We begin our worship gatherings by lighting a candle representing Christ’s peace with us.
We especially long for that peace this Sunday as we approach Remembrance Day, marking what happened 103 years ago in Compiégne, France, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Allies signed peace documents with Germany securing the end the first World War – the war known then as the Great War.
We’ve since seen so very many greater, more deadlier wars – with estimates suggesting some 108 million war deaths[i] in the 20th century alone, not to count all those damaged in countless other physical and psychological ways – and clearly, it’s not stopping.
And so, as we remember, we are not glorifying anything about war itself – which constitutes the worst possible breakdown of human relationships, God’s plan for all creation – we are wanting to honour sacrifice and to learn from the past, even as we pray for peace…
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them [ii].
In today’s reading we find Jesus choosing to contrast the superficial gesturing of the effortlessly wealthy with the sacrificial giving of the most desperately poor. We can imagine the scene: Jesus had entered Jerusalem previously with all the excitement of Palm Sunday, only to be attacked by an extremely suspicious and hostile church autocracy: Hey! Not only had this itinerant, rabble-rousing, trouble-making rabbi gone into the temple and attacked the temple market system by throwing out the money changers, he had also taken every opportunity to challenge and argue with their religiously most elite leadership, arguing about all sorts of things – just taking them on both with hard parables and by direct debate …publicly humiliating them… Not happy with his challenging of them, they let him know it!
Now, we can imagine Jesus taking a moment to rest as he sat down between the Court of the Gentiles and the Women’s court, at the so-called Beautiful Gate. That’s where there were these offering containers called ‘trumpets’ because of their shape. The treasury. This was where money used for covering all the daily expenses of the Temple such as buying the necessary corn and wine and oil for sacrifices and all sorts of other things was collected.
We can imagine Jesus idly watching as people made their various offerings, some with grand flourishes, others maybe a little less obviously, when this widow caught his attention. She dropped just these two tiny coins called ‘mites’ or ‘leptons’ a word literally meaning ‘thin ones’ – the smallest of all coins, worth in today’s terms of about 1/8 cent. Others were giving expansively out of their abundance, while she was giving just these two mites, but it was sacrificially, representing all she had. Jesus would no doubt have remembered the Jewish teaching[i] of the priest who scorned a woman’s offering of a handful of flour – and who later received the rebuke from God in a vision: ‘Despise her not; it is as though she offered her life’. Clearly, Jesus chose to use this as a teaching opportunity.
We have traditionally understood the focus of this text to be an encouragement for us to give more sacrificially in response to God’s grace – you know, giving of whomever or whatever we have, or are! There’s lots of truth in that – we are always encouraged to think about how generous we are being in our everyday living, you know, as opposed to living lives that are all just about grabbing – getting more in for ourselves. That’s true! But what we do need to get from this is that our offerings are not meant so much to be about the requirement that God demands for us ina to be blessed – kind of like the insurance premiums we have to pay in order to receive some later payout – as the marks of our living lives of faithful and generous appreciation and response to God’s infinite grace so extravagantly poured-out everywhere and for everyone. They are not premiums so much as markers/ reflectors/ revealers. The offering we make – whatever it is and however we make it – is meant to represent our bringing to God of our all. God does not want to be tipped – however generous we may believe we are tipping – God wants us – all our living, all we are. Having totally inhaled our fullest and truest identity from God, so we exhale by living it all out to God’s glory – in everything, with everything!
I understand that it was Mother Theresa who answered the question of how much we are to give, by saying that it needs to be until it hurts!
Who are you in this narrative – with whom do you most identify? Is it with those good folks who were ‘feeling-kind-of-good-about-themselves’, who probably believed that they were actually alright? Acceptable? And so were quite happy to allow some overflowing from their mighty abundance into the temple’s coffers. Or are you more aligned with the poverty of that widow, probably feeling kind-of embarrassed with how meagre, how apparently meaningless, her entire life’s offering seemed to be: Just these two mites…
Just what is it that you believe constitutes your wealth? …and your poverty? I wonder if Jesus Christ would also categorize your ‘wealth’ and your ‘poverty’ in those terms?
The indictment in this teaching narrative is on us as we allow ourselves to believe we are the religiously secure, the sacredly smug, people like us who are so easily tempted to believe in our own self-righteousness.
And the heroes? Notice whom Jesus is always biased towards/ the ones for whom Jesus always has the softest, most real compassion. It’s always those considered by themselves or by their society to be weak, poor, vulnerable, most marginalised…
And that’s not because of any sentimentality so much as because that’s the humble posture/ the receptive & teachable attitude that most accurately positions us to be as recipients of God’s grace… And that whenever he is most irritated or annoyed, invariably, it’s at and by the self-righteous strutting of the overly confident!
This is a warning to those of us who think we have made God small enough to be all sorted and manageable on our terms. There is always so very much more for us to know, to receive, and to give. We should never allow ourselves to settle into any overly self-confident complacency…
It warns that none of us are as whole and all-together as we like to pretend we are, or can be: Not those Pharisees and Scribes of his day, and not us either, at our most religious worst!
But it is very good news to those who are feeling at our most unworthy!
The point being that we are called to NOTICE that which/ & those whom Jesus NOTICES. We are called to CONDEMN that which/ & those whom Jesus CONDEMNS.
We are called to PRAISE that which/ & those whom Jesus PRAISES. And why are we to do so? Because we believe that’s what best aligns with our most God-ordained nature! It’s how WE come alive!
But how do we best position ourselves for that? It’s by our never pretending to be any better than we are! It’s by following the universal Christ-pattern-path of life/death/resurrection/ and life again. It’s by our being willing to get off our high horses/ by being prepared to be the one who is prepared to soften our stiff necks/ apologize first/ turn the other cheek/ risk reaching out/ washing those feet/ taking those first steps at reconciliation. It’s by allowing our constantly inflating bloated egos to be punctured and to shrivel with Jesus on Good Friday – you know, by our honest confession and truth-telling – that an awareness of the very truest/best of ourselves can emerge, clean, resurrected in Christ…
How wonderful for us as this church to come to be known for that – no pretence here, just honest generosity given from this broken and healing people who live and so give from this place of most vulnerable love and compassion…
May that be so
In Jesus’ Name
Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2021.
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[i] Leviticus Rabba (111,5) op cit Saint Mark, D.E.Nineham (1986:334) Penguin Books
[ii] For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon