Credit to David Borger German, associate pastor of one of our sister churches, Sanctuary Church in Iowa City, for the great majority of this sermon – many of its insights, and much of the text, word for word sometimes.
Imagine with me for a moment that you have just won $10,000,000! But there’s catch. You must give it all away. To whom or to what would you give that money?
I invite you to turn to someone next to you and discuss it, in groups of 2-4. If there’s someone nearby that’s not in a group, ask them to join you. Introduce yourselves if you don’t know each other. And then share where you’d give away $10 million and why.
This morning we’re going to talk about money and our use of it. I’ve titled this “stop giving money to bad systems,” which is where we’ll land. I wanted to start with that exercise because I wanted to get us all in the mode of thinking about ourselves as empowered, responsible agents of the money and resources entrusted to us by God.
$10 Million may be a vastly different sum of money than what you deal with on a day to day basis, but you still have money, at least some of it. You might say not quite enough, but you have some money, some resources.
According to the Christian tradition, God created us and has entrusted us with real power, real agency, real freedom to choose what we do with the money and resources entrusted to us. And we are invited by God to remember and claim our agency, our power, and decide how we will use our resources: Will we use our money as God invites us to, in ways that wisely contribute to our own health, the health of others, and the health of the earth? Or will we use our money to prop up systems that take advantage of people and contribute to the ill health of creation?
There are larger systems of which we are beholden to, that shape and limit our freedoms. For example, we all pay taxes. At the very least there’s a state sales tax so that if I go to the store and buy a new HD TV, I will pay state sales tax. I’m free to purchase a TV or not, but it’s not in my power to choose to pay the sales tax or not. Or I can drive to New Hampshire to get away with not paying the sales tax, but then I have to drive to New Hampshire. I suppose I could choose to not pay federal income tax, but our federal government frowns on such practice and will promptly arrest me and try me and then I’ll owe much more money and be thrown in jail. So you know, choices.
And actually, if we go further down the rabbit hole on our choices, we won’t go deep here but let’s just uncover it, many philosophers and sociologists would eagerly point out that our sense of personal freedom is really an illusion. They would say that while we believe we are free agents, acting under our own volition, we’re all actually quite captive to the influences and systems around us. You only think you’re freely buying that car, but actually, you’ve been influenced by countless marketing attempts and your own proclivity to imitate and copy what everyone else is doing. The Matrix has you, they would say.
That may be very true. But to whatever extent we’re not free, the path to freedom is the same: we can learn to listen to Jesus and step into the agency and empowerment that Jesus leads us into. When we truly listen and reflect on what’s going on, our imaginations are shaped by God’s vision, and we receive God’s power to courageously act in ways that are consistent with God.
In the end, that’s what I hope to accomplish today – I want to gain a better sense of our own empowerment over our own resources. We can remember who we are – created and called by God to live empowered lives under God’s care. And we’re going to claim whatever agency we have to shape a better world. If that’s using $10 dollars or $10 Million dollars, we’re going to figure out how to do it well and courageously.
This is the last week of our passion and courage series. Next week, Ivy begins a five-week series about Jesus’ example as a conversationalist. I think that going into the summer, it’ll be timely and practical and great!
We’re going to look at a story in which Jesus talks about money, its use, and the systems that influence our use of it. The story takes place in the final week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus taught
Mark 12:38-13:2 (NRSV)
38“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39>/sup>and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he 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. 44For 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.”
13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
There are three pieces to this short story:
- Jesus’ warning: Beware of the scribes.
- The poor widow.
- Announcement of the temple’s destruction.
Each one contains a different lesson, but they all fit together.
First of all, the scribes. Jesus tells his audience to beware of them. Who were the scribes?
- Well, they were political and religious teachers/leaders, who carried a lot of influence and were generally well respected by the people
It’s a lot like today’s politicians, you know – minus the respected by the people part, sometimes.
Jesus has some harsh words for these leaders, and there are essentially two major critiques:
1) The first is that they focus a lot on external signs of wealth and prestige: they wear long robes, they have the best seats in the synagogue, they choose the places of honor at banquets. They’re driven by their own egos, and they think that the good life is achieved through external signs of wealth and power – how they look and perform in front of others.
2) Second critique is worse than the first one: Jesus says that they devour widows houses.
There’s some debate about what this means, but one plausible option goes like this:
Women had very little social power at this time, some 2,000 years ago. And to be a widow meant you had even less power. If you were a widow and you were fortunate enough to have some property with your husband, once he died, you were not technically permitted to own the property. The scribes, the religious/political leaders, created a system in which they became the trustees of your estate because you couldn’t own anything. So you could still live in your home, but it wasn’t really yours anymore. And to manage that estate, the scribes charged money, a portion of what the estate was worth. So every year, you would be giving to the scribes a portion of your home’s worth or value because they were supposedly helping you manage your own home.
And what were these scribes doing with their money? Well, they’re having nice banquets, living lives of luxury and influence. You get taken advantage, your house literally being devoured, so they can look good.
Behold! these scribes, these politicians, your leaders and rulers, Jesus says. Watch out!
