Spare Change: Mark 12:38-44

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39  They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets.40  They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.  43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.

When I was growing up, my parents kept a huge pot of spare change in their bedroom.  I’m not sure how much money was in there at any given time, but it seemed like a huge amount.  Every now and then, I would go in and grab a few coins, particularly quarters.  I remember especially when I would come home from college, I would help myself to all the quarters I could find for laundry money!  And now, in my own home, Corey and I have a cup where we throw spare change every now and then.  For the most part, it just sits there until it gets too much, and then sometimes we will take it to one of those places in the grocery store and cash it in.  I would venture to guess that most of us have spare change jars in our home.  And I’m guessing that for the most part, we just throw our change in there from time to time and think nothing of it, not realizing how fortunate we are that we can just toss our spare change aside and forget about it for long periods of time, not really thinking that it amounts to anything.  Which by the way, I hope that now you are at least bringing your spare change to church for the various projects we are giving toward, where you know it will go to something worth while.

Regardless, we toss and go, thinking nothing of it, and treat money as leftovers.  Every now and then, we might even toss our spare change into the offering plate at church simply because we want to get rid of it and we feel that we have given something that day.  After all, something is better than nothing.

Then here comes the widow to give her offering to the temple.  And even though she gives what many of us would consider spare change, we know that what she gives amounts to her life, her heart, what she has to live on.  Her whole life.  That’s what she gave, friends. The Greek is clear and certain. She didn’t give just a portion. Not a tithe. Not a percentage. But her whole living.  Why? Out of obligation? Respect? Demand? Expectation? Religiosity? Piety? All of the above?  She gave her whole life because there were no other options. She gave her whole life because that’s what was expected of her. She gave her whole life because her life depended on it (workingpreacher.org). At this point, she had nothing to lose and everything to give.

Before we meet this mysterious widow, however, Jesus introduces us to another group of people:  the legal experts and leaders who prey upon the less fortunate, the poor, the widows- those who flaunt their piety, who walk around in long robes and expect the best seats at the banquet and to be first in line.  Those who like to give long prayers so that others will marvel at their so-called devotion.  These are the ones who throw their spare change into the offering plate and think nothing of it.  But of course, this story is about more than actual spare change.  It’s about what we give of our lives and hearts to God and the church community.  It’s about acknowledging and confessing that even today, so often we give God the “spare change” of our lives instead of the big and important things like our hearts and our true devotion, and the ways in which we live our lives and make decisions.  It’s also about how and what we choose to give of our monetary gifts, as well as our very selves. This well-known story of the legal experts in contrast to the widow invites us to ask ourselves, “do we give our very lives and our gifts to God?  Or are we spare change Christians?”

A spare change Christian might look like someone who shows up for Sunday morning for an hour and do nothing else throughout the week, someone who only comes to church to be part of a social club, someone who sees church as nothing more than a hobby, someone who only thinks about God when their lives are in trouble or only when things are going well, someone who belongs to a church or calls themselves a believer, but those on the outside would never know it by the way they act in the world- someone who gives just enough of themselves or their gifts to feel that they have done their part and that’s it.  Someone who sees Christianity as just another religion and not a way of life.  Someone who is unwilling to accept that sometimes, following Jesus is hard work and not a ticket to easy living.  After all, God calls us to whole life living.  That’s what discipleship is all about.

In the legal experts that Jesus calls out in this text, we see examples of what “spare change” followers look like.  In the widow, we see a devoted woman who is not afraid to give all she has to God.  We hear Jesus proclaim that she has made a genuine sacrifice and has given her whole life because of her faith.  But, if we just focus on the widow’s generous gift and her character in this text, then we miss the point.  The reason that Jesus instructs his disciples to watch out for the legal experts who claim to be one thing but are something else entirely, is to show them how the widow is in contrast.  This story is not necessarily an opportunity to praise the widow, but a chance to point out the reality and injustice that creates the condition for this scene to take place.  The widow’s offering is a chance for Jesus to highlight the real issues at stake in society- that the religious, political, and social establishment has systematically corrupted her way of thinking so much so that she feels that she has to give far beyond what likely hurts her and anyone that might depend on her (http://datinggod.org/2012/11/11/missing-the-point-of-the-widows-mite/)

If we read Jesus’ comments as simply praising her as an example of generosity, then we might be doing more harm than good.  We might be perpetuating the ways of thinking that lead to the financial injustice and inequality that still plague our society today instead of facing the harsh reality that things are not as they should be.  The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer.  A few years ago, there was a New York Times article that highlighted the myth of philanthropy and the “benefits to the poor” of having the super wealthy.  The article revealed that the very wealthy, or the “legal experts” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes.  And what Jesus observers with the legal experts in contrast with the widow reveals that what was true in his time remains true in our time.  Those with the least continue to give more (based on what they have) than the wealthy (http://datinggod.org/2010/08/22/today%E2%80%99s-parable-of-the-widow%E2%80%99s-mite/)

