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|"Abundance and Poverty"
Last Tuesday was election day.
Election days vary, but usually, in even-numbered years, and especially every four years, election day becomes that day when we enter into the privacy of a voting booth and take sides, the day we declare non-violent war on folks we don't like.
Some of us, with our votes, declare our allegiance to political parties. Some of us declare our allegiance to particular politicians. Some of us vote AGAINST anybody who is already in office.
Some of us vote AGAINST whatever political party or parties we don't like. And sometimes I'm not sure whether voting is more a positive or a negative act.
And sometimes we mix our positives and negatives, as when notable members of one party come out endorsing members of ANOTHER party.
But amidst all this seeming confusion, I am suspicious that for each of us a couple of things happen. For one thing, I suspect that we generalize our ideology, our political, social, and economic way of thinking, and find some group or groups with which to identify.
And for most of us, most of the time, that works fairly well. There IS safety, or at least comfort, in numbers. And so we identify ourselves as Republicans, or Democrats, or Greens, or whatever.
But another thing also happens. Individuals rise above, or sink below, our expectations. And when that happens, we begin to shift, at least momentarily, our group allegiance.
But stereotyping behavior is quite common for all of us, and even the Bible gives us evidence of stereotyping behavior. Even Jesus did it! Listen to the thirty-eighth verse of the twelfth chapter of the gospel according to Mark:
"As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace."
I wonder how many people who were listening to Jesus thought to themselves, "Hey, I'm sure glad he's not talking about ME!" But I suspect that the scribes were only the most notorious for this kind of behavior.
And I sincerely doubt that they were the ONLY ones guilty of it.
Not only do we think that WE are off the hook because we're not scribes, but this stuff about long robes may also lose us. Yet, I think that Jesus is talking about more than a specific mode of dress. I think he's talking about a kind of behavior. Because in that day, walking around in public in long robes was a form of showing off. It was ostentatious behavior.
My father was a high school teacher for forty years; and he noticed that every adolescent had the need to excel at something. And if they couldn't do that through socially acceptable channels, they would find other ways.
He noticed that frequently the students driving the cars with the loudest mufflers--or no mufflers at all--were those who weren't recognized for anything else.
We ALL want to be recognized for something. Just as the scribes wanted to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.
So what's the problem here? Well, Jesus goes on to say that these scribes liked "to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets."
We all want to be number one. Every four years the United Methodist Church holds its General Conference. That's the equivalent of annual conference, but on a national scale. And whereas every pastor is a delegate to an annual conference, there are a limited number who can attend the general conference. It's amazing how lacking in humility some pastors become in their attempts to get to general conference.
The politicking is unbelievable. A pastor friend of mine remarked, "Isn't it interesting how NICE some people become as the time for voting for general conference delegates approaches?" Some of us will do almost ANYTHING for the best seats and the places of honor.
But what is WRONG with this picture? Well, I think that the best way to explain this passage is to draw your attention to the sermon on the mount, specifically the sixth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew. Jesus discusses almsgiving, and prayer, and fasting. He assumes that everyone will engage in these practices, but he is concerned with HOW they do it.
And in the first verse of the sixth chapter he says, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." And isn't that Jesus' concern with the scribes?
Their reward is how they are SEEN by others.
But Jesus told us to "Beware of the scribes." And why should we "beware" of them? Because,
"They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
I love passages like this. They always make me wonder what a person who takes the Bible literally--word for word-- would say. In terms of "devouring houses," can't you just see a science fiction movie entitled "The Scribe Who Ate Jerusalem"?
But on a more serious note, some scribes in those days were lawyers. And there were lawyers who would do anything, manipulate any law, to make a buck.
But more important, I believe, is what follows that. Jesus would have us beware of scribes, or anyone for that matter, who would, for the sake of appearance, say long prayers. FOCUS on that phrase: "for the sake of appearance." Because that is truly what Jesus is condemning. The long robes, the best seats, the places of honor, the long prayers are ALL for the sake of appearance.
It's all show. And it's all shallow.