So after this sobering warning, Jesus sits down in the Temple right near the treasury dropbox. It’s like he pulled up the chair right there near the back of the sanctuary here near our own offering drop boxes. And he just sits and watches as people drop their offering in. Which is kind of an awkward thing to do.
How many of you would be comfortable with some random person just sitting near the drop boxes watching all of us throughout the morning, watching what we put in, or don’t put in.
Now most of us who call Reservoir our church home give through weekly or monthly automated giving out of a checking account or through our online giving system, PushPay, but there were obviously no systems like that at this time. It’s all physical, metal currency, so people could kind of make it into a show of how much they’re putting in. The rich would take their time because they have so many coins to put in. It’s heavy. It’s loud – it makes a lot of noise when you drop all those silver coins in. The Temple was an enormous stone building. So the sound of the coins going in would be bouncing off the stone walls and make quite a sound. So when the rich come in, it sounds like a slot machine cashing out.
Whereas other times, for other people, it’s just the sound of 1 or 2 small coins.
As Jesus watches, a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. (How does he know how much it is? He can hear it. So can everyone.)
Then he 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. 44For 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.”
Now I have realized that there are two radically different interpretations of what Jesus is saying here. I want to share both interpretations.
Option 1 is that Jesus holds up the widow as a model of sacrificial giving. According to this option, it’s a lesson in contrasts. In contrast to the rich who give out of their abundance, the widow gives out of her poverty.
She’s seeking to do the best with what she’s got – it’s a very PIOUS ACT. Even though she doesn’t have much, she’s giving sacrificially to God, even to the point that it really costs her, and that’s a sign of her faith. On this read, the takeaway is to be like the widow – give sacrificially to God, even if it costs you, because that’s what faith is, and Jesus will honor it.
The expectation is that Jesus’ disciples and the people reading this story will continue to give sacrificially to God, like the widow. And that is what the Christian faith is all about.
So that’s option 1. It’s admittedly the more common one, and one I’ve heard in one form or another many times.
Here’s the thing, though. One part of the job of a Bible teacher like me is to keep reading what scholars say about scripture, to listen to the most common interpretations but also to pay attention to other streams because – as you and I both know – in all spheres of life, the majority isn’t always right. We have so much to learn by listening to a diversity of voices.
At the top, I mentioned my friend David Borger German. He went online and to his local university library and read 15 commentaries on this passage in Mark, and only one of them mentioned the possibility of another interpretive option. But it so happens to be one that I’d also recently read about. And it’s one I want to share with you today because it so struck me.
In this interpretation, Jesus is offering praise, but underneath it, he’s also offering – with some irony – a lament, because the widow is being taken advantage of by an unjust system.
In this option, Jesus points out the widow not as model, but as a tragic figure. It’s a lesson about the degree to which this system oppresses the poor.
Best as I can tell, there is more evidence for this interpretation. After all, Jesus just talked about how the scribes devour widows houses, so this is another example of their oppression. Additionally, the word “offering” does not appear. Instead, the word “treasury” is used. The emphasis here isn’t on free will but on a bloated public savings account. And finally, Jesus goes on not to praise but to announce the destruction of the Temple: “Not one stone will be left. All will be thrown down.”
The takeaway in this reading is that generosity may be a beautiful thing, but it turns tragic when our money is flowing to people and systems who are moving against God’s good purposes in the world. Stop giving money to bad systems.
It’s important to note that with this option, Jesus isn’t blaming the widow for her participation. He’s talking to his disciples at this point, so he doesn’t go over to the widow and say, “You’re not doing this right.” Her participation may be beautiful but is also tragic, and Jesus wishes it wasn’t so. So Jesus goes to the men, his close followers, the people with more societal power and agency, and the ones who’ll be carrying on his work in just a few months.
And Jesus calls his own followers not to perpetuate any systems. They are to create and build up systems that don’t take advantage of the most vulnerable of our society. In fact they’re to uplift the downtrodden and empower the most vulnerable among us.
Just for fun, let me point out the crazy irony in these two interpretive options.
In option 1, the emphasis is on the widow’s agency and sacrificial giving —> it encourages people to do what they are told by the system: Give sacrificially! says the preacher, says the church, says the politician, whoever stands to benefit by the sacrifice. Spend sacrificially, says the company that wants to sell you more of their stuff so they can profit.
Option 2 puts an emphasis on the widow as a tragic figure —> it empowers all people, and maybe poor people in particular, to claim their agency and become more discerning.
So, as I said, I lean towards option 2. If you like option 1, that’s fine. I would just encourage you to do what Jesus says: Beware of the scribes. Watch out for religious leaders and the politicians and corporations and the unjust systems that are trying to take advantage of people, using a veil of goodness or righteousness or fancy marketing to hide how the few are benefiting off of the oppression of others.
This is sort of an unusual stance for the senior pastor of a church to take. Religious leaders have all kinds of perverse incentives, after all, to try to guilt or trick you into giving more money to their institutions. My wife works a job as well, but my family is supported by this congregation’s giving. As this church grows and prospers, it’s also likely that I – along with my other pastors – will get more credit for that than we deserve. After all, a church isn’t a leader or a building, it’s a community – in Reservoir’s case, a community of amazing, beautiful, generous people trying enjoy the love of Jesus and the gift of community and the joy of living. All of us are the church, so all of us are how this community flourishes or doesn’t.
