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Generosity of Heart

(Sermon Series: The Nameless in the Gospels 2/6)

I wonder what your first gut reaction is to the story of the widow's mite (Mark 12:41-44), where the poor widow has just given her last two coins to the temple. Personally, I'm a little appalled. Why is she giving her last coins when she needs them to survive? Is someone guilting her into this? And why does Jesus lift this up as a good thing, but not do anything for her?

I don't have answers to those questions, but let’s dig into the story a little bit by backing up a few verses. Immediately preceding this passage Jesus says to his disciples, “Beware of the ostentatious religious scholars who are showing off in their long robes, saying long prayers, and like having the best seats in the synagogues and at the banquets – yet they “swallow the property of widows.” 

What a despicable thing to do! Women had so little power and help once they lost their husbands, especially if they had no other family to care for them. We’re not sure what the scribes were doing, but it is clear that they were somehow taking undo advantage of them. 

Then Jesus points the difference in their giving.  The rich have been openly dropping large sums of money in the coffers, and the widow (perhaps one of the same ones the scribes have taken advantage of) comes and puts in two small copper coins, all she has.  Jesus says to the disciples, “The truth is, this woman has put in more than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have put in money from their surplus, but she has put in everything she possessed from the little she had – all she had to live on.”

Now, this passage has often been used to guilt people into giving to the church with themes like: Give until it hurts, or Give Everything to God, or Sacrificial Giving.

Ugh. Frankly, I think these miss the mark of what Jesus was trying to say. I can't believe he ever encouraged anyone to give to the detriment of their own well-being. I believe there is a deeper message that Jesus is trying to get across, one that does apply to financial giving, but applies even more to how we live life. 

Jack Kornfield, in A Path With Heart, says, "Whether it is generosity with our time, our possessions, our money, or our love, the principles are the same. True generosity grows in us as our heart opens, grows along with the integrity and health of our inner life." Unlike the religious scribes who seemed to give just to be seen, I picture the widow in this story to be giving her whole self in the present moment, unconcerned with how she looks or who sees her, intent only on giving from her heart to the God who sustains her. One simply doesn’t give their last two coins without being free from the fear of not having enough. The widow in this story teaches us a lesson in generosity as she gives from an open, compassionate, loving heart. It’s not that percentagewise she gave more than the rich scribe, but that spiritually, whole-heartedly, she gave generously of herself.

Nothing means more than a handful of dandelions from a child. Why is that? Because it was given from the heart.

There are so many things we can be generous with: time, talent, creativity, support, advocacy, listening, love, money, possessions, and forgiveness, to name a few.

When fear, insecurity, or greed rules our minds, we may either compulsively acquire all we can, or become miserly with what we do have (Scrooge syndrome). When we’re ruled by fear, giving can also become manipulative. 

In one of my previous churches we had an unusual parishioner, I’ll call him Billy. Billy had a lot of problems, he was probably middle-aged and was a war veteran. He didn’t have a real family, but had a foster mom who was getting up in years and did what she could for him. Billy tended to wear the same clothes week after week until they were falling apart, he was awfully thin, and he sometimes he didn’t smell too good.  I'm sure he struggled with mental illness and we could tell when he wasn’t taking his medication because he became fairly incoherent.  Sometimes the police would even pick him up wandering in the middle of the street.  But Billy was a gentle soul, and a faithful soul.  Church, and the friendships he made there meant the world to him.  We tried to help Billy out – made sure he had rides to church, got him a bike one year, one family donated gift certificates for a restaurant he liked, we kept them in the office for him so that whenever he was really in need he could ask for one of those.

I learned a lot from Billy, but one of the greatest lessons I learned from him was about giving.  Billy didn’t have much to give, but it was very important for him to share what he had.  In fact, he was often trying to give people things and we felt very bad taking them.  He would get sodas out of the machine at church and give one to me.  He would buy packs of gum and give the whole pack to one of the youth or to me.  Once, I think I was having a rough time, and Billy came to church with a little gold guardian angel pin for me.  But one of the things I remember most is that every Sunday Billy  brought his offering envelope with him with $2 in it.  Billy’s health got really bad for a while, until he finally ended up in psychiatric unit.  He would call me from there and we would talk.  One of his biggest concerns was that he hadn’t been able to turn in his offering envelope.  No one else, in my 26 years of ministry has ever worried about this. But his commitment to the church and his commitment to God were very important to him. 

Part of my struggle with the story of the widow’s mite, and in truth the story about Billy, is that it felt like perhaps they were giving more than they should. We all know people who have given selflessly to the detriment of their own well-being. When it comes to generosity, it is important to learn to give while also honoring one’s own needs and having compassion for oneself. This is especially true for caregivers. It is when we give more than we have – more time, more energy – that we experience burnout.

Truly, it is a fine balancing act. Spiritually it requires self-awareness as well as awareness of ourselves as interrelated to all other people and creation, it requires letting go of fear and worry so that we can be generous with everything from our love to our money to our time and our possessions, it requires not needing to receive something in return, and it means constantly working to become more whole so that we give out of our sense of whole-heartedness and open-heartedness. 

Love & Light!