Stewardship of Each Other
Many Christian churches, on a particular Sunday in November, call it stewardship Sunday. So right from the start, I have to explain what the heck that means. Stewardship? Are we going somewhere, like, on a boat? And what’s a steward? Well, according to Webster’s Dictionary, a steward is:
1] One employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts)
2] An employee on a ship, airplane, bus, or train who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers
3] One appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution
4] One who actively directs affairs: manager
Okay, so put steward together with ship and what do you have? No, not bippity-boppity-boo…
Stewardship, remember? A word defined as:
The conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.
Apparently, it is all about focusing on all of our roles as managers or supervisors of something—maybe a house, maybe money; perhaps boats, cars, or trains; maybe food and drink; or maybe even…people.
Typically, on a stewardship Sunday, though, a church would focus on one thing: money. Oh yes—sometimes we do talk about money in the church! Well, at least we try to once a year. Look, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to hear someone preach at you about money. I’m with you. Maybe you’re thinking, Man, I do NOT want to hear another sermon about money. I am constantly bombarded with people selling me things and asking me for my hard-earned money. And besides, my money is my own business. Preacher Man, just preach on Jesus and leave my money alone.
Okay, will do. Let’s talk about Jesus today. But, I’m a little nervous about that, because uh-oh, it seems like Jesus didn’t follow our rules of avoiding money in sermons. But I guess we’ll make an exception. After all, he is Jesus, right? Okay, I’m being a little funny, but I’m also being truthful. Clearly, at times we have an avoidance issue in the church as it relates to money. But I think this particular story in Mark will help us. Really, I do. Because Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t ambiguous about this concept of stewardship–of being managers or caretakers of something. So let’s dive in.
Our passage begins with the word beware. So right away, we know that Jesus has experienced something earlier that rubbed him the wrong way. What was it? Well, it’s pretty clear. Remember the scene when Jesus enters the Jerusalem temple and starts tossing tables around like a WWE cagematch?
Well, this story is also about the temple. Scribes [named here] and priests were the ones in charge of the temple. But they weren’t just religious leaders or theology teachers and preachers. They were in the business of money, too. Scribes and priests got a cut from every temple sacrifice that people offered and collected five shekels of tax for every first-born child. Temple scribes and priests made it rain. And because they had money and charged taxes, eventually the temple scribes and priests figured out that they could also lend money to people. Of course, that meant that if someone borrowed money to pay for his home, the scribes and priests could foreclose his property.
So Jesus was not pleased. These religious leaders, who were supposed to be lifting up the poor, standing up for God’s justice, and showing mercy to people — were playing the exploitation game. And religion is a perfect tool to use for exploitation. So they went about exploiting, in their long robes, accepting with pleasure all the respect and compliments of people in the marketplace. They were honored, exalted, and praised.
Of course, in order to get wealthy and gain this high status, they had to step on a few people. I’m sure they devoured more than just widows, but Jesus chose to mention only widows here.The temple scribes and priests were exploiting their poverty, lending them money, charging them taxes, and bleeding them dry. And if ever anyone questioned their religious authority or started to smell a rat, they knew what to do. They stood up and prayed long, proud prayers. They schooled people in religious doctrine. That way, the people would all forget about the exploitation. That way, the scribes would get the best seats in the house and all the praise. Jesus was ticked off.
So Jesus broke another one of our rules. We’re not supposed to watch people as they give money to the church, right? I mean, I’m a pastor, and I don’t even know what people give to the church. It’s private. But Jesus was nosy. He sat down opposite the treasury of the temple and with eagle eyes looked at the people giving their offerings. Rich people put in some nice sums of moolah. But then one of those aforementioned widows came in. Jesus was already fuming, so you can imagine his angst when the widow [the word for widow in Greek means a person poor enough that she has to beg] plopped in her two copper coins. Seeing this as a teachable moment, Jesus called his disciples to him and said: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. The phrase truly I tell you is one you always have to pay attention to. When Jesus says that, it means that what is to follow is an important teaching. So the widow, according to Jesus, was all in. She gave her whole life, literally all she had to live on. Meanwhile, the others were putting in larger sums of money, but it didn’t really put a dent in their lifestyle.
The story ends like that and the sermon usually ends with this interpretation:
The widow gave all that she had and so should we. We should be inspired by her generosity to give more than just a little bit of what we have. We should be all in. We should be more generous. Happy stewardship Sunday, everyone! Cue 1-800-GIVE-MORE-TO-MY-CHURCH and hear scratching of pens on checks.
But the classic interpretation isn’t all that true to the actual story. Remember what happened before the widow dropped her coins in the treasury? Remember the temple’s system of exploitation, greed, taxation and a little religion mixed in for good measure? No, in Jesus’ book, the widow is no hero. She’s an anti-hero at best. Jesus doesn’t necessarily exalt the widow for the amount of money she gave. She puts in, according to Jesus, “more.” What is that more? Is it her devotion? Her faith? Her unselfishness? We don’t find out. But what Jesus does tell us is that he was upset–mostly that the woman had to give anything at all. Isn’t the church supposed to give TO the poor, not bleed them dry? Maybe it’s not the widow’s mite or her giving of money [money she desperately needed, by the way] that we should be applauding. Perhaps this story is not to be applauded at all.
I think this story is about Jesus economics, or as I like to think—the economics of caring. You see, in our society, we tend to think about economics in this way: if you have money, you are blessed. If you’re poor, you are cursed. We start to equate wealth with God’s favor and poverty with God’s absence. And yet, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and in Jesus’ NT teachings, God is a God of justice and stands with the poor. Wealth is equated with exploitation instead. Poverty is equated with being exploited. This is of course placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of humanity. If you are rich, don’t think you are somehow more blessed by God than someone who is not. Likewise, if someone is poor, remember how the majority of people become poor in the first place—someone exploits them.
In short, I shouldn’t have to remind us all, but we’ve bought into this idea of looking out for number one. As individuals, we protect what we have with every ounce of our strength. During this time when we’re told again and again that we live in an age of scarcity; when we’re bombarded with negative messages about the economy; when we’re seduced by the lure of wealth at any cost. Beware, says Jesus. Beware of such thinking. We are not isolated individuals pushing our way to the top and exploiting and praying at the same time. We’re meant to be neighbor-focused. We’re made to be community—a group of people connected because each person shares a mutual need and a mutual desire to care for the other.
In such a community, we don’t ask the widow to give all she has. Instead, we ask what we can do for her. In the economics of caring, we say on this stewardship Sunday, if you don’t have a lot of money, your gifts are just as important. So come, be part of this community, offer your gifts and talents; your time; your laughter; your honesty; your love; your wisdom; and that will be more than enough to bless. And then for those of us who can give, we give in order to love our neighbors—both here and out there. We give to lift up the single mom with two kids and no health insurance who needs to make a rent payment or she and the kids will be out on the street; we give so that all people—those who have never been to a church out of fear or discrimination or prejudice or abuse will feel welcome; we give to show hospitality to the stranger; to embrace the rejected; to share our whole selves with the needy world. And we don’t do it in a long prayer or with a long robe.
Friends, any temple, any church institution–is part of the widow’s story, relived today. We too walk this line. We have to pay the bills. We want to keep the lights on, so to speak. We want to pay salaries for staff so they can share their gifts of leadership and special skills and so they can make a living, too. We want to make repairs to the roof and keep the building from falling apart. We want to offer dynamic programs for learning, faith growth, and enlightening education. In and of themselves, none of these things are bad. But none of that supersedes our economics of caring. This community, all of you, is meant to be connected in love and care for each other and for the world. So how will we be good stewards of people? How will we love and care for our neighbors, the marginalized, the left out and forgotten, the pushed down, the exploited?
This is the more that we have to offer. This will bring renewal, life, blessing, justice, and love. Amen.