But again, it’s been typical for religious leaders to do whatever we can to incentivize, maybe to guilt people or trick them into sacrificial giving to our institutions.
But here’s the thing. We practice what we call centered-set faith. We believe that God is at the center of all reality, and that God is immeasurably good, and that God isn’t interested in manipulating or controlling us, but releasing us into greater and greater freedom, in all areas of our life, our finances included. And God invites us to use that freedom to pursue the greatest possible flourishing for ourselves, and for others, and for the world at large.
So if you think it’s important for a diverse Jesus-centered faith community to flourish, and to nurture healthy spirituality and connection to God, and you appreciate the existence and the mission of this faith community, then go all out – give as part of your investment in the flourishing of this community, and the flourishing of our mission, in this city and region and beyond.
But if not, then don’t.
And the same to all the other ways you spend and give and invest your money. Do so with freedom, with purpose, and knowing that every dollar you give and spend and save is supporting a system that you’re backing with your money.
My family’s been giving a tenth of our gross income to this church for well over a decade now. And on top of that, we’ve been giving money to other people and to systems that inspire us with all the good they are doing – empowering poor communities, rescuing abuse victims, doing spiritually beautiful things in unlikely places. And sometimes around the dinner table, we tell stories about what this money is doing in these really good systems.
I’m not proud of this or anything. It’s frankly pretty normal behavior around here, and this has been our family’s way of trying to invest our money is good systems, and
Now if we were to have all that money back tomorrow, at least for us, it would be a lot of money, more money by leaps and bounds than I’ve ever seen at once. We could pay an awful lot of bills and buy a boatload of stuff with all that money. But to me, there’s no way. Because I couldn’t do better with that money than we’ve done.
And our kids complain about a lot of things – they ought to, I suppose. Life’s not fair, and they deserve better parents sometimes, at least a better father! But they don’t complain about this giving, because it’s pretty rewarding to give your money to good systems, after all!
On the other hand, I’ve spent more money than I want to count buying food that is convenient, but is unethically sourced, bad for my health, hurts one of my favorite hobbies, which is running, and is produced by companies that harm the health of whole communities and do harm, not good to our environment. So I’m starting to wonder what it would mean to stop plowing my money into bad food systems.
Because after all, part of moving toward God for me is increasing awareness of how I’m empowered to use all I am and have – my money included – for the flourishing of my life, and of others, and the world. To plow myself into where God is and what God is growing, not the places God is not and what is fading away.
So now we come to the final part of our story. We started with Jesus’ warning to us: Beware of the scribes. Then we listened to Jesus talk about the poor widow and we considered those options. And now we’re walking with Jesus, leaving the Temple.
And he says this:
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
If you want to have some fun today, take 5 minutes and read chapter 13 of Mark and talk about it with a friend. It’s quite a chapter. Jesus goes into full apocalyptic prophet mode, like the language we read this winter in Revelation. He starts using a lot of figurative and very bold language to talk about destruction of the Temple that’s coming.
This would have been utterly shocking news to the disciples, making them very, very uncomfortable. They walk out going, “THIS IS AMAZING!” and he says, “Yeah, it’s not going to last.”
It’s like you’ve just taken an awesome tour of the capitol building in Washington D.C., and then your tour guide announces it will be destroyed. It’s that kind of anxiety and fear and insecurity. Whoa.
I don’t think Jesus talks about this lightly. Jesus does not delight in destruction. But he’s very realistic about the natural consequences of building a system that oppresses other people. It’s untenable. It’s not going to last. Because it’s not with God.
We may prop up our bad systems a little while longer, but their time will end.
So what do we do this? What’s the invitation for us today? Very simply: I think we’re invited to listen to Jesus and to do what Jesus invites us to do. He warns us about leaders who benefit off the oppression of the most vulnerable. And he invites us to do what he does: to build real, authentic community. Community that:
- recognizes the inherent dignity of every person
- and that empowers every one of us to claim the agency that God has given us, to participate in the renewal and the flourishing of all people and all things.
This is hard. This is the life-long invitation, to continue to learn from Jesus, to continue to go to God to receive the power and healing that God makes available to us so that we are not beholden to fear. But we are emboldened to step into creative alternatives in our lives and economic practices.
We’re always invited to grow. I’m certain I am blind to all kinds of ways that I participate in and perpetuate unjust systems. But I’m committed to growing. And I think that’s the invitation.
If this is attractive to you, here are three things you might consider.
- Make a review of your personal finances this month, looking for the story they tell about your freedom, your empowerment, and your values.
- Bank statements, credit card statements, if you want help, I wrote about this when I gave a talk on personal finance last year, we’ll republish that blog this week.
- Highlight the beautiful but tragic story Jesus saw when he looked at this widow and her money.
- Jesus’ line – where your eyes are, there your heart will be.
- This isn’t about pride or self-criticism, but curiosity, what do you see?
And then ask two questions:
- What’s one system you want to stop supporting with your money?
- What flourishing, what good system, do you want to put more money into?