On election days, one of the good things about having incumbents to vote for--for better or for worse--is that they have a record to look at. And anything an opponent may promise is, until he or she gets into office, all show. I get so tired of hearing, "It's time for a change." That's just so much hot air. It doesn't say anything. But somebody must think it sounds good.
Now, we could leave this passage to stand by itself, because it could. But it becomes more powerful when we place it in the context of what is to follow. Jesus has a contrast to draw for us, and it will be a dramatic one.
"He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums."
And they probably also wanted to put up applause signs. Now, that may sound silly for me to say; but when folks have buildings named after them, isn't that the equivalent of a permanent applause sign?
But why should I pick on the wealthy putting in large sums? In fact, I keep running across evidence that about twenty percent of those in the church contribute about eighty percent of the operating funds. And about twenty percent do eighty percent of the work. So without those twenty percent--in either category--there would be no institutional church. And I have known wealthy individuals who were substantial contributors to the church with very little, if any, fanfare. They had it to give and they gave it. Period.
The concern we must have is with the MOTIVATION for our giving. Do we give for the glory of God or for the glory of ourselves?
But there is another dimension to "rich people who put in large sums" not mentioned in this passage. Several years ago I had a parishioner in his late seventies who died suddenly of a heart attack.
He was a strong contributor to the church, of both his time and his money. I could expect to see him in the pews every Sunday morning that he was in town. But an appalling thing happened when he died. Other parishioners were seeing dollar signs.
Instead of bemoaning the loss of the man, and expressing concern for the grief of the widow, they were talking about the loss of financial contributions. And I discovered that greed is not reserved to the wealthy.
But not only rich people were visiting the treasury.
"A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worthy a penny."
And she probably was not expecting applause signs. In fact, dropping those two coins into the treasury she probably wasn't expecting anybody to notice anything about her. She probably felt invisible. At least to other people. But I think that her contribution of her penny is one of the most glorious messages in all of scripture. Because too often folks think, "If I can't make a SIGNIFICANT contribution, I won't make any. If I can't do something extremely well, I won't do anything at all."
Folks, God doesn't keep score like humans do. You don't have to be an academic scholar to teach a sunday school class; you don't have to be an operatic powerhouse to sing in the choir; you don't need the experience of a corporation president to hold a church office. In doing God's work, only God can judge us, not other people. Fifteen years ago, those of us who were candidates for elders orders were gathered at a retreat with the Missouri West Conference board of ordained ministry for our final interviews.
We were understandably nervous and fidgety. And I remember a conversation with another pastor who was in the same boat I was. He remarked, regarding those who would be interviewing us, "It really doesn't matter what these guys think.
“They're not the one who called me."
The only judgment that matters is the judgment of God. It doesn't matter how small our contribution, financial or otherwise, may seem to be in the eyes of the world. Because in serving God, the judgment of the world does not matter.
Indeed, it CANNOT matter! It just gets in the way.
"Then Jesus called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
So does this mean that God expects us to unload our bank account every Sunday morning? No, I think there is a different message here. Rather, I think that Jesus is trying to point up the difference between contributing out of abundance and contributing out of poverty. It's EASY to contribute out of abundance. It's a STRUGGLE to contribute out of poverty. I can remember Christmases as a child.
And in my narrow, materialistic world-view I came to understand that the size of the pile under the tree, and the quality of the presents, varied with the size of the wheat crop. In really good years for the wheat, my parents had no trouble being generous.
But in the years of drought or flood, they struggled to maintain that generosity.
Well, I'm a lot older now, and hopefully more mature. And I've come to understand scripture as telling me that God doesn't much care about our showing off to each other, about our status symbols, about our needs for the best seats and the places of honor, about our doing things for the sake of appearance. What God cares about, and Jesus tells us this over and over, is what we can give of OURSELVES, without concern for the judgment of others.
On an earthly balance sheet, compared with rich people who put in large sums, the poor widow had almost NOTHING to contribute. But on the HEAVENLY balance sheet, the only one that matters, she had put in more than anyone else.
And the only judge who matters can see that.
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