November 11, 2018, The Widow’s Might – guest speaker, Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000107
Let’s imagine you are walking down the street and you see a penny lying on the sidewalk. Do you pick it up? Maybe. Maybe not. A penny is not worth enough to be much of a temptation for most of us. Though I myself always pick up paper clips and random things like that. I have quite the stash of paper clips now which I have found lying around. But really, a penny is not worth enough to get most of us to go to the trouble of picking it up. How about a nickel? Or a dime? Still not worth much. So how much would it take, as a minimum, to make you feel it was definitely worthwhile to pick it up?
Everybody is a bit different, but for me it would be a quarter. Less than a quarter just doesn’t seem big enough to bother with (though paper clips are in a class of their own). I would definitely pick up a quarter if I found it. A quarter is still not much money but quarters add up pretty quick. I don’t think I am too different from other people, but people’s feelings about money they find depends a lot on how much money they make. A quarter is worth 1/8000 of what we get in a month. Now that’s a small amount, such a small fraction that it is difficult to imagine it clearly.
Here is one way you can visualize how big 1/8000 is. (Besides, it’s a chance to work some math into the sermon!) Take a piece of notebook paper and cut it in half. Take one of those halves and cut it in half again. Just keep repeating that, cutting one of the smallest pieces in half, and do that 13 times – if you can. What you will end up with is just about 1/8000 of the original piece of paper. It will be surprisingly hard to do. I actually did it as a math experiment and brought the result to show you, but somehow I lost it in the lint in my pocket. Try it, though. It’s fun. The point of the story is that it doesn’t take much money to make us feel it is valuable enough to get it.
Of course it all depends on how much you make. Let’s suppose that I’m typical, that most people would find 1/8000 of their monthly income too appealing to pass up, but that smaller than 1/8000 would be just too little to bother with. You’d have to be making $8000 per month, nearly $100,000 per year, to make a dollar on the sidewalk seem barely worthwhile. Just for fun, how much do you think Bill Gates would have to see lying around before it was valuable enough for him to notice? He would have to find more than $4,000 lying there to make it even worth noticing; anything less would just be like pocket change. That gives you a little perspective on what it means to be really rich.
But let’s take this one step further. How much money must be lying on the sidewalk to get Jesus’s attention? Just asking the question shows how ridiculous it is. Money means nothing to God. And that is what the story of the widow giving her penny to the Temple is all about. You know the wealthier people at the Temple had put in a lot of money, but Jesus says the widow put in more. He noticed her penny but would have just walked passed what everyone else put in. How can it be that a penny is more valuable than a million bucks? It can only be because He sees something other than the money. It can only be true if a penny and a million bucks are worth the same thing to God. Namely nothing. It can only be true if He’s was looking at something other than her money.
But Jesus says she gave more because she gave “all she had to live on”. The Greek word for “all she had to live on” – Kathryn pointed this out to me – is βίον, which means literally “life”. It is where we get the word “biology”. She gave more than the rich guys because she gave her life. Jesus wasn’t comparing amounts of money at all. Money is all equally valuable to Him: Zero. But giving her life, now that is what riveted His attention. If Jesus is walking along and sees a life lying on the sidewalk, you bet He is going to pick it up. He is not interested in trinkets, in jewelry, in pieces of paper with dead guy’s pictures on them. He is interested in what is really valuable. Life.
In II Corinthians 8:3-5 Paul says something like this. He was organizing some relief money for hungry people back in Palestine and he says “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints – and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” First they gave themselves to the Lord – that is they gave their lives – and then the money was just incidental.
Two chapters before this passage in Mark 12 Jesus encountered the rich young man and you remember what He said to him: “sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Now you know that this widow must have had deep faith. You know she had been praying before she went to the Temple and put in her penny. What you must realize is that God spoke to that widow in her heart using roughly the same words Jesus said to the rich young man. The woman went to the Temple and gave her penny because God had said to her “give all that you have, and you will have treasure in heaven”. And unlike the rich guy she was OK with that. What Jesus was really wanted in both cases, the rich guy and the widow, was their lives.
Now whatever you do, don’t be thinking that Jesus was a lot harder on the rich young man than on the widow. Being poor does not help you think about money any less or cling to it less tenaciously, than if you were rich. I have had periods of my life where I have been relatively prosperous, and periods when I have had a lot less than I have now, and in my experience there’s no difference in how obsessed a person can get about money. When you are poor, you are desperate to get some more money; when you are rich you are desperate to keep what you’ve got and not become poor. But God just flatly doesn’t care about your money. He doesn’t need it or particularly want it. What He is interested in is your life.
