Sunday 7th November 2021
How do we decide what to give of ourselves? On what basis do we determine how we share from the resources which are ours to steward? Clearly these are difficult questions to discern and obviously we can bring many differing understandings of our social responsibilities.
As we here in this place prepare to develop ministry plans and finalise budgets for next year, the conversation is one which we need to have. Unfortunately, our Gospel reading today takes us into dangerous territory for a stewardship sermon! After all, Jesus severest criticisms are always for religious authorities.
On the surface this scene from Mark’s Gospel may appear ideal stewardship material…particularly if you read it as a sentimental witness to a poor woman’s generosity. I grew up in Sunday School reading it like that and certainly absorbed strongly the message: “Give until it hurts. If it doesn’t hurt, give more.” If this was a message you have received in your early life, it is worth paying attention to all the ways it may have become a self-harming spirit in your life choices.
Now, however, I think to read this passage in this way is to actually reinforce the very thing Jesus is speaking against. This is not about it being a good and righteous thing to give money generously- it is Jesus critiquing the religious system where corruption advantages the rich and disadvantages the poor. He is not condemning rich people, nor even lifting up the widow for her generosity but is pointing out that the temple- the very place which is meant to be caring for the vulnerable- is exploiting them. We don’t see this clearly when we equate this story with financial giving in our Christian churches today. There is a lot more going on in this 1st century temple setting than we may notice on the surface.
I am indebted to Ched Myers wonderful Markan commentary Binding the Strong Man for the insights into the context of the temple tableaux described in the Gospel. Where we read that Jesus takes up a seat ‘opposite the treasury”, this is how it would have appeared;
The setting would have been either that of: Thirteen trumpet-shaped chests placed round the walls of the Court of Women in which the people threw their offerings…[or] the treasury itself, [where] donors had to declare the amount of their gift and the purpose for which it was intended to the priest in charge, everything being visible and audible to the onlooker through the open door. 
This description may help us get a sense of the public nature of these donations, and the clearly drawn comparison the Gospel makes between the wealthy and the poor. Maybe the widow was seeking religious favour by giving all she could, or perhaps just fulfilling her religious responsibility in giving to the temple treasury. We do know that commercial activity was integral to all cultic worship and the economic institution of the temple dominated civic life in early first century Jerusalem.
The other aspect of this narrative that should prevent us from reading this story as a sweet piece designed to motivate us to be self-sacrificial is the context in which it is found in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has in earlier chapters ridden on a donkey into Jerusalem surrounded by cheering crowds. He has already visited the temple and driven out those selling the animals for the sacrifices and overturned the tables of the money-changers at work. Immediately after this encounter with the poor widow, Jesus responds to his disciples who are admiring the temple building by predicting its destruction, saying that not one stone will be left upon another- all will be destroyed. The references to the rich and the denunciation of the scribes are not incidental- Jesus is attacking the ruling class interests in control of the commercial enterprises in the temple market and calling out those who exploit the vulnerable. In the Hebrew scriptures in various places the prophets have proclaimed the need for temple reform. From the prophet Jeremiah there is a more strident ultimatum given, that unless exploitation of the poor ceases, the temple will be destroyed. Jesus is following this prophetic tradition and, witnessing the corruption, calls for the destruction of the whole temple system.
In the earlier part of the reading we hear today, Jesus tells us to beware of those who like long robes and the best seats in the synagogues. Despite our context being entirely different, I think we should feel the full discomfort of this warning and leaders in the church today all need to pay close attention to the state of their hearts. Jesus saves, as I said, his strongest criticisms for religious leaders and emphasises over and again it is not outward polished appearances but our integrity and the way we live our lives that matters. In this passage Jesus particularly calls out the scribes who he says, “devour widows houses”. This likely alludes to the role scribes had in drafting legal documents, including deciding who might inherit the home after a man died. It could be left with his widow or passed on instead to his brother or son. The scribes had the power to leave women destitute, and likely in doing so receive some financial reward for themselves. This is the mark of the patriarchal system which existed at the time, despite the scriptures pointing to a God who overturns structures of dominance and affirms men and women as equal in creation.
So right after Jesus’ words we have entering, on queue, stage right, poor widow. It seems not only is her meagre wealth being swallowed up by the temple’s enormous treasury, but she seems to be cooperating in her own oppression by giving her all. Jesus’ words prompt us to ask why a woman who is already destitute should be having to give her last pennies. Sometimes when we have been thoroughly co-opted by a system or relationship of exploitation, we cannot see clearly what is happening. This principle appears in other dynamics of abuse. I find it confronting that in domestic violence resources, research has shown it is important that specific behaviours are named. The blindness of an abusive relationship dynamic can mean that unless someone is being hit, they may not recognise other problem behaviours and may continue to justify their partner’s behaviour, often blaming it on themselves. In this Biblical example the abuse is religious and systemic- the widow’s generosity plays into the devouring greed of the temple.
So where does that leave us as we seek to discern our own giving of ourselves through our time and our many and varied abilities, as well as giving from our financial resources? It is certainly possible for religious systems today to be financially abusive- I have a painful memory of amassing a credit card debt as a young and earnest church member in my twenties where regular credit card giving was the preferred method and there was considerable pressure to sign up to large and regular amounts. This is obviously anti-Gospel and just plain wrong. So how are we to think of this, since generosity sits alongside gratitude as keynotes of our faith. Firstly, it is important to remember self-giving needs to be generative- as we give, we also receive life and joy in contributing to the ongoing creation of the peaceable and just kingdom of God. Secondly, we should ask ourselves who are the vulnerable in our communities and how are we present in solidarity and active support through our giving?
In our community, we find ways to welcome and walk alongside those who are lonely or isolated- the gathering of ‘Tuesdays in the Undercroft’ is one way that we do this. Our ‘Thread Together’ project involves many volunteers working and building friendships together as we offer the gift of brand new clothes to enable those who have lost the most to have a sense of dignity and self-esteem restored. Recognising that what the world needs is not top-down charity but justice, and to be embraced and welcomed as friends of Jesus and part of the family of God. This is central to so many of our ministries; from sharing food together to gathering around discussions about life and faith.
What we give comes from generosity, yes, but also from the recognition that what we help to create the realm of God where power, fear and greed no longer rule but rather love motivates, sustains and defines all we are and all we choose to become. We give because as we share with others we learn who we are and what matters most. Our stewardship is found to flow from our vocation; to live in love for ourselves, love for one another and love for God and God’s dream for the flourishing of the whole community of creation.
 (Taylor, 1963:497) as quoted in Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (p. 300). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.