Everything She Had - March 2012
by Peter Marty
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins … [they were] everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44)
Boston’s Holocaust Memorial is just 100 yards from historic Faneuil Hall, and a mere 20 feet from one of the city’s busier thoroughfares. Much like the experience of touring a concentration camp in Europe, everything turns suddenly quiet within the confines of this park. The hustle and bustle of street noise evaporates. Guests find themselves suddenly staring at millions of six-digit numbers.
The numbers are etched in tiny type on glass panels that comprise six glass towers rising into the sky. Each six-digit combination represents the identification tattoos inked into the forearms of Nazi camp victims. Visitors can walk on a path through the base of the towers. Looking up at the sky from the inside of each one, sightseers grasp the impact of the architect’s design. These three-story columns of glass denote the chimneys of six separate concentration camp crematoriums. There is a quote mounted on the inside wall of each glass tower, precisely at eye level. I walked through the memorial several years ago and made special note of one quote:
Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present that night to me on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend.
-Gerda Weissman Klein
I don’t know if I have eaten raspberries in the same way since the day I walked through that memorial. One berry on one precious leaf. … given away. The totality of one’s life, resting in the solitary palm of a hand, shared generously with another human being. Wow. Maybe an unclenched fist with a gift inside is the best definition of generosity we’ll ever know.
A Poor Widow
One day, a poor widow showed up at the temple where Jesus happened to be. She was seated at some distance from those with greater wealth who came from a different part of town. We don’t know much about these others, except that some of them kept tripping over the frippery of their long robes. They had enough religion oozing from their pores to require hours of time just to complete a single prayer. (The tradition of confusing length or eloquence with sincerity, when praying, is evidently as old as dirt.) Oh yes, these folks were wealthy too. They put large sums of money, moistened from the grip of their hands, into the offering plate.
As for the widow, she gave an offering that day as well. Hers came from the palm of her hand—a palm that strangely resembled the outline of a leaf. Two copper coins rested there. When she put these coins into the offering plate, it was as if she had stepped into it with her whole life—her bare feet, her modest frame, and her bowed head, all standing there inside the small offering plate.
This widow did not give according to her means, she gave beyond her means. All of our talk about percentage giving would seem nonsense to her ears, unless, of course, we were willing to talk in the realm of 100 percent giving. If two coins constituted all of her possessions, this woman had the technical option of giving one coin and withholding the other. It might have been prudent to do so. But it also would not have been fully expressive of her life or faith. So, she chose the spiritual option. She put her whole life into the plate—both coins.
It could be that she used her offering that day not to demonstrate to God the person she was, but to begin the process of becoming the person she wanted to be. In other words, we might ask ourselves, “Does my generosity reflect the individual I am, or does it trigger the character I would like to become?” According to words in Jesus’ best known sermon, it could be the latter.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Jesus does not tell us that our treasure follows the path of our hearts. Instead, he indicates that our hearts typically follow the path of our treasure. Our spirituality is shaped by what we do with our possessions. The person we become is directly related to the unclenched fists with which we let go of wealth.
The secret to this minor player in the budgetary operations of the temple is that she is free to be nothing, so that God can use her for anything. Whatever poverty her life might have contained before she gave over those two copper coins, it surely bore no comparison with the rich spiritual life she must have exhibited after their deposit.
Becoming Generous People
It would be a good idea if we would get straight the difference between a generous deed and a generous person. The two are not the same. Do you want to be a truly generous person in a deep-down spiritual sort of way? Or would you prefer to be one who simply does generous deeds? Any one among us knows how to engage an occasional spasm of kindness or a sudden act of charity. It feels good to give pieces of our lives away. But what value is there in giving morsels of life away if this generosity does not transform our lives from the inside out?
If my giving does not deeply impact my life, it’s really discretionary giving more than anything else. Discretionary giving may be great, but it hardly changes the world, or more importantly, my life. From all we can tell, Jesus never dropped a hint that his life, death, and resurrection would (in and of themselves) change the world. He left plenty of hints that these events ought to change his followers, who, in turn, have the responsibility of changing the world.
Why is it that we find it so easy to spend money on ourselves? We barely think about such expenditures. We hardly bat an eye. We can shop in the most carefree of ways for ourselves, almost without thought. Worry hardly enters the picture.
