A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 8, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 12:38-44 and Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’ve been ordained a little over 27 years. That means that today is the tenth time that gospel lesson has come up in the lectionary. Always in the fall, always right around pledge time, every three years, we hear the story of the widow putting her two pennies in the Temple treasury and receiving Jesus’ praise.
I wasn’t preaching every week when I started as a pastor, so I suspect this is probably only the seventh time or so that I’ve preached on this passage. I’ll tell you the focus on my sermons in the past. The widow give more than the others because she gave more proportionally. With apologies to those of you who don’t like math, there are at least two ways to look at how much money you give to the church (or to any organization). You can look at the total you give, or you can look at the percentage (the proportion) of your income (or your net worth) that you give.
Without a doubt, the rich people in the story put in much more than the widow – in terms of total given. They put in “large sums,” Matthew tells us. The widow put in two copper coins worth about a penny. But they are rich and the widow is poor. As a percentage of their net worth, they are way below what the widow put in. “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.” She gave 100%; there’s no way the others reached that level of proportional giving.
And the conclusions of those sermons? Brava for the widow; let’s be like her.
I’m reminded of the joke about businesswoman who came to church to pray. She had a big decision to make. She sat in a pew next to a guy who was mumbling his own prayer. “God, I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the end of the week. Right now, it’s a choice between paying the power bill and buying food, so I need $100 to make it.” The businesswoman reached into her wallet, pulled out a $100 bill and pressed it into the man’s hand. The man was elated, praised God, and lets the sanctuary filled with joy. The businesswoman prayed, “Well, God, now that I have your undivided attention.”
I’m not sure what the moral of that joke is, but I was reminded of it.
I still believe that looking at the proportion of your income is a much better gage of your financial support of God’s mission than looking at the total dollar amount. But based on my study of this scripture over the past week, I think I’ve been interpreting this scripture wrong for the past 27 years.
“How do you hear Jesus’ description of the poor widow’s offering – is it praise or lament? To put it another way: Is Jesus holding up the widow and her offering as an example of great faith and profound stewardship, or is he expressing his remorse that she has given – perhaps feels compelled – to give away the little she has left?”
David Lose put together a pretty good list of reasons that Jesus’ tone of voice is more likely to be lament:
- “This passage is part of a larger set of passages that focus on Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees and center on his critique of the Temple. Indeed, ever since Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly (in ch. 11), he has done little else except teach in the Temple and debate with the religious leadership there.
- “The first verses of this week’s passage condemn the scribes precisely for ‘devouring widow’s houses’ – shorthand for pretty much everything they own.
- “In the passage immediately after this one, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple itself, seemingly the culmination of his attack on the religious establishment of Jerusalem, an attack that has prompted his opponents to seek first his arrest (12:12) and, eventually, death (14:1).
- “Notably, there is actually no word of praise in Jesus’ statement about the widow or any indication that Jesus is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing. Which makes how we imagine his tone of voice – praise or lament – so critical.
“All of this leads me to conclude that Jesus isn’t actually lifting her up as an example but rather decrying the circumstances that demand her to make such an offering, a sacrifice that will likely lead to destitution if not death. He is, in short, leveling a devastating critique against Temple practice and those who allow, let alone encourage, this woman to give ‘all she had to live on’ (or, in a more literal translation of the Greek, her whole life!).”
Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is also about widows. The way the story goes in the Bible, Naomi was a Hebrew who was married to a Hebrew. They had two sons. When famine struck their land, they fled to Moab where there was food. There, her two sons got married. They married outside their faith and nationality; they married Moabites. Then tragedy struck. Naomi’s husband and her two sons died, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. Given their culture and the role of women in that culture, they were in a bad way. Naomi had no way to provide for her daughters-in-law, so she decided to return to Judah and she told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab where they might be able to find new husbands.
One of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, took her advice, but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, would have none of it. And at this point, we hear some of the most lyric lines in scripture: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.”
When Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem, they were still widows without a man to provide for them. Their options were very limited. They turned to gleaning, going to the fields after the harvest and gathering what the farmers left behind. Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs, “You shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.… You shall leave them for the poor and for the foreigner.”
“Such sloppy harvesting would be an affront to our modern notions of efficiency. Harvesting machinery is designed to gather every kernel possible, milking machines vacuum every drop a cow can give. Never mind that the surplus will as likely mold or be destroyed as be given to the poor and refugee.
“In contrast, implied in gleaning is an ethic of gratefulness for the source of the harvest – an acknowledgment that the growth of the grain is a gift given above and beyond the farmer’s work, a gift of God’s provision that must be shared.”
As the younger woman, Ruth did the actual gleaning. She found fields whose owners obeyed this Hebrew law in order to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi. One of the fields she went to was owned by Boaz, a distant relative to the family she married into. Boaz noticed Ruth’s kindness and hard work for Naomi (far beyond the call of duty) and responded by taking the gleaning code further. He instructed his workers to leave extra grain for Ruth to gather (2:15-16).
