Yesterday’s sermon from Mark 12:38-48
Generosity is a concept and a way of life that I learned about when I was little. My parents, as missionaries in Brazil, South America, were always going to people’s houses for bible studies, marriage counseling, benevolence offerings, and all kinds of ministry. A lot of their ministry happened at night, when people were off of work.
My sister and I were too young to be left at home in those days, so we always had to come along on our parents’ house calls. We hardly minded it. In Brazil, when a guest comes to your home, it’s common practice to offer them something to eat. While our parents discussed important things in the car on the way to a pastoral visit, Jojo and I sat happily in the back seat, mouths watering for corn cake and milk.
The homes we would visit were concrete slabs with poorly enforced wooden walls, generally 1 or 2 bedrooms to house a family of several. In the innocence of my childhood, these were cozy homes where I got to have a piece of corncake and a glass of milk or juice, and watch my parents work.
In my adulthood, I look back on those times with wonder and gratitude, reliving the moment when we were presented with a meager snack. Back then, a fun experience of fellowship and togetherness; now understood as the gift of a lavish feast, for those mothers gave to us out of their poverty: poverty of means, and of time, but in doing so,
in presenting us the gift of hospitality on a plate, with a smile that dimpled their faces and lit up their eyes, they were also giving out of their abundance: an abundance of love in their hearts, for God, for us, and for serving the needs of others above their own.
These early experiences in generosity impacted me, and have shaped my life. What is an experience of generosity that has impacted you?
Jesus also had an experience in generosity that impacted his life. In the days before his ultimate sacrifice, the giving of himself completely and greatly, Jesus witnessed another person give of themselves completely and greatly, and was encouraged and deeply moved.
At the temple courts, in the outer court of the women, large coffers received the offerings of the people. Jesus was sitting there in the court, watching what can most closely be described as a spectacle:
lavishly dressed, wealthy men processed through the line with large bags of money. One after the other, they would hold their bags over the coffers and with ceremonious grandeur, slowly empty the bags into the waiting receptacles, every note of their “generosity” being heard in the plink, plink, plink of very large gold coins.
Then, like a well-timed intermission from the show, a humbly dressed woman, a widow of little to no means, no worth in the eyes of the world around her, dropped in two very small copper coins. The tiny copper pieces were welcomed into the coffer amidst the larger coins and the miniscule whisper they made was like a breath of fresh air to Jesus. Jesus noticed and exemplified this woman, who was trying her very best to go unnoticed amidst the throng of others around her who longed to be noticed for their magnanimous gifts to the temple.
Why did this woman’s offering catch Jesus’ attention more than the grand giving of the countless others?
Because among those countless others were the accountants of the temple who were called scribes, leaders in the community, and several other influential people who had misaligned their loyalties and misunderstood their hope.
Instead of placing their hope in God, and trusting God for everything even when having faith would have been daunting and challenging, they’d placed their hope and their faith in the temple and their loyalty became upkeep of the temple rather than service to those most in need.
You see, when fear is what drives someone instead of love, decisions are made based on individual, not communal needs. Where the goal of living out of love is serving others, the goal of living out of fear is self-protection.
In an effort to protect and preserve their status, comfortable lifestyle and sense of importance within the community, these scribes and influential leaders Jesus warned his disciples about, had become seemingly heartless rule-followers; down to the last cross of a “t” and the final dot of an “i.” Their practice of valuing the temple to the detriment of others didn’t begin with malicious intent. However, choosing to live out of their fear, instead of out of an abundance of love, led to grave consequences for others, and for the scribes’ own hearts.
For an example of one of those consequences, Jesus pointed out the practice of what he called “devouring widows’ houses.” In Jesus’ day, as is the case with many governments, people were subject to taxation. But, beyond the regular government tax, was also a temple tax. The religious law of paying taxes to the temple, whether you attended temple services or not, was undergirded by civil law so that, when someone didn’t pay their temple tax, the scribes could come after them, take their home, sell it and use the money to settle that person’s temple tax.
This is what Jesus meant when he said that scribes devoured widows’ houses. He meant that a widow who was of no value without a man to give her a name and a place in society, could be displaced in a heartbeat if she failed to pay her temple tax.
Jesus was a master at having compassion for others. It’s easy to read this passage and infer an angry tone from Jesus’ words of warning at those who would do such a horrible thing. But if we understand, not condone, but understand fear as a powerful motivator that is easy to give into and hard to shake, our humanity, Christ’s and that of the widow, doesn’t seem as far removed from the humanity of the scribes.
What Jesus wants us to notice is the choice that is made between the two types of characters in this event in his life. The scribes chose to live out of their fear, and the widow chose to live out of her love. A love that flowed from a spirit of abundance in her heart.
One of my favorite people has a bumper sticker on the back of their car that says “love is greater than fear.” This is the lesson Jesus was teaching his disciples that day.
The woman, an unlikely vessel of selfless love, having lost much in her life, chose to live out of her love anyway, and in giving our of her physical poverty, she was giving out of the abundance of her heart.
When love is greater than fear in our lives, we are better able to see God’s generous gifts, even in the midst of turmoil, grief, or pain. And out of the abundance of God’s love, we can live generously.
Living generously means choosing to live out of the abundance of our hearts, whether we are in need like this woman, or well off. Generosity flows out of a heart that has chosen to live out of love, instead of fear. Of course, fear will always present itself to us, in any number of ways.
Our generosity will be measured by the way in which we respond to situations that make us afraid.
Living generously calls us to be careful of policies that protect and promise continued protection to people who don’t really need it, while society’s most needy are bleeding out: perpetually losing their resources, their freedoms, and sometimes, their lives. Living out of our love, instead of out of our fear invites us to vote judiciously, and to advocate for justice and change.
Living generously calls us to recognize that the things that divide us and the labels we give to those who are different from us are misguided attempts at protecting ourselves from things outside of our experience of “normal.” Choosing to live out of our love instead of out of our fear invites us to ask questions of those whose life experience is different from ours; to listen, and to offer friendship instead of distance.
Living generously calls us to let go of insecurities that our offerings of welcome, time, hospitality, friendship are not enough or that our meager financial gifts don’t count. Living out of our love, instead of out of our fear, invites us to offer ourselves to God and trust God to use each offering, and to see it as a gift of love, out of our own abundance of gratitude.
Living generously does not require grandiose acts or huge gestures. Living generously requires a heart that is transformed by God’s love, which overflows with abundance toward the world around us.
Let’s choose to live out of the abundance of God’s love in our lives. Let’s live our lives generously.