What to Do with What We have

Roderick P. Frohman Third Presbyterian Church
February 19, 2012 Mark 12:41-44

It is getting to be that time of the year again. Time to see our tax preparer, Gwen. She also doubles as a financial advisor. And she is very knowledgeable. I'm sure she is going to ask the big question again, which begins with the auspicious words:

"Rod, in the event of your demise...”

Notice how polite those financial advisors are. …. in the event of your demise how is your widow, Marcia, going to survive without you?” Then she bores in, “You need to have a bit more death benefit coverage for her to invest if you are no longer around to support the family debt structure.” “Debt structure”? It is not as if I am trying to finance the rebuilding of downtown Rochester.

She is right; plan, save, conserve. For sure she does not want Marcia to end up like the widow in our gospel lesson this morning, poor and down to her last 2 coins. It is a classic Biblical story, not historical but plausible.

Jesus and the disciples observe a widow putting money in the poor box in Herod's Temple. She puts in two coins, two “lepton”, the smallest denomination in circulation. The King James Bible uses the 17th century British term “mite” to define this amount. A lepton was 133rd the value of a denarius, a day’s wage for a common laborer. (IDB Vol 3 p. 248) Adjusted for inflation a lepton or a mite is worth 30 cents in modern coinage. (http://www.usask.ca/antiquities/coins/roman_coins.html)

How foolish the widow is. She only has 60 cents left to her name and she puts that into the poor box! She can't afford that!! She should put in just one mite!! A 50-50 ratio of benevolence to current expenses would certainly be adequate!! That would be great for any individual or congregation!! How simple-minded can she get? She should be thinking about tomorrow. I do. Marcia does. I can guarantee you that if I drop dead Marcia is not going to put all of my death benefit in the offering plate. Some of it but not all of it.

Attention needs to be particularly paid to the literary framing of the widow's story in the gospel narrative. The gospel editors don’t just stick in stories willy-nilly. They are carefully placed. The entire 12th chapter of Mark concerns itself with ownership. Before the widow's story is told there are five preceding ownership stories.

1. “Who owns the earth?” is the driving question of the parable of the wicked vineyard workers who murder the owner's son so that they can maximize the profits. Who owns the earth? The earth is the Lord's.

2. “Who owns human affairs?” is implied by the question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It is a question answered ambivalently even by Jesus. Caesar on their coins is like George, Ben, Abe and Susan B. on ours. When we render unto Caesar we do get guns and butter, and highways and Medicare and education, in certain proportions to each other. Fascinating, isn’t it; the presidential debates on economics is about relative percentages of guns versus butter.

3. “Who owns time?” The Sadducees asked the question about whether there is marriage after death, a stupid, but tricky question. “Time is in God's hands,” says Jesus. God is a God of the living and not a God of the dead.”

4. “Who owns my ultimate allegiance?” Who owns my heart, soul, mind and strength? The modern answer is, “I own it! It is all for my pleasure.” Jesus answers with the greatest commandment; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind and strength, AND your neighbor as yourself.

5. “Who owns Christ?” What is the relationship of the messiah to King David or to the heroes of western culture, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, MLK JR.? Since the Messiah belongs to God who loves the world, Christ is “the man who belongs to the world,” not to any one culture. (Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through The Centuries)

Then Jesus addresses the question of who owns the religious institution, the Temple. The clergy strut around in their long robes and like to be seen by everyone. These are the clergy who swallow the property of widows for a particular project to enhance their career. The clergy think they own the religious institution.

But then into that institution owned by corrupt clergy; into that culture owned by sycophants; into that allegiance owned by narcissists; into that time owned by wasters; into those politics owned by entrenched ambiguity; into that vineyard owned by God, strolls the widow with all her possessions, and drops them, plink, plink, into the offering plate.

In the plink, plink of the widow’s mite is demonstrates her might because her act forces us to ask, “Who owns us?” “To whom do we belong?” Not just our spiritual/emotional being, but to whom do we belong with all the things which cling to us and us to them; wealth, possessions, abilities, expectations, accomplishments, education, plans, goals, relationships. To whom do we belong, lock, stock and barrel? (Proclamation 3, Rogers, Fortress, 1985 p. 48)

It is quite clear that the entire 12th chapter of Mark is “an unambiguous denunciation of possessions gained by fraud and oppression, and the denunciation of the ostentatious use of possessions for self glorification. But when it comes down to the question of how are we to use our possessions as an expression of our faith, the text about the rich people versus the widow is far less clear.” (Johnson, Luke T. The Life of Faith and the Faithful Use of Possessions. A keynote address to the 1992 National Association of Endowed Presbyterian Churches conference. p. 2. The author was present. ) Notice the rich people in the story, who are contributing their money, are not denounced by Jesus. As a matter of fact the rich are supporting the welfare system for the widow. Interestingly enough, the widow contributes to the same welfare fund with her last two coins.

