I remember the senior pastor I worked alongside in North Carolina telling me more than once, “Deborah, we don’t have to worry about challenging our church members too strongly with respect to their financial giving because Presbyterians definitely know how to hold onto their wallets.” Of course we do! If we pay attention, generally we know what we can afford and what we can’t. We also know how easily we can get in trouble financially when we forget what it is that we can afford and spend more than we have. In general, we know the level of generosity that is comfortable for us and the level of generosity that becomes uncomfortable for us. We know how to hold on to our wallets.
We each have a personal value system about how money is spent or saved, one that is often an outgrowth of what we learned as children. Perhaps you did not agree with the value system you were exposed to growing up, so as an adult, you intentionally shape a new value system regarding money. Or perhaps you saw the great benefits of the value system you were exposed to growing up, so you continue to employ a similar system of values with respect to your own wallet as an adult.
As we move through this season of Lent together, I do hope you are making use of the envelopes in your Lenten packet, one marked for each Sunday of Lent. The purple sheet with a scripture reading, reflection, discussion questions and a suggested prayer are worthwhile to ponder throughout the week. They were chosen specifically for HRPC from the complete Lenten devotional book by Rev. Jill Duffield, senior pastor at First Presbyterian in Greensboro, NC. She titles her devotional: Lent in Plain Sight. Duffield focuses each week on a different ordinary object. I want you to know that this week I sent a note to Rev. Duffield to let her know how we are making use of her devotional for our congregation during Lent 2021. She was thrilled and told me that my note made her week!
Thus far we have looked at the ordinary objects of ashes and oil. This week our ordinary object is coins. You can do a little exploring yourself about how often coins are mentioned in the New Testament. Look it up—only once in John, with the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, but coin or coins are mentioned in the other gospels several times. When you go broader and look at how often money is mentioned, you will find an entire column of citations in very small print in a concordance, with about half of them in the Old Testament and half of them in the New Testament.
Jesus has an opinion about coins. Like the rest of us, he carries a value system about how money is used which he expresses in several different encounters, in teaching the disciples, and in examples in preaching through some of his parables. The text we heard today from the gospel of Luke tells about the poor widow who contributes two small copper coins to the temple treasury. These are the smallest denomination of coins in the Greek empire, like a penny for us. The pennies that are worth so little that when people drop one by mistake, many do not even bother to pick up the coin at all. The widow could have purchased three grapes with her two coins. They would not even have been enough to purchase a sparrow for an offering in the temple. Almost nothing. Yet it was all she had. Jesus cares not about the amount of her gift, but about the motivation and the generosity of her spirit. What would she live on tomorrow? Somehow she trusts that help will come her way, and to her it is more important to give what she can while she is able. Tomorrow is another day with its own challenges and surprises.
Jesus lifts up the widow’s value system as he is sitting outside the temple watching worshipers file in. He describes her value system as one which views money, even a very small amount, as a means to show devotion to God. In the process, he clearly puts down the view of money held by the rich people who are also on their way into worship, the ones who carelessly drop money into the offering box. For the rich, it was simply skimming some money off the top, and any amount they put in would not have been noticed in their bank accounts or their wallets. Listen to this parable provided by NT Wright, a British scholar and preacher: suppose you have two balloons filled with air. One is quite small and the other is very large. You untie the balloons and release the same amount of air from both balloons. The small one is completely deflated, while the large one does not really look any different!
This temple treasury was a box for what we might call a free-will offering—worshipers could give what they wanted to give. The funds would have been used by the temple leaders to keep up the building, pay the priests, basically run the entire Jewish religious community. Some point out that this religious institution had a bad reputation of ignoring the needs of vulnerable people like poor widows, and that women like the one in this story definitely did not benefit from this kind of temple-centered economic system which was known for exploiting the vulnerable ones in society. Others say that the temple as an institution must not have exploited the vulnerable, or Jesus would have told her to keep her money instead of depositing it in the offering plate. Based on the descriptions we find elsewhere in the gospels, I tend to lean into the idea that the faith institution of Jesus’ day did exploit the poor. This makes me think of the people today who really don’t have money to spare who get sucked into giving and giving and giving to a televangelist, or maybe a radio religious personality, thinking their sacrificial giving will reap blessings for them as individuals or as a family while they run the risk of eviction or malnutrition. When an economic system centers on one pastor or one faith institution which takes advantage of poor families, that is a current day exploitation of faith-based generosity.
One Lenten practice worth trying is to take stock of your own value system around spending and saving coins of any value. It starts to really hit home when we ask ourselves questions like the ones Jill Duffield explores in one of her reflections in the Lenten devotional—some of them are questions Hunting Ridge (and many other congregations) have struggled with over the years, and even very recently. Questions like, should we maintain a comfortable nest egg so we will have the funds for a rainy day? After all, our building is old. Or instead, should we empty our accounts and spread the wealth to those in our community and beyond who are in financial need? What about the thousands of dollars spent on refurbishing an organ? Some will say—well, we got donations to cover the cost here at Hunting Ridge. And yes we did. But what is the value system at play in refurbishing an organ for our enjoyment instead of building a playground for children in the inner city, for example? And how about putting out money to redecorate the fellowship hall? Or to put in an elevator? Is it simply frivolous spending or perhaps a way to make our worship and fellowship spaces accessible to all? What about raising funds and setting aside annual budget dollars to fund a mission trip or to send our youth to conferences in the summer? Yes indeed, as Duffield says, “questions about money bring to the surface deeply held opinions and emotions”. Certainly, these kinds of debates illustrate our varied value systems, and quickly! Duffield shares a marvelous example: “I remember vividly a conversation with a fellow Presbyterian attending a workshop on stewardship. He told me how angry his father would get at his mother for taking a portion of their family’s crops and chickens’ eggs to the pastor. What his mother saw as faithful, his father saw as foolish.” What do you think? Was it faithful or foolish? It depends on your value system, on how you look at coins and spending and saving.
I am reminded of another event shared in Matthew’s gospel, the 26th chapter. It is getting close to the end of Jesus’ life. He is in Jerusalem having dinner at the home of Simon the leper (not Simon Peter the disciple!). A woman came in and poured a bottle full of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, anointing him in a very worshipful act. The disvalue system for money, were quick to get angry. They asked Jesus: “Why are you allowing this kind of waste of resources? If she has this expensive perfume and wants to honor you, why does she not sell it for a large sum and give the money to the poor?”
Remember, Jesus has a different value system for money. He berates the disciples for putting the woman down, telling them that she has performed a valuable act of devotion, pouring out her precious resource to essentially prepare him for burial. Jesus knows the end is coming. As a matter of fact, immediately after this event, Matthew tells us that Judas leaves the group and finds the chief priests, agreeing to betray Jesus into their hands. Jesus recognizes that the woman knows she should express her devotion while she can. Jesus is not going to be around forever. In Jesus’ mind, this is not a waste, but appropriate devotion. Faithfulness, not foolishness.
What is a faithful way to look at the coins we have at our disposal? What is a foolish way to look at them? We likely will have different answers. I wonder what we would learn about each other if we had conversations around the use of money in general and the use of money in the life of the church? Perhaps each of us would grow as we listen to others. Amen.