Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost November 11, 2012

One of the hot topics in the presidential election was the economy, specifically taxes. Mitt Romney was criticized in President Obama’s ads as wanting to cut taxes for the wealthiest portion of our society and raise taxes on those least able to afford them – the middle and lower classes. President Obama was criticized for getting the country into so much debt that every person in the United States now owed $51,000 to pay off the debt. He would have to raise taxes to pay down some of the debt, and it would be a big hardship on everyone. Obama consistently maintained that he would raise taxes only on the wealthiest citizens.

Regardless of whom you voted for, it is clear to everyone that the economy is a mess. Working and middle class Americans do pay more as a percentage in taxes than wealthy Americans who have huge tax breaks. People are suffering from joblessness, foreclosures, the inability to send their kids to college and other financial woes. Our leaders have not done a good job restoring the economy. In many cases, they have said one thing and done another. They have been hypocritical in the service of political expediency, and we are not surprised. We wish the system was fairer to all Americans, giving us services and taking our money in appropriate amounts, but unfortunately that isn’t the way it works. 

In our story today, Jesus laments a corrupt religious and economic system. This vignette is part of Jesus’ conflict with religious leaders including the cleansing of the temple. This time the people that come in for criticism are the scribes. As has happened in Israelso many times before, what the religious leaders say and what they do are two separate things. They say long prayers, hoping to show God how righteous they are, but they act in a very arrogant manner. They like to be noticed in the secular sphere. They wear ornate robes so people will know who they are, and they like to be treated with respect in the marketplace. They also want advantages in the religious sphere – they want the best seats in the synagogue and important places during the religious feasts. Not only are they arrogant, their practices are specifically against the Law of Moses. They “devour” widows’ houses instead of taking care of the widow, the orphan, the resident alien and the poor, which is the definition of righteousness. They use the proceeds from these sales to support their lifestyles. The scribes will receive the greater condemnation because they have fallen down on their responsibilities to the community and they have used the name of God to do it. 

This religious system is one that is hypocritical, and we can all join together in our scorn for hypocrites. But we need to be careful. Many people outside the church say that they don’t go to church because the church is full of hypocrites. And they are right. The church as an institution is made up of sinful human beings who have sometimes damaged the physical, emotional and spiritual lives of our own people and others outside the flock. Think of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, slavery, or the refusal of the Catholic Church to come out strongly against Germany in World War II. There is plenty of evidence to show that the church is not perfect. But the church is the Body of Christ on earth, and it is what we have to do the work of the kingdom through the grace of Jesus Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit. It is an institution that can be made more holy through our efforts by grace to be a holy people, righteous before God. 

Jesus sat across from the treasury and watched the people who were giving their money to support their religious institution and especially its symbol, the temple. There were rich people who were putting a lot of money into the containers that collected the contributions. They were metal and when you put a lot of money in, they made a lot of noise. People could hear how much you gave and nod in approval. But there was one contribution that didn’t make any noise at all. A widow slipped up to one of the receptacles and put in two copper coins. Jesus commented that the widow’s contribution was worth more than all the rich people’s contributions because they gave out of their abundance and she gave all she had to live on. They gave out of their leftovers and she gave her best. 

Why would the widow give everything she had to live on? That would really make her dependent on a system that was not helping her. Some commentators say that in talking about the widow, Jesus was lamenting the corrupt system that demanded too much of those who could not afford it. Maybe she was a widow the scribes had taken advantage of. Yet she felt she had to show her commitment to God regardless of the problems she may have had with the institution. To give everything she had meant she had complete trust in God to provide for her, even if the scribes were not. Her giving was sacrificial. The giving of the rich was considered to leave them with plenty of money to live on. What they gave was not a sacrifice to them. Jesus praised the woman for her giving spirit. 

Not long ago, the “Today Show”’s financial advisor provided a guide for earmarking money to be fiscally responsible. Sixty per cent should go to overhead – fixed costs like mortgage or rent, utilities, food, clothing etc. 10% should go into savings, 10% should go for emergencies, 10% for long term planned purchases and 10% for fun. Nowhere was there any mention of charitable giving. Not a dime was saved out to give to organizations to better society. That’s amazing to me. There are many people of many faiths and of no faith who give money to good causes. The financial advisor needs another category, and the pie needs to be divided differently. For us as Christians we believe that our whole selves belong to God, that God created us and we are God’s children. One of the ways we try to be holy people before God is to give of our time, talent and treasure to the church. That means we have a percentage in our budget that we give to the church and other charitable causes. 

A good way to look at this notion might be to imagine ourselves not as the widow who gave all the money she had, not as the scribes who took everything they could take and not even as the rich people, who may have given with deep intent to honor God or with the purpose of looking good before others. Emilie Townes suggests that we imagine ourselves as the two copper coins instead. They “represent more than just money”, she says, “but faith and belief that must be lived out in concrete acts...We present all of who we are and hope to become to God for service to the world.”  At St. John’s we just did a survey that asked people where they used their time and talents and what they wanted to see us continue to do in terms of mission. We asked ourselves what we were willing to participate in to put forward the mission of the whole church, which is to spread the Good News of God in Christ to all people. Many people offer long hours and great talent to this place to be God’s hands and feet on the earth.

The other gift we offer to God is our treasure. We offer money that helps keep our work of worship, pastoral care, service to others, evangelism and fellowship going. We offer money that strengthens us for our work in the world and that works to have others join us in our community of worship and service, as our mission statement says. There is always the question of how much to give. The biblical standard of giving is the tithe; the first 10% of what we have goes for God’s work in the world. If we feel that 10% is too much, we can still look at percentage giving. A card to help you work with percentage giving came with your pledge card. Whatever we give, it is important that we see we are God’s own, that our commitment to God comes first in our lives. That’s what God wants from us in all our thoughts and actions – a promise to honor God above everything else. We are not asked to give all our money as the widow did, but we are not supposed to give the leftovers either. Our pledge is to be our first fruits, to come off the top of our financial resources. It is to come out of our gratitude to God for our many blessings. Pledging is a spiritual discipline. It helps us grow closer to God. This year, we are asking you to increase your pledge if at all possible. We have had budget shortfalls for the past several years, and we have drawn increasingly on our reserves. We do a remarkable amount of ministry here, and we would like to continue doing that. As you prayerfully consider your pledge for 2013, we ask that you honor God by putting God first in your life and give as much as you are able to God’s work at St. John’s.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker