatest challenge rests: if I think of stewardship primarily about giving money – to the church or some other cause – then maybe I greatly misunderstand and misrepresent God’s desire for us to be stewards of all that we have and are. The scribes’ problem, it seems to me, is that they are more concerned with what they have than with the needs of those around them. They have bought into the notion that the primary measure of their well being is whether “they are better off than they were before.”

God didn’t set up society that way. Think, for a moment, of the 10 Commandments – these are rules that God gives so that we take care of each other. We are not isolated individuals; we  are a community, a group of people gathered and bound together by mutual need and caring.

If this is the case, then maybe we should read this passage first as a cautionary tale about how easy it is to cave into our insecurity and be seduced to “look out for number one.” Then we might also read this passage as an invitation to remember that we are here for each other – created and blessed and drawn together to care for each other and the world.

In this light, maybe we should use this Sunday to go over our congregational budget, asking whether it reflects the character of the congregation we believe ourselves called to be. Or maybe we should give generously to the second collection today for those struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or to increase our gift for any number of challenges in our own communities. Or we could increase our donation in the monthly envelope for Haiti, so terribly hit by that same storm.

Or maybe we should start planning now how we can work together to resist the urge to define ourselves through our shopping over the next six weeks of Christmas craziness. It is so hard, after all, not to give in to the cultural penchant to calculate our worth by our possessions and to measure Christmas in relation to the number of gifts we give and receive. But maybe, just maybe, if we remember that we are called to be stewards of each other – each member committed to the welfare and wellbeing of the rest of the community – maybe we can experience again and anew God’s blessing of us by sharing and giving to those in real need.

David Lose  Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary  St. Paul, MN

Yes, this is a challenging text that has too often been ‘dumbed down’ over the years into a manipulative stewardship device. Anyone who would use this story as a way to guilt impoverished people into giving are just like the exploitative Scribes who are being criticized by it.

It seems that the key to this text is to see the widow’s contribution is a recognition that she is participating in a system that routinely oppresses her and does so in the guise of calling her to piety. In  a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and she is contributingtoward an unjust system. She is giving all that she has and she is supporting a system that will take away all that she has. It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will, in turn, exploit her.

This text allows for a profound interpretation of living tragically within systems that are oppressive and dehumanizing, yet still offer opportunities where one can make self-denying contributions toward the common good. The directions that this text can take us in are endless – speaking to those who try to work conscientiously within a system that exploits those who want to do good; those who live heroically within a militarily oriented society that often overreaches and destroys, especially our own young people;  those who work for  and vote for a candidate that is imperfect, on the claim that perhaps the candidate is least imperfect in one’s judgment.

Once the option of not participating is ruled out — and I can’t say that Mark rules it out; in fact, I think that might be the option that he is suggesting in the Parable of the Talents – perhaps the one who did NOT invest the talents had really made the right choice! But let’s fact it; the tragedy of participating seems unavoidable.

Is the widow heroic? Sure. Is she naïve? Maybe. Is she contributing to a system that exploits her? Yes. Can she do otherwise? Maybe not. One scripture scholar points out that the same greek word  — ‘ballo’ ; to squander, to throw wildly about – is used both about the scribes and regarding the widow’s two small coins. There are no easy answers given here. Perhaps there is a suggestion that to be realistic, one does the best one can and only a tolerable sense of achieving righteousness about this is attainable. At any rate, this is a heart-breakingly true text that many people will identify with. I know I do.

There is a certain sense of tragedy in the widow’s striving to live faithfully in a situation that is designed to make you fail. I want to believe that the widow exhibits her example of profound faith practice for us. Her surrender and trust that her God will take care of her even if — or when — the system fails her. We are so close to last Tuesday’s election day, I voted; I put in my two cents. I  prayed that God will guide all ‘winners’ to work for the good of this nation in spite of our ‘systems’, be they good or bad. And I pray that these ‘winners’ make certain that the ‘widows’ of this world are not exploited and taken advantage of any longer.

Mark Davis   Heartland Presbyterian Church    Clive, Iowa

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