I imagine almost everyone here is familiar with this story from Mark, about the widow’s mite—m-i-t-e, a small copper coin. Growing up, I was told—and maybe you were too—that this is a story about the attitude with which one gives. Jesus denounces the scribes, the religious establishment. They’re giving offerings at the temple treasury, which would be given to people in need—widows, orphans, the sick, the hungry. Jesus says the scribes’ motivations are self-serving; they give only in order to receive praise and attention. But this widow gives with no expectation of either, and, I was taught, with a generous and happy heart. The religious leaders give only a small percentage of their great abundance, and this poor woman gives everything she has. In my little illustrated Bible I remember a picture of small woman draped in veils and bent over, smiling to herself as she (thinking she was unnoticed) dropped a penny in a box.
But you know, when I read it last week, I was struck by what wasn’t in the story. We don’t know this woman’s name. We don’t know how old she was—she could’ve been my age, or younger, or older. We just know that she had lost her husband, and that she was poor. And—contrary to what I was taught as a child—we actually don’t know about her motivations. We don’t know about her demeanor. Jesus doesn’t say that she gives happily, joyfully. We don’t know if she walked up to the offertory box with a spring in her step and a pious smile on her face—
Or if, maybe—Maybe she dragged her feet. Maybe she frowned, or was sad as she gave her two coins. Maybe the claws of anxiety were digging into her—she was thinking about what she would eat, she was thinking how she would take care of her children or grandchildren. Maybe, as she dropped the coins in, she immediately regretted her action, and wished she could’ve taken back her money.
Did she give because she felt moved, by the love of God and the love of the law? Or did she give because it was a routine—something done by force of habit, grumbling as she went?
We don’t know. But we do know, that her manner perhaps didn’t matter to Jesus. What matters is that “out of her poverty” she gives “everything she has.” It was not necessarily a gracious gift, but apparently it was the greatest gift.
The widow of Zeraphath is an even more striking example of apparently imperfect giving. Elijah is sent by God to live with a widow, but somehow God failed to mention this to the widow, and she is not exactly happy to have suddenly an impertinent stranger asking things of her. At the gate of the town, she’s willing to give this foreigner a drink of water, but when he adds, “Oh by the way, get me some bread while you’re at it,” she puts down her foot. “I’m gathering some firewood, so that I can go home, use the last of our oil and grain, and cook one last meal for my son and I, so that we may eat it, and die.” She says, You want ME to give YOU the last of everything. I imagine she is incredulous at this man’s demands—doesn’t he know there’s been a drought? I imagine she is upset, to turn away a stranger. I imagine she is exhausted from worry and work, she is already mourning her son in advance, she is wishing this man would leave her alone.
Elijah then uses the prophetic formula—one word in Hebrew, rendered in English as “Do not be afraid”, which was used by prophets and angels alike to say, “Hold on! I have good news for you!” The widow then does what Elijah asks, but it doesn’t say that her heart was completely changed. We don’t hear that she trusted him, that she embraced this “Lord your God.” Perhaps she gave him the last of their food out of exasperation, exhaustion, hopelessness. It was absurd for a stranger to ask for the last of their food, and she gave in to the absurdity.
And the result is that she herself is given a gift beyond anything she could have expected. She and her son and this strange prophet are kept alive by an unexpected act of God.
Reading these women’s stories in the last week has been incredibly humbling for me.
What I saw first was that they gave when they had apparently nothing to give. I am not an extremely wealthy person, but I am certainly a person of privilege and I live very comfortably. I have the money and time to go out to eat once in a while. I buy clothes, even though I already have plenty of clothes! I have multiple warm coats for this cold winter, and if I still don’t have snowboots it’s just because I’d rather spend that money on buying mystery novels and pastries.
And! With all of this, all of this extra, this fun, I have not yet been able to meet my ideal goal of tithing, giving ten percent of my income to those who need it and to the Church. I could cut down on my expenses, and I hope I will get there someday, but I’m not there yet.
How is this, that I can’t even cut down on my fancy coffee and clothes, and these women gave when it meant little or no food at all.
