The theme today is part of a series focusing on stewardship and in particular today we have been thinking about giving with generosity. Today the focus is Money. One of those taboo subjects really. I don’t know about you, but I was always bought up to believe that it was a tad rude perhaps to talk to people about their finances. Well, it may be personal, but it seems to me that this country has recently suffered quite a bit due to poor awareness of some simple financial management. So much so that there are now courses on how to budget our personal finances.
When I realised that I was due to speak on this, I must admit that my first reaction was abject horror. After all, I don’t really like Money. So I stopped and I listened. I listened to people and I listened to God. I prayed. As an individual, I have nothing good really to say about the subject, and I know for sure that I can’t stand here being true to myself and to God and suggest that you give more of your hard earned cash to the organization that is GMC. So I prayed, and I waited. I waited to hear God’s voice , I wanted to hear what he was saying about this. You may well say, “By what authority do you claim to know God’s thinking on this matter?” – Fair question – All I will say is we do have scripture at the end of the day. The place where we can readily hear Jesus’ voice and a place where God’s space and our space can meet.
And so, we have heard Jesus in Mark’s Gospel providing a piece of astute social observation of the rich and powerful of the day comparing their public show of giving which he equates with a politician’s fervour for photo opportunities, with the giving of a poor widow. The choice of a widow is very telling as in 1st Century Judea being a widow meant that you were one of the most disenfranchised people in society. It also reflects the value based on Women in Mark’s gospel especially where they are viewed as the moral arbiters in society. The widow’s offering was miniscule, about 1/64th of a denarius, but she had given all she could, probably experiencing hardship as a result, whilst the rich folk gave an amount that they were comfortable with.
Some commentaries on this story equate the rich people with scribes, however scribes were often poor themselves, and interestingly both Mark and Luke have the words rich people.
Reviewing a number of translations, the term is nearly always “rich people” so although Jesus was very often at odds with the scribes of the Temple (remember the setting here is the Temple in Jerusalem probably one or two days after Jesus had overturned the tables), I don’t think that this is a pointed critique of the temple scribes, rather I think he is looking at members of the Temple elite who certainly would have been among the rich and powerful.
The point is that the widow gives all she can. It is an echo in practice of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians who had challenged him possibly the day before about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus’ answer has often been interpreted as an encouragement to pay our taxes. Mostly by governments or those in authority. Whist it is right and proper to pay taxes, Jesus answer has a different focus. As usual he doesn’t give a straight answer in any case. We get a conundrum instead. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. Well what does that mean? Does it really mean that Caesar (or the state) has one area of influence and God has another, the two to be kept apart and totally separate? That doesn’t make sense in a 1st Century context. No-one thought in that way, least of all Jesus, whose whole life was all about bringing into being the re-unification of Heaven and Earth, literally the opening of the gates of Eden to humans. So yes give to secular rulers their taxes, but remember always that our overriding allegiance is to God, even the secular rulers are subject to God, and we are to love God and to serve God with all of our heart, our mind and our soul. Jesus leaves us to decide what we choose to do in the face of a dictator or leader who demands oaths or taxes that are at odds with God’s will. If you want to look at how one person coped with that particular dilemma then read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who offered his own path in the face of Nazi Germany.
The widow gave all that she could, the rich were giving a lot, but only a small portion of their abundance, which is presumably how they stayed rich.
The same pattern is seen in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. He compares the giving of poor communities in Macedonia when asking the church in Corinth to honour a commitment it previously made but over which there had appeared to be some to and fro-ing. It seems that there was an initial enthusiasm but that is had trailed off. A scenario that many 21st Century Congregations will understand and equate with all too well. Paul isn’t asking people to suffer because of their giving though; he asks that communities give according to their need with a clear understanding that within the wider body of the church; resources and funds would be freely mobile working where needed.
These echoes, remind us of the early church in Jerusalem highlighted in Acts Ch 2 “ All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need” and Ch 4 “there was no needy person among them, for from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them” donating proceeds to the cause. This again should not be construed as selling everything you have, it was about selling disposable assets. The equivalent in today’s rather warped economy is instead of relying on events such as Comic Relief, Red Nose Day, or Children in Need when at the same time we see Chief Executives, Premier League Football players, and Bankers being paid obscene salaries and bonuses, or Corporate businesses investing in off shore tax avoidance schemes, so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that perhaps something different might be tried.
What would society look like if Bankers donated their bonuses to charitable institutions, or to local communities to provide Health and Social Care. I somehow don’t think that will appear on too many political manifestos just now.
Paul and Jesus are not at odds with each other. Jesus is reminding us of and pointing out hypocrisy. (He did that quite often). He never insisted on the details of our actions, rather he reminded us where our loyalties should be. He wasn’t anti money. Women including Joanna, Susanna and Mary Magdalene provided financial support for Jesus and his group. The group included a tax collector among his closest grouping and one of them Judas was charged with keeping and distributing the funds. What is at stake is how we use our money. Do we use our resources both financial and non financial to support the work of God or do we promote our own purposes perhaps promoting in due course social inequality. Are we honest in our giving or do we deceive ourselves and others like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts Ch 5?
As people of the Church of God, we are called to reflect God’s values to the world. Those values of honesty, righteousness, and justice impinge on how we use our money as well as how we use our time and effort.
Do we support God’s mission of completing the new creation? Do we support the vehicle that God has chosen to use to do this work – the Church? There is no plan B in this. As disciples and communities of God we are called to carry on the work of the early Church. The work begun by the passion and the resurrection of Jesus. We are called to be led by the Holy Spirit in breathing new life into the world.
What will you do in answer to God’s Call?