A Mite Too Much

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

When I was doing graduate work in philosophy at the New School for Social Research, I was fortunate to be accepted into two seminars taught by the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt.

Unlike many modern thinkers, Arendt can’t be classified with a label like “conservative” or “liberal” or “capitalist” or “socialist.” For she had the rare ability to analyze all sides of a political question.

On the one hand, she denounced the corruption and excessive power of some large corporations. On the other hand, she also saw that open markets and movement of capital were ways that individual liberty could be guaranteed.

In this regard, I remember an off-hand remark Professor Arendt once made during a discussion of political economics. She argued that, ideally, everyone should have an individual bank account. They could be able to set a sum of money aside in case an emergency arose.

This idea might have been important to Hannah Arendt herself, because she had been forced to leave Germany to escape persecution by the Nazis. If she hadn’t saved some money, she wouldn’t have been able to travel to the United States.

Hannah Arendt was also making the general point that money buys freedom. It’s not just a matter of being able to afford the latest smartphone. If you have no money in the bank, then you’re vulnerable to all kinds of financial emergencies. Having a savings account keeps you from worrying about getting a big dental bill or losing your job.

That’s one reason why the episode in Christ’s life that is detailed in the Second Lesson for today is so striking. For in this story, we see that a prudent financial strategy isn’t followed!

As the story begins, Jesus and his disciples are in the Jerusalem Temple, and Christ is talking about the hypocrisy of a group known as the “scribes.” The Scribes were educated religious leaders—the equivalent perhaps of influential rabbis or bishops today.

At the time of Jesus, the scribes apparently liked to walk around in long robes that indicated their high status. They liked to have the best seats in the synagogues. They believed that since they had devoted themselves to serving God, surely they deserved the respect of ordinary people who were supposedly less pious.

But Jesus pointed out that the scribes lived far from perfect lives. He notes, for instance, that they “devour widows’ houses.” So when a woman’s husband dies and she can no longer pay her rent, the scribes will evict the widow and confiscate the houses so they can rent them out to someone else.

The Second Lesson goes on to describe Jesus observing various people as they come into the Temple to make their offerings. Scholars think the money was put into large casks and that it was possible to see how much each person gave.

As Jesus and the disciples watch, a number of rich people come in and leave large sums. Then a widow walks into the Temple. She drops two small copper coins into the treasury.

Jesus then calls his disciples to him and says, “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.”

The original Greek text says that the woman put in “two leptas.” In the old King James translation, the woman gives two “mites.”

Biblical scholars have debated exactly how much the woman’s gift was worth. The lepta was the smallest Greek coin; as the text says, two of these leptas make up a quadrans, which was the smallest Roman coin.

But however we translate the value of the coins into today’s money, the point of the story is clear. The two coins were worth very little. Yet while the woman gave much less than the wealthy religious leaders, in relative terms, her offering was worth far more.

Indeed, she didn’t just make a nice gift. Jesus says that the widow “put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” It is this idea that points to the heart of the story.

The widow gave all her money. Not just a large gift: Bill Gates can give away a billion dollars and still have billions left.

Not just a large proportion of her wealth. The anti-slave campaigner William Wilberforce regularly devoted two thirds of his income to the abolitionist movement. Yet because he owned considerable properties, he still had plenty of money for his personal needs and for his family.

No, the widow gave all that she had. It’s interesting that having made this sacrifice, she disappears from history. We can speculate that she remained poor. It is unlikely she had a job to provide her with a regular income, since women in ancient times were rarely able to find paid work outside their homes. She might even have been evicted from her house by a rich scribe.

Yet whatever the widow’s circumstances, she was wildly generous! So the key to this text for us is the total commitment the widow demonstrated. By emptying her pockets, she showed where her heart was.

Few of us could give all the money we have for God’s work. The widow probably realized that her gift would make little practical difference to the financial health of the Temple. Her donation was such a small sum of money and the Temple was a vast institution that was the center of worship for all Jews.

But still, the woman “gave all that she had.” Her example should inspire us when we struggle to devote even small proportions of our wealth to God’s work. If the woman could make a sacrifice, surely we can give something of what we have.

Those of you who are on our mailing list may have read our Senior Warden’s challenge to raise your pledge in 2016 by 10%. This will be impossible for some of you. But for others, a financial “stretch” can be like a physical stretch.

Doctors advise us not to stay too long sitting at a desk; our health will be much better if we regularly get up and move around. An increase in a pledge may be the spiritual challenge we need.

Yet this scripture isn’t only about money. For the deep meaning is that the woman gives herself to the ultimate “Temple”—to God. And though she takes a big risk, she also receives a big reward.

For she has found a purpose in life. In contrast to the preening and greedy scribes, the widow has offered everything. We can admire her faith and envy her joy in giving all that she had to the God whom she loved.

Let us pray. “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is hatred, love. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”


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