That’s the other thing about these widows, especially Elijah’s widow. It’s not just that she gave in extremis—meaning, “at the farthest reaches” or “at the point of death”--but this wasn’t an easy thing for her to do! She’s not some ideal holy figure, a rich man who didn’t really want his wealth, who didn’t really like eating a lot anyway, who was not just ready but eager to give everything away, like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, or Saint Francis, or the Buddha. She wants to have food. She wants to feed her son. She doesn’t want to share. And still, she gives. She gives when it is not easy.
And that’s certainly something that I’m not good at. I give a little, yes, but I seem to be waiting for a moment of overwhelming generosity to sweep over me. I keep waiting to be gleeful and serene in order to sign away large portions of my paycheck. For some reason, this moment has yet to come. And, unlike the widow of Zarephath or the widow in the temple, I’m having a hard time giving mightily, as they gave—giving much, even when I don’t necessarily feel like it.
Now, I’ve been talking about money this whole time because that’s something I’ve been struggling with. But you know there are many things we can give and many ways of giving. It seems that for many of you students, time is a more urgent resource than money. And for all of us, our attention and emotional energy, physical energy are also closely guarded resources, which we try to spend wisely and as we want to.
So, my experience of reading these stories has been one of being humbled. I have been brought up short by how far I am from living precisely as God wants me to live. But reading these stories has also been encouraging.
Because what these stories say to me, is that (as Luther has said) we shouldn’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.
The widow of Zarephath resisted the opportunity to give. She relented, but did not necessarily do so with a glad heart. But because she gave food to Elijah and welcomed him, God fed her, and her son, and Elijah. And they didn’t just eat, they weren’t simply nourished, but they witnessed a miracle.
And the widow in the temple, no matter her manner or feelings or reasons, was held up by Christ himself as an example of a generous giver. And Christ, if anyone, knows what it is to give.
What I learn from these stories is that God is able to work through our crooked hearts, and our crooked responses to his invitation to give.
Most of us—especially those of us who grew up in the church—have a false ideal of giving with a completely pure heart, and these stories say to me—Give even when your heart is not pure, and God will be pleased. Grumbling is not an excuse for not giving; God can work with what you give. Don’t let your idea of the perfect get in the way of the good.
I’ve had an example of this in the past two days, at the interviews for the discernment process in the diocese. There were about twenty of us who are hoping and wishing and wondering if we might become priests or deacons. On the first morning, Bishop Tom thanked us for offering ourselves to this process and to the Church.
I thought to myself, What a messy, messy offering we are. We are certainly not the first fruits of this harvest—We are a big group of insecurities, anxieties, minor complaints and major flaws. They kept saying this, ‘Thank you for offering yourselves for this process’, and I just kept thinking—I would never want a gift like me or like us!
And then! At some point, it hit me, and I rolled my eyes at myself and said—Oh man! This is exactly what you’ve been learning from those stories! Promising our shared service, offering ourselves in whatever way we’re needed—this is a gift, even if it is far from a perfect one. –And—this is the big piece that I’m still taking on faith—it is an offering which is pleasing to God.
We are about to present ourselves here for Communion. “Lift up your hearts!” And we will offer our imperfect hearts and our distracted minds to God.
And then, we will bless the bread and wine, God’s gift to us. And we will ask to be blessed ourselves, in order to be given to each other and to the world. “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” As we offer our money for those in need, and then as we offer ourselves in prayer, I would invite us all to consider two things in our own lives: First, Where are we already offering our gifts to those who need it? Where are we already giving money to those who need it? Where are we already giving our time and attention to those who need it? Where are we already giving like these widows?
And second: Where can we give more? Could I cut just one day’s worth of cafés and give that money to the Food Bank? Could I cut my inward absorption just a little, and spend some of my attention and energy on the people I meet, the bus drivers, the card-checkers, the grocery clerks? Could I take five hours of my month to spend just part of one day volunteering somewhere? Even if I do not smile when I give—even if I feel anxious or irritated or resentful or confused—where can I give more?