Sermon for Sunday, 7 November 2021
1 Kings 17: 8–16 & Mark 12: 38–44
By Revd George Mwaura
Generous and loving God, we come to you in thanksgiving, knowing that all we are and all that we have is a gift from you. In faith and love, help us to do your will. We are listening. Speak your words into the depth of our souls, that we may hear you clearly.
I know you have never heard of Miss Oseola McCarty, or probably you have! Folks never cease to amaze me these days! She died a few years ago at the age of 91. She was an African American woman from Mississippi who earned a living by washing and ironing other people’s clothes. Miss McCarty, who never married, was in the sixth grade – year 7 equivalent when she had to quit school and take over her mother’s laundry business, while her mother cared for a sick aunt. By the time her aunt died, all her classmates had gone off to higher education and so she never went back to school. ‘I just washed and ironed,’ She never had a car and worked until the age of 87, when arthritis forced her to retire. But wash and iron she did to to the glory of God!
In her will, she left $150 000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to set up scholarships for other needy African American girls. After hearing of Miss McCarty’s gift, billionaire Ted Turner said, ‘If that poor woman can give away everything she has, then, I can give a billion dollars.’ And he did. What Miss McCarty did is what we call Godly stewardship! I know today is not stewardship Sunday, but I have no doubt Janet would love to have a Miss McCarty in this congregation. And so would I!
Today’s lesson is well documented in three of the gospels. These events took place the week before Jesus’ trials and crucifixion. Jesus was teaching in the Temple and it was inevitable that he would clash with the religious leaders who controlled the temple. In our lesson, Jesus noticed a poor widow who put two small copper coins into the Temple’s offertory box. Jesus then made a comment that the widow gave much more than everyone who gave larger amounts, because she gave all she had. Traditionally, this passage has been used in some churches to encourage painful sacrificial giving, with the widow’s mite presented as an example of such sacrificial giving. Give until it hurts. Give until the pastor can buy a new car, give until the church leader can educate all her or his children in a private school. This is the message that many prosperity gospel preachers seem to extract from Jesus’ comment on the poor widow’s offering.
But I want you to note that nowhere in this passage did Jesus say that it was a good thing that the poor widow gave all that she had. Nope! Jesus simply said that the woman gave more than the others did, because the others contributed out of their abundance. But she, out of her poverty!
Please also note that nowhere in this passage does Jesus command us to go and do likewise. Many biblical scholars do not regard Jesus’ comment as a commendation of the woman’s sacrificial giving. On the contrary, Jesus was having a go at those in authority who made the widow believe that, even in her poverty, she was obliged to give the temple the last coins she had to live on!
Personally, I am not convinced either that Jesus thought or concluded that what the woman did was a good thing. And the immediately preceding paragraphs supports this contention. Between verses 38 and 40, Jesus criticised the abuses practiced by some religious leaders. He condemned those who devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long and unnecessary prayers. Jesus condemned the over-the-top piety that ignores the call to practise social justice. Therefore, when the poor widow came up to the offertory box to drop in her dinner money, Jesus was very upset. He said that this poor woman gave so much more than the others did, because the others contributed out of their abundance and desire to show off; but she out of her poverty, she gave all she had to live on!
When Jesus made this comment, I am convinced he spoke out of anger and frustration at the way the religious leaders were able to manipulate a simple person’s faith for their own financial gain. What these religious leaders were doing in Palestine of Jesus’ time, has been well and truly perfected by the tele-evangelist con artists and other prosperity gospel preachers of our time! A major part of their preaching or teaching is a disguised appeal for money. Some are more blatant than others in their approach, but an appeal for money is a major part of their message, often with a manipulative slant meant to guilt-trip you into giving.
And it is not just in the world of tele-evangelists and prosperity gospel churches where this exploitation happens; oh no! In some congregations of some mainstream denominations, the stewardship program is often an occasion for guilt-tripping and emotional manipulation. Many people feel compelled to give money that they really cannot afford to give. Lonely people, vulnerable people, people with a guilty conscience for one reason or another, and other easily manipulated people are often a target group.
All this throws a challenge to us and makes today’s lesson very tricky. On one hand, Jesus challenges those who are well off to give generously. On the other, Jesus challenges those who are not so well off to give intelligently. This is relevant to us as we consider our support for the urgent financial situation of our church and our worldwide support of human needs.
As I have said, I believe Jesus’ comment was not in praise of this widow’s sacrificial giving. Rather, I believe it was a reflection of Jesus’ pain that religious leaders manipulated the woman into believing she was required to give everything she had to live on! I know this may sound controversial, but I am suggesting to you this morning that this woman did not need to give anything and neither should you if you are in a similar situation!
But let us be very clear though. It is true God commends giving sacrificially and faithfully. But God is not just interested in what we give; God is interested in why we give. He looks beyond the amount we give, and examines the motive behind it. If we give to God out of greed, guilt, or glory, we are giving from the wrong reasons. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians in his second letter that each one must give as they have decided in their heart. Not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver!
Here was a woman in need of receiving charity herself, yet she had a heart to give. And even though the amount she gave was negligible, she gave it in faith that God could use it. The widow’s faith is also evident in the fact that she gave the last of her money. Like the widow of Zarephath, who gave her last meal to Elijah in our Old Testament reading, the widow in the temple gave away her last means of self-support. Does that mean the widow left the temple completely destitute, went home, and died of starvation? Well, we do not know. The scriptures do not tell us how this narrative pans out. But we can be certain that she was provided for. How? Because that is simply how our God works. His economy overflows with abundance and he is good all the time.