Consumer analysts suggest that nearly 50 percent of all Christmas purchases consist of things we buy for ourselves as we go looking for gifts for others.
As easy as it is to spend money on ourselves, we think long and hard about money when giving it away. It gets moist inside the perspiration of our clenched fists. We almost treat this money as if we might be wasting it frivolously, or at least spending it on less worthy and less trusting causes than ourselves. We question whether anyone else could possibly use our money as wisely as we do.
So, instead of becoming generous people, we opt for generous deeds. We load up the car with stuff for the drop-box at the Goodwill store. There we leave our leftovers for other people to cherish. We supply the church rummage sale with treasures, hoping that our Lord will not confuse our desire to show generosity with our real aim—spring cleaning of our closets. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with passing on our possessions. Good people do it all of the time. We just need to think of these donations as contributions, not sacrifices. The temple scribes in long robes put contributions into the offering, says Jesus. But contributions alone do not make generous people.
Contribution Versus Sacrifice
A chicken and a pig were walking down the street one morning, hungry after a night’s rest. They came upon a restaurant where a sign in the window read: “Ham ‘n Eggs—$5.99.” This sounded to the friends like a breakfast bargain. The chicken said to his porcine friend, “You can provide the ham, right?” The pig nodded “yes,” and then asked the chicken, “You can provide the eggs, right?” “You bet I can,” was the reply. Into the restaurant, these two farm friends walked.
Once inside, the pig stopped suddenly and turned abruptly to his friend: “Wait a minute. Hold on. Something’s wrong here. For you to give the eggs, that’s a contribution. But for me to provide the ham, that’s a sacrifice.”
There is a difference between a contribution and a sacrifice. We don’t swallow the idea of sacrifice very easily. I have never heard a person say, “You know, sacrifice is one of my true spiritual gifts.”
We tout all kinds of strength, charity, and personal giftedness. But hardly ever, do we speak of sacrifice, except when sending soldiers off to war. As pastor and author Eugene Peterson has said, in reference to the famous personality assessment tool, “It’s a strange thing, but sacrifice never seems to show up on anyone’s Myers-Briggs profile.”
When Bill Clinton unveiled a tax increase during his first term as U.S. president, he called on Americans to sacrifice. Once presidential approval ratings dipped with the “morning after” polls, the word sacrifice quickly turned into contribution. White House press releases related to the tax hike dropped the word sacrifice. Unless we can perceive some immediate benefit to ourselves, we’re usually reluctant to get very excited about the idea of sacrifice.
Everything She Had
In the comic strip For Better or For Worse, seven-year-old Lizzie opens her piggy bank. “Look! I’ve got nine dollars an’ ‘leven cents to spend on Christmas.” Her 13-year-old brother, Michael, is not impressed. “You can’t buy something for everyone with nine dollars and eleven cents, Lizzie.” “I’m gonna try,” she replies.
“Well,” says Michael, “they’re sure gonna be cheap presents.” Lizzie answers her brother with all the conviction in the world, “Nothing is cheap, Michael, if it costs all the money you have.”
How true. Nothing is cheap, if it costs everything you are, everything you have. While the wealthy worshipers in the temple “put in a contribution,” as St. Mark records their offering moment—the widow, in her poverty, “put in everything she had.” She turned in her whole life.
There is no suggestion from Jesus that we are to replicate this woman in her 100th percentile giving. It’s hard to imagine functioning very well tomorrow if we give away every last dollar and possession we have today. Instead of making what one commentator calls a "suicidal gift" with our lives, it would seem that Jesus is trying to spark in us an imaginative way of living. It is a life that would be organized around more than tipping the Lord for services rendered, and more than making token contributions for personal blessings received.
Jesus would love for his disciples to look past the generous deed of a little widow putting two coins in the offering plate, noticing instead the generous person that can develop from such a beautiful act. Our widow friend gives us a preview of the One who has given the gift of his whole life—not pieces of it—for our sake. He is the Good Shepherd who would later say, “I lay down my life for my sheep” ( John 10:15).
Every time we unclench our fistfuls of wealth, we increase the odds of being able to receive the benefits of our Lord’s sacrificial love. And when we do this, we are well on the way to becoming generous people.
The Rev. Peter W. Marty is senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, a columnist for The Lutheran magazine, and author of The Anatomy of Grace (2008).