Notice also that this welfare system is not all that great, matter of fact it was embarrassingly inadequate. Widows in Jesus’ time were the lowest of the low. Cultural norms compelled them to wear identifying clothes. The Hebrew term for widow is a homonym – it sounds like—the Hebrew command,

“Shut up!” (IDB Vol. 4 p. 842) The old fashioned saying about children applied to the Jewish widow. She could be “seen, but not heard.” To be a widow in Jesus’ time was to experience grinding poverty with less hope for social salvation than a slave.

From the bible text we are guided to the text of our experience. In the USA we know about the homeless, the impoverished and jobless, the undereducated and the over-stimulated, the narcotized, and the marginalized. Abroad we know about the truly appalling masses of the destitute, whether occasionally in Eastern Europe, or chronically, as in North Korea, Kenya, whether at the edges of utter extinction as in South Sudan, or at the nagging edge of modernity, as in Latin America. Such texts of life make us flinch and recoil; we can scarcely gaze on the face of such ceaseless and growing suffering. The text of our own experience calls out to us clearly, ‘Do something, you must do something.’

“But what are we to do?” The easy answers are in the polarities. We can leave all our possessions and join the poor, which will clear our consciences but also make us dependent upon someone with less missionary zeal but a steadier job. Or we can marshal all our energies for the reformation of social and economic systems that encourage and necessitate oppression and greed." (Johnson, Ibid.)

How far are we willing to go? Are we really willing to be like the folks in the early days of the Christian church who “held all things in common,” (Acts 4:32) and then punished those who keep some for themselves? This may have been early Christian socialism, but it didn't last long. Soon early Christians were meeting in house churches of folks who had squirreled away some savings and obviously did NOT hold all things in common. So the other extreme is attractive. Maybe we can just forget all this bit about ownership and live a life conformed to the acquisitive drive of our society. Wouldn't that be a lot easier? Just swim around in the bowl of culture with all the other goldfish.

The difficulty is, “no more than the text of scripture, does the text of our lives provide any clear mandate for the use of possessions. This means that most of us, most of the time, muddle through, deprived alike of clean hands and clear ideas.”(Ibid.) “Our every instinct is to close ranks and protect our own projects and possessions.” (Ibid. p. 6) This, of course is why Marcia and I meet with our tax advisor to check on our possessions, especially now that retirement is coming.

The widow’s mite story tells us something quite clearly: possessions symbolize faith. “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also” said Jesus. The disposition of possessions is therefore “sacramental: it effects and affects what it stands for. Acquisitiveness, greed, oppression obviously symbolize that we worship what we own. In contrast, every open handed sharing of possessions enacts the very essence of faith.” (Ibid.) This is why the plink, plink of the widow's mite is mighty indeed. It is an act of faith far beyond which any of us are willing to go. So what is the alternative? Acquire? Acquire? Acquire? NO.

We are caught in the paradoxical condition of being and having. We have no choice as to whether we are to ‘possess,’ but only what we are to possess and how we are to use it.

Our possessions encompass far more than material things. They include our time, our personal space, ideas, dreams, our skills and abilities, our emotions, projects, virtue, spiritual health, physical health, whatever we might claim as ‘mine.’

How we dispose of our possessions is an act of faith, good, bad, or mediocre. The specific way in which this faith is enacted is in our response to the needs of others in our lives.

Further, the response of faith in the use of our possessions is never once-for-all, but is a life-long series of responses to God who constantly moves ahead of us (Ibid. p. 7) and points out, with disturbing and accurate discernment, the widows, who, in the use of their possessions, illustrate what giving is all about.

The last Sunday of January was the last Sunday of our most recent RAIHN rotation. On my way back up to my office from coffee hour I stopped to check my mailbox in the main church office. Often people will leave notes for me in my box. There was one there in an envelope. I opened the envelope to find a thank you note from one of our homeless guests who had spent the week with us. It was a very touching note, indicating how much the family had appreciated our hospitality to them. Enclosed with the note was a postal money order, for three dollars.


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