And then we get to today’s reading. Naomi figures out that Boaz might make a suitable husband for Ruth, so she instructs Ruth on how to entice him. The two get married. They have a baby, a son, and the Naomi’s lineage is safe.
Our scripture stories are filled with choices the characters make. The rich men in the Temple choose to benefit from a system that abuses the vulnerable. The widow in the Temple chooses to give everything she has to the Temple treasury. Ruth chooses to follow Naomi back to Judah. She chooses to go out into the fields to glean. Naomi chooses to coach Ruth on how to entice Boaz. Ruth chooses to follow Naomi’s advice. Boaz chooses to marry Ruth.
Every one of these choices is a stewardship choice. In fact, every choice we make is a stewardship choice – and we are constantly making choices.
Maybe it would be good to define what I mean by stewardship. Stewardship is the management of something. Good stewardship implies an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management. Christian stewardship implies that that ethic is grounded in Christian ethics.
Just using our scripture stories for examples, here’s what I mean by every choice we make is a stewardship choice.
The widow chose to come Temple in the first place: a choice about the stewardship of her time and energy.
She chose to give the money to the Temple: a choice about the stewardship of her finances.
Naomi and her husband chose to move to Moab: a choice that impacts how they manage, how they care for every aspect of they life.
After the death of the men in the family, Naomi chose to return to Judah: a choice that impacts how she manages her life.
Ruth chose to go with her: a choice about the stewardship of her identity, the stewardship of her compassion, and the stewardship of birth family and her family of choice.
And Ruth chose to get all dolled up and to “uncover Boaz’s feet” where he slept: a choice about the stewardship of her body and her sexuality.
Now, there are lots of influences on our choices. In the story of Ruth, we know that famine is an influence on several of the choices that get made. Hunger influences her choice to go gleaning. Consider the risks that Ruth takes just in choosing to go gleaning so she and Naomi can eat, scraping up sustenance from the leftovers of those with plenty. She wanders as a stranger in foreign fields. She is there, a woman alone, when a woman alone was vulnerable to harassment or worse. We see in Ruth the plight of the refugee, the widow, the migrant worker. For the widow at the Temple in our Gospel lesson, there are the pressures that cause her to give all she has to the Temple, pressures Jesus objects to.
Influences or not, every choice we make is a stewardship choice. Stewardship is everything we do, because everything we do is an expression of how we care for our time, our financial resources, our relationships, our skills, our community, our neighbors, our bodies, our – well – everything.
I’m supposed to be taking about the third word in our three-word summary of our mission and purpose as a church. Two weeks ago, Pastor Brenda spoke about our stewardship of welcome. Last week, I spoke about our stewardship of growth. And this week, I’m supposed to be speaking about our stewardship of service. So let me connect that up to the themes in our scripture lessons.
Service can really take two forms. One is the direct service that meets someone’s needs. The special offering we receive today for Abode Service’s Home Warming program is an example of this. Some family is going to become homeless this year and Abode Services will call on us to quickly come up with the money to help get them back into housing – the security deposit, etc. – and to help them with furnishings if they need them. Our offering today will be held until Abode calls on us, and our hope is that what we receive today will be enough to cover those costs. So, someone will be in need and we will respond. That’s what Boaz did when he instructed his farm hands to be a extra sloppy in their harvesting.
However, this is not what is happening at the Temple. Here, the system is “devouring widows’ homes.” Here, the system is making a woman with nothing feel like she has to put what little she has into the temple treasury. And this is where the second form of service comes in. If the system is poor societal stewardship, how are we working to change it? Every governmental law and policy is an attempt to influence stewardship and if they move us, individually or communally, into poor stewardship, then we need to change those laws and policies. Laws and policies and practices that devour widows’ homes need to be changed, and our choices to help make that happen is the other way we are stewards of service.
If you’re newly worshiping with us, this last bit of today’s sermon really isn’t for you, so please just stand by. This last part of the sermon is for the members and friends of the church.
If you didn’t receive it yesterday, you should receive it Monday: a pledge form for your financial support of the church in 2016. This is an invitation to make a commitment, a stewardship commitment for next year. While the form asks for a dollar amount, I encourage you, as I said earlier, to look at that commitment as a percentage of your income rather than as a total dollar amount. Please don’t be like the widow and give all you have. Don’t let your commitment push you into further debt. Do let your commitment be an expression of your stewardship of your finances. Do let your commitment express how much you value our mission to welcome, grow, and serve.
And remember that this is hardly the only stewardship choice you’re going to make this week. Everything you do (or don’t do), every choice you make is a stewardship choice. Because stewardship is everything you do. And Christian stewardship is everything you do after you say, “I believe.”
 David Lose, “Pentecost 24 B: Surprisingly Good News,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/pentecost-24-b-surprisingly-good-news/ (posted and accessed on 3 November 2015).
 Julie Polter, “Gleaning Grace,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gleaning-grace (accessed 3 November 2015).