The same is true for more than money.  There are people who devote their whole lives to their jobs, their families, their community, and still struggle to get by.  I recently ran across this article about Gladys Morris, a 74 year old woman who has worked her entire life, beginning as a cashier in a department store at the age of 18.  She went on to work for the IRS, a local hospital, and a post office, and drove a school bus for several years.  However, no matter what she did or how much she saved, she could never quite manage to make ends meet or save up for retirement.  Every penny went toward buying a home and keeping food on the table.  When she retired at age 74, after working for 56 years, she still didn’t have the income she needed to provide for some basic needs, such as food.  She used her social security to pay rent on her one bedroom apartment, and whatever was left went to medical expenses, utilities, and if she could afford it, some food and transportation.  What money she spent on food went not to healthy and nutritious options, but only what she could afford.  And Gladys is not alone.  According to the State of Senior Hunger in America, one in six seniors faces the threat of hunger.  Hungry seniors are 60% more likely to suffer from depression, 53% are more likely to have a heart attack, and 52% are more likely to develop asthma.

Luckily for Gladys, she discovered the SNAP program, which helps seniors acquire food stamps so they get the healthy and nutritious food that they need.  But it goes to show us that even though there are those that give their whole lives to work and providing for their families, they still need help to get by.  In Gladys’ case, she worked for 5 decades, and still needs food stamps to survive- a mark of a broken system.

Or hear this one: many of us in here are old enough to remember Kodak!  At its peak in 1982, Kodak employed 65,000 people.  65,000 people were getting paid a decent wage for their work.  In 2014, Kodak officially went bankrupt due to the onset of digital media and pictures.  In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, a popular photo app for $1 billion.  Do you know how many people are employed by Instagram?  13!  That’s 13 people getting paid $1 billion.  Another example of our broken system and the balance of power.  We can pay 13 people $1 billion to run a picture app, but we are unable to provide free education and healthcare, and seem to have no interest in doing so.  Are we so brainwashed that we can’t come up with ways to distribute our wealth in this country that we turn a blind eye to helping people to truly live?

As Jesus watches the widow give all she has, he is lifting her up as yet another example of the broken systems in our societies, and these still perpetuate today.  He is continuing to teach his followers about the brokenness in order to fulfill the promises of what he has come to do.  If we think back to when Jesus was beginning his ministry in the gospel of Luke, he goes into his hometown and is invited to read from the prophet Isaiah.  He reads, “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And what happens next?  He sits down and says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled as you heard it.”  And instead of rejoicing, instead of clapping and celebrating this good news, the crowd tries to kill him.

The widow is lifted up in this scenario not just because of her extreme generosity, but because Jesus is trying to point out the harsh realities of the broken systems around them.  Those who can afford to give much give a little.  They give of their spare change.  They give and serve half-heartedly.  While those who have little give very much and do not even have anything to live on.  In the widow, we see an honest and harsh picture of the brokenness of our sinful structures, our sin that confesses that we have ways of doing life that lead to death, our sin that adds to the broken systems of this world, whether directly in indirectly.  Our sin of just giving the spare change of our lives and our hearts to that which matters most: healing lives and making persons whole through Jesus Christ and the church.

The widow reminds us that Jesus’ good news is to the poor: that he comes to eliminate the structures that keep people impoverished and oppressed.  The words of Isaiah ring throughout this text as we watch him point out the poor widow and her generous, life-giving gift: that Jesus is up to something new and radical and world changing.  He comes to eliminate the structures that leave people impoverished and release from the broken cycles that oppress, divide, and separate.  He comes to open the eyes of the blind, and we have to confess that we are the ones have been blind to the harmful structures and injustices right in front of our eyes. He gives us this widow as a lens through which we should see the world and ask, “What am I doing to help eliminate harmful structures and systems?”  And to honestly ask ourselves as we confess, “How am I contributing to them?”

At the heart of the Jesus movement are persons such as this widow who show us examples of a broken world, and the way in which Jesus is instructing us to heal it amidst the brokenness that is rampant among us.  God is up to something new, and that something is compassionate love and risk to the point of giving one’s life to the cause of healing the world.  The new thing we are being taught is that following God starts with whole-life living and giving- not just giving God the spare change of our hearts, our pockets, or ourselves, but giving God our best- giving God our very life.

After all, God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life.  That is God’s essence- to give God’s whole self.  We look ahead to Jesus on the cross- showing us the ultimate picture of love- giving his life to show us the harsh reality of ourselves, yet going through with it anyway.  And here, now, with this poor widow, God is showing us what it means to give God’s whole self yet again through acts of kindness, sacrifice, and love.

What would happen if we measured our lives by acts of love, kindness, and generosity, and not by how much spare change we happen to have leftover to give?  What would happen if we measured our lives by the acts of love that filled it? Would you find yourself “rich” or “poor”? As Christians, we have received greatest gift of love ever given, the sacrificial gift of Christ crucified.  And we are rich beyond imagination. Can we, like the poor widow, find the courage to share the wealth we hold? Can we dare to pour out our whole heart, our whole being, our “whole life” into mending the brokenness in this world?  Can we give God more than just half-hearted attempts, our meaningless routines, and just our spare change?  May God grant us hearts of compassion and self-giving, and open our eyes to see into these broken places.  Amen.

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