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Lent 2 Giving in Grace Mark 12.38-44

Have you ever collected for a charity, holding out a collecting can in a busy place seeing what people put in? If you have, then I am sure that you will have heard the comment: ‘Sorry, I haven’t got any small change today.’ I have certainly had that said to me while collecting door to door for Christian Aid. There is a perception amongst many people that giving to charity is something you do with your loose change, the shrapnel that weighs heavily in your pocket or purse and can seem more of a nuisance than coinage of the realm. Most people are happy enough to pop the penny change from the £9.99 purchase into the charity pot on the counter. Do you have charity box in your house for the coins you find down the back of the sofa?
Our gospel reading today (Mark 12.38-44) has Jesus teaching in the temple courts in the run up to his crucifixion. He has already caused a stir by overturning the tables of the money changers and pigeon sellers claiming that they are making the temple which should be a house of prayer, into a den of robbers.’ (Mark 11.17) Was Jesus suggesting that money was somehow a dirty subject and not to be mentioned in the temple, in church? Surely not in the light of today’s reading in which he compares and contrasts the giving habits of rich and poor.
In verse 41, we read that Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. The treasury in the temple was the court in which people offered their gifts. It was like the time in our worship when we take the collection. People did not go around with a discrete bag, rather there were 13 large trumpet shaped receptacles to receive people’s gifts for various aspects of the temple’s work and ministry. Jesus places himself so that he can see who is putting in what. You could say that he was being nosey because surely our giving is a private affair. It may not do to make an undue show of it, but Jesus is evidently interested in what is given and the way it given.
He sees the rich people arriving, obvious by their fine-looking garments and clean appearance, placing significant sums into the treasury receptacles. Then comes a clearly poor widow. The concept of life insurance, pensions for widows and social security payments had not reached Israel at that time. In a man’s world, it was hard for a woman without means to find work. Widows were often poor, not like Scottish ones! Jesus watches her place two ‘lepta’, Greek coins of little value, in the treasury. Mark explains to his non-Greek readers that two lepta or mites were worth a ‘quadrans’, that is the smallest Roman domination of coinage. Our bibles translate it as a penny, the smallest of our coins. You had to work on average about 6 minutes to earn a lepton in Jesus’ day. They can be had on eBay for around £32.00…such is inflation!
After his observations, Jesus takes his disciples to one side and tells them that she had given more than the rich people even though her gift was so insignificant in monetary terms. Why? Because they had contributed out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty, had put in all that she had to live on. She had given sacrificially. That’s first word beginning with ‘S’ that I would like to focus on.
Our bibles teach us that our giving to God should be sacrificial: they should cost us something. At the end of the second book of Samuel, David confesses his sin and is called by the prophet Gad to erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah. He goes to Araunah and asks how much he wants for the threshing floor. When Araunah hears what David wants it for he is happy to give it away but David replies: ‘I will buy from you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord which have cost me nothing.’ (2 Samuel 24.24) Our giving to God ought to be costly, not that we can hope to repay him for his love to us in Jesus, but because he is worthy. The widow is commended by Jesus not for the amount she put in but because for her is was a sacrifice. Whether we are giving our time, our money or our service, your giving; my giving like that of the widow needs to be sacrificial in character. Our giving is not from our surplus or our small change. God is worth far more than that.
The other ‘S’ word which relates to the widow’s giving and ours is sacramental. It might be tempting to say that the widow’s gift is reckless. Surely it was silly for her to put in everything? What was Jesus thinking when he commended her for that? Well there may be an element of exaggerated language, of hyperbole around this story, but the gift of the widow is also an action which challenges those around her. It challenges those who simply want to accrue wealth for their own ends; those whom Jesus describes earlier of devouring widow’s houses for the sake of appearance. This could well be a reference to some of the religious leaders who acted like unscrupulous solicitors when poor widows lost their husbands. Today, when Christians really give it acts like a sacrament. It helps the world to see that we have generous and loving God.
Two examples of how that happens come to mind. Here in Wrexham, the Holiday Hunger project based at St Mark’s church on Caia Park provides packed food for children through play schemes during school holidays many of whom are not benefitting from free food they receive at school. The project has been very well received but even more so when it is realised that it works because people, many of them Christians from local churches have given of their time freely and the Church has put money and resource in to sustain the project. It is sacramental in that it points to Christ. Last week, I was reading about a church in east London who sacrificially give up their main worship space every night for rough sleepers, providing food, support and signposting. They are held in high esteem by local statutory agents who ask: ‘Why are you so generous?’ The answer is the starting point to tell the good news of Jesus’ love. This is giving which is both sacrificial and sacramental.
I can remember times as vicar when I have commented on small coins in plates and people have reminded me of the widow’s mite as if the story somehow justifies small gifts. I hope what I have said shows the reverse. It shows that our giving should be both a sacrifice and a sacrament. It is part of our worship, our giving worth to God and it is no bad thing to think of the collection plate in the same way as the altar or the font in church. We offer of ourselves as we give just as we do when we share bread and wine or bring a child to baptism. ‘She, out of her poverty has put in everything she had.’ Amen

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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