“All gave some, but some gave all.” It’s a line in an old Billy Ray Cyrus song which often makes it into the country music playlist this time of year, Veterans Day. The lyric came to mind when I read this weekend’s scripture passages about the poor widow who showed hospitality to Elijah, and the poor widow who contributed her last two coins to the temple treasury.
I’ve heard two different interpretations of that Gospel passage. One is a foundation for the concept of “sacrificial giving,” the idea that we are called to give to God not out of our surplus but out of our sustenance. It’s the idea that we ought to feel the sacrifice, to do without so that others may have.
When I was in high school I participated in a weeklong service project in Appalachia, which is a poverty-plagued area of southwestern Virginia. It is coal mining country, with very little else to fuel its economy. The conditions in which many people lived (then and now) were unbelievable in the 20th century. I worked on a home that did not have indoor plumbing.
As part of our week in southwest Virginia, we learned about the culture of the mountain people, their gifts, and their poverty. We also practiced sacrifice. We did not eat meat while we were there, but instead ate the foods that the poor were likely to eat: hoppin john, macaroni, peanut butter sandwiches. Our sacrificial giving gave us a sense of solidarity with those who truly had nothing. For me, this is one of the greatest benefits of sacrificial giving.
The other spiritual benefit of sacrificial giving (alluded to in the story of Elijah and the widow) is that when I am called to give from my sustenance, I have the opportunity to see how God continues to provide. I have more recent experience with this. I have always given a certain amount of money each month to my church for the regular collection and also for the building fund. I set it up so that it is automatically drafted from my bank account each month. I hardly noticed the draft when I was part of a two-person, two-income couple. But when I had my first child and quit my job, I prayed about it and decided to keep the draft amount the same. God continued to provide.
Since then I’ve had seasons of employment and seasons of wondering how I was going to pay the bills, especially when I first became an underemployed single mother of three. But I’ve kept that auto draft amount constant, as a sign to myself of my faith in God’s providence, which has never failed me. The jar of flour has not gone dry (even if I’ve eaten more than my fair share of pasta and hot dogs from time to time).
Today I have a steady income and making just enough for my needs to be met, and I keep the sacrifice constant because I know that God will provide.
But there is another interpretation of that Gospel story of “the widow’s mite,” one that has nothing to do with sacrifice. Some commentators argue that the story is Jesus’ critique of the Jewish temple hierarchy extracting money from the poorest of the poor, while building extravagant temples which only the priests could enter.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets,” Jesus says. “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”
Perhaps both interpretations have merit. That is the wonderful richness of our sacred scripture – that it has so many facets of meaning. I find it interesting that the Old Testament and New Testament passages are paired with an epistle that talks about Jesus’ sacrificial giving.
Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (who knew a thing or two about temple sacrifice) tells us that Jesus made only one offering. He offered himself as the final sacrifice. He did so not in an earthly sanctuary, but in the eternal spiritual sanctuary of heaven itself.
This trio of readings offers me a few clear messages:
My earthly sacrifices cannot and do not compete with the single sacrifice of Christ. I can’t sacrifice my way to Heaven, because He already did that.
Even so, the discipline of sacrificial giving has many spiritual benefits for me, especially the increased faith and trust in God’s providence and a sense of solidarity with people who live in poverty.
These benefits are personal, just as my giving is personal. It’s between me and God, and it is a free and willing choice. I have no right to impose that choice on others, especially those who have very little and would be giving out of their sustenance. I’m not Elijah. I can’t say to the poor, or to anyone for that matter, “Give what you have, God will provide for you.” Only God can speak to them in the quiet of their hearts and the stillness of their minds.
The benefits of sacrificial giving are there for all of us, rich and poor, if we willingly choose the path laid out in the Widow’s Mite. But none of us should use that interpretation as a justification for exacting a tax or imposing a guilt trip on anyone, especially those who have so little to begin with, or we are no better than the Scibes that Jesus rails against.
Forced giving robs people of the spiritual benefits of willing sacrifice. It’s no longer a gift. It’s extortion.
I was blessed for several years to be a part of my church ‘s stewardship ministry, and one of the things I learned is that “giving all” doesn’t necessarily mean “parting with.” I was at a conference on stewardship and the topic of tithing inevitably was discussed. The speaker made a very interesting statement that changed the way I look at giving. “Stewardship is not about tithing ten percent. It’s about how you are using the other 90%.”
Our Christian faith calls all of us to give some, and all of us to give all. We give some in the basket each week, whatever amount we arrive at in prayer. But we give all, as well, whether it is conscious or not, in the way we live our lives. God uses us exactly the way we are, sins and selfishness and all, to accomplish His will. The choice is not whether to allow God to use me. The choice is whether I decide to be a willing, active and aware participant in the process.
This weekends widows had no other choice because of their circumstances. I do. I can make that choice every morning when I wake up. It’s a comfort to know that even when I choose my way, I am still giving all to a God who uses me in spite of myself.