You know, if money had real value or real power in God’s Kingdom, then Jesus could have saved Himself a lot of trouble. He could have just walked over to Rome (walking across the Mediterranean Sea would have gotten some attention!) and walked up to Caesar and said, “Here’s a trillion trillion gold coins for you. I just created it all out of nothing by saying ‘Let there be money’. Now I own everyone in your empire and you can go retire to Cancun. I’m setting up My own Kingdom.” But money doesn’t have the power to do anything. Oh, it sure seems like it does, and it can get you stuff, temporarily, like a nice car or nice house or whatever things you feel like you need. But it is just an illusion of power. Or that is what Jesus thought; if you disagree, you‘ll have to argue it out with Him.
Money is the biggest, most successful, con game the devil every came up with. In ancient times, the devil used to keep people enslaved to false gods, worshiping idols, big statues of bipolar super-heroes, who couldn’t actually do anything. People could pray all the wanted to that statue and Penelope would still not fall in love with them as the result. But then the devil thought of money. Historical aside: money as we know it today was invented in the third century b.c. supposedly by Croesus, king of Lydia, in what is now the nation of Turkey. You may have heard stories about him under the name Midas. His invention paid off so well for him that he gave the impression that every thing he touched turned to gold. Before money came along, people had used gold or silver as a medium of exchange, but each businessman made his own weights to use for trade. It was the king in Lydia who thought of having the government make the coins and then requiring everyone to use only the official coins. It was a brilliant idea but I think the devil should get most of the credit.
It was much easier to print some money than to build idols and the great thing about money is that as long as people believe in it, as long as people have faith in it, money actually seems to have real power. Just test it out. “Oh Bank Account, Oh Bank Account, I ask you for a new car. Please, in your mercy, give me one.” And low and behold, if you give it enough of your slave labor in return, money will deliver the goods. Zeus could never do that. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”, the crowd shouted in Acts 19:28, but she never actually did anything tangible for them. The Baals never came through for the Canaanites. But money fools us every time.
This is why we don’t make a big deal out of tithing here at St. Philip’s, at least this is one of the reasons. It is why we down play the money part of the stewardship campaign. Because God simply does not care about your money. He doesn’t want your money. He wants your life. A congregation that tithes generously and keeps the coffers full is no good in God’s Kingdom unless they first give to God what He really wants. A congregation that has not given their lives to God does not deserve to exist no matter how big their annual budget is, no matter how many missionaries they support or good works they fund. To paraphrase Paul in Romans 3:28, “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from how much they put in the plate.”
But the devil made a big mistake when he invented money. You see, the old gods were totally worthless, even if you had faith in them. There was nothing useful that could be done with the old gods except chop them up or melt them down. But money is more versatile. Zeus was totally hopeless for accomplishing anything good but you can make money do good things. That is what Jesus offered the rich young man. He could make his worthless wealth accomplish something good and valuable by sharing it with the poor, by helping the hungry get some food. God could feed them without the rich guy’s help, but Jesus was offering him a partnership in God’s Family Business. And there was nothing the devil could do to stop it, if the guy had been willing to join the firm. Jesus offered the same deal to the widow and she took the deal. She could make her penny do something even better than getting her some supper that night. Do you really think God couldn’t make that penny change the world? Just remember that He made the world out of nothing; imagine what He could make out of something. But the rich young guy put his faith in the money while the widow put her faith in God. That was the only real difference between the two. The rich guy would not go into business with God, but the widow was willing to take the risk. Just give Him your life and you become His partner. It’s is a good bet to pay off.
But the illusion is a powerful one. It is scary to not put faith in money. The devil is always urging us to depend on it, and he is using scare tactics. “You think you can do without money. Just try it. I will eat you up like a lion. I will sift you like wheat” Fear works even better when combined with confusion. He makes it as hard as possible to remember that “making a living” is not the same as “making a life.” That is how he keeps so many people enslaved to making a living and never noticing they have no life. Oh, yes. Money will give you a living. But only God can give you life.
Sometimes this story in the Bible is called “The Widow’s Mite” because a mite is an old fashioned word for a pitifully small amount of money. But it should be called “The Widow’s Might” because of the enormous faith she had. She was mightier in God’s kingdom that a billion billionaires writing checks to charity. They get a tax write off; they have their rewards. And so did she. She got treasure in heaven.
Christian faith means that we put our faith in Christ and we don’t put faith in anything else. He doesn’t promise us money, like some cheap politician who just wants your vote. That prosperity gospel non-sense is just this: a con game looking for marks. What He does promise us is life. If you don’t put your life in the offering plate along with your check, it is just like all those other people in the Temple; He hardly sees it because He is yawning. But if you are putting your life into the offering plate, with or without money, He will give it back to you. With interest.