The other day, I saw a group of financial advisors on the Today Show talking about the choices that people make and what they need to do to stay out of trouble in challenging economic times. And, as they have said often, they told us we all need to have six months of living expenses tucked away in savings, just in case.
That’s great advice, of course, but it has little to do with the reality of most of the folks who are most impacted by the economy. Saving up six months of living expenses, when you are living just a notch above the poverty line, is well-nigh impossible. Most of the folks who call up St Middle School office asking for help for groceries or diapers or gas to get to work live paycheck to paycheck. Most are worrying what will happen if the car breaks down, or if the doctor prescribes some medicine for their child’s asthma that has a high co-pay, or if the landlord raises the rent. So Saint Middle School helps in a small way, with a grocery card or a gas card or a card to Target.
We do that because it is the right thing to do. It is what Jesus told us to do, it is what our compassionate hearts tell us to do, it is mission and ministry and love all bound together. And it is the work of the church.
Contrast that view, then with what we hear about the religious institution in today’s gospel. You may have paid attention to the widow donating her few pennies, all that she had to the temple, and we could spend some time talking about that, but before we do, we should look at the beginning of the passage.
Jesus is teaching in the temple, an expected thing for a religious teacher to do.
The very first thing he talks about is the scribes. He tells his audience "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
First, a few words about scribes. Originally they were secular officials. They were noted for their ability to write and to deal with financial matters, so they were often involved in legal issues. Over time, they became more connected with the synagogue, since often matters that were financial and legal were brought to the chief priest for judgment. Was there a pattern of scribes cheating widows out of their houses? We don’t know for certain. The Law required particular care for widows and orphans, so it would be shocking for someone connected with the work of the synagogue to cheat widows out of their houses…but something was going on here that got Jesus upset. Perhaps it was the flouncing about of the scribes, acting like they were really important, being very conspicuous in their praying, while preying upon others and exploiting them in some of their financial transactions. It was not just the cheating, but their pretending about how righteous they were while they were doing it that really got Jesus upset.
And it was right for Jesus to get upset, because the one place we expect people to behave well is in our religious institutions. We think that if we are in a place that is supposed to be all about our relationship with God, the laws of God will guide those in leadership. Sadly, it is not always the case.
Certainly that little widow with her two copper coins expected integrity on the part of the people in the temple. She gave abundantly even in the midst of her poverty, the very kind of person that an unscrupulous scribe could cheat without much societal push-back, because she believed in the institution as a place of God, a place of God’s law. She gave in faith, with a ridiculous generosity, because that is what God asks of us, since he, too, has been ridiculously generous to us. It was her expectation that those coins would go to the work of the temple, not only in the religious ceremonies, but in caring for the less fortunate. They didn’t have gift cards to Target or Giant, but they distributed funds to those in need. And by and large, the synagogues did precisely that. The majority of scribes were not dishonest, they did their work appropriately. Most widows were not victims.
But Jesus’ teaching today reminds us that we who are the church have a responsibility to behave in a way that is not like the bad scribes. We have the right to expect that Saint Middle School will follow the laws of God and the laws of the land. We have the right to expect good stewardship from those of us in positions of leadership. And that is what we as a faith community live every day.
There may be no parish in the diocese that operates as efficiently. As a percentage of income, this is one of the most generous parishes, giving much to local charities, to international mission, and to people in need. Through the Alternative Gift Fair, we have raised and distributed over $100,000 to benefit our community. And many days, we receive calls from folks who are struggling, and we can offer them a little bit of help and prayer, because of your generosity.
It’s a generosity that recognizes that God’s generosity is so much greater than anything that we can offer. And it’s an act of faith, just as the widow’s offering was a gift of faith. It is predicated on your belief that your faith family will act as Christ taught us, and that your actions make a difference in bringing the Kingdom of God to fruition.
So as you consider your pledge for the coming year, think about a couple of things.
First, God has been, as I said before, ridiculously generous to us. He gave us the goodness of creation, the beautiful world around us. He has loved us even as we were at our most unlovable. And he gave us Jesus to save our very souls. His only expectation was that we love him back.
Second, the church has been the place that has helped us connect to that loving God, to help us with our questions, to share God’s word and love and support each other in our joys and sadnesses. Our hour or two together on Sunday mornings may have more to do with the health of our hearts and souls than anything else we do during the week, feeding us in ways we may not always even realize.
Last, the work of the church is not simply the care of us here in this room, it’s the care of all those who need to be here in this room, but who just haven’t found us yet.
So think about the way religious institutions are supposed to be, not the ones that Jesus decried, but the one that the widow hoped for – a place of caring, of righteousness, of teaching, of celebration – and contribute as ridiculously generously as you can, so Saint Middle School can continue to be that kind of family of faith, doing the work Jesus bade us to do in the way that God has ruled us to do, with love, with righteousness, with humility.