Hannah and 2%, The Widow's Mite
Stewardship Sunday Mark 12:38-44
(Also Pentecost 23B)
People watching is a favorite pastime of mine, and I think it is a favorite pastime yours. It is a pleasure to go to different situations and watch people, especially when they don’t know you are watching them. We all watch people and have a delightful time doing so.
It is great to go people watching at the Opera House in Seattle. The action doesn’t happen before the opera but during intermission. Then the women parade in their long elegant black dresses for everyone to see. It is great people watching. The other night, my wife and I went to a political rally, and it, too, was great people watching. People wore messages on their T-shirts, hats, and signs they carried. They had a special section for the VIPs, and those VIPs looked rich. Still anther place for people watching is at a professional wrestling match in the Tacoma Dome, and those people at the professional wrestling match don’t look at all like the people at the opera or political rally. It is great sport to go people watching and we all enjoy it.
Another good place for people watching is when you are driving on the freeway. The freeway is really a good place for people watching. You can pull up your car along side of anther car and watch them for one or two minutes. You can see people actually reading the newspaper; women putting on make-up, and almost everybody talking on cellular phones. In the old days, I used to brush my teeth in the car on the freeway, just to give the people in the car in the next lane a laugh.
Another good place for people watching is here at church, especially during Holy Communion. I realize that you are supposed to be serious and spiritual during Holy Communion, but a whole bunch of you are people watching. You people sitting in the front have a distinct advantage because you can watch everyone who walks by. As a pastor, I have the best view because I am closest to people kneeling and I can watch their tears, their joy, the loving gesture between a man and woman, a mother’s caress of a child, hand holding, arm holding, beaming smiles. I have a good seat for people watching during Holy Communion.
In college days, Holy Communion was the worst because the center aisle was five times as long as our center aisle, and you had to stand there in that center aisle for what seemed like an eternity, and you knew everybody was watching you. I felt very self conscious, so I tried to walk evenly and smoothly, with a trace of a smile. Then going back against the grain, going back looking into the faces of the congregation, this was the worst and I tried to show a trace of forgiveness on my face, a contentedness in my demeanor. On the other hand, it was a great place for “chick watching.” The bulletin said it was Holy Communion, but for us guys, it was a wonderful place to size up the ladies and plan for future dates.
The Bible story is a people-watching story, and we have to get into the mood of people watching in order to enjoy the story. First I would like to tell you about the setting. The Bible tells us that Jesus was teaching the Temple. This temple was huge, being built by Herod the Great. Now, I am aware that you think of him as Herod, the Killer of little boys two years and under, but the history books remember him as Herod the Great. One of the reasons he was so great is that he was a great builder. In 20 B.C., he rebuilt the temple and it was magnificent. It was 150 long, 75 feet wide, and l50 feet tall. Yes, 150 tall; that is nearly twenty stories tall. It took 1000 wagons and 10,000 workers to construct it during one and a half years. It was by far the most magnificent building around. It was the spiritual center of the Jewish religious life, but the temple was also the social center. It was like a market place where everyone sold their goods and wares. If you wanted a good time, you went to the temple where all the people were.
Jesus had been at this crowded, noisy temple all day, arguing with the religious big shots, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus was tired out, and so he came over and sat down on a bench near the side of the wall such as you would sit on a bench in a museum, against the wall. It was a great place for people watching.
According to my research, on one wall of the temple, there were thirteen offering boxes. These offering boxes were like suitcases, except they were made out of metal. They were big metal boxes and there was a slit in the top of those boxes so people would come and place their offerings through the slit on the top. There were little signs on each of the offering boxes: one said building maintenance; another said utilities; another said rabbis’ salary; another said widows and orphans. There were thirteen different line items that you could you’re your offerings to. And this room was absolutely jammed with people for people watching.
Now, about that time, in my imagination, “he” came riding to the temple on the best camel you ever saw and parked it in the camel parking lot in the front. You should have seen him. He was lovely. He was dressed in purple and fine silk. The man had a cumber bund around his waist, a toga cloth around his shoulder, and pure leather sandals on his feet. By looking at him, and he wanted to be looked at, you could tell he was elegantly rich with a gold necklace and gold rings and a gold bracelet. You can always tell a rich man by his shoes and this man had the best sandals you have ever seen. He walked right into the center of the building and everybody watched when he pulled out his checkbook. When he pulled out a note, everyone knew this is not nickel, dime and dollar stuff. This was a big time giver. He wrote out his note, like a checkbook, with a flourish, ripped it from his notebook, pompously walked over to the offering boxes, and dropped his note in the slot with a flair. Jesus was watching, and so were his disciples. Jesus nudged his disciples and everybody smiled.
But before you could count to five, there was a Jewish rabbi who came sauntering into the temple. You could tell this man was religious; I mean, really religious. He had those Hasidic curls draping down the sides of his face; he wore a long black beard and a matching long black robe with black onyx rings on his fingers, wearing black leather sandals, with a matching black skull cap and he carried a big black Bible scroll. This pious man came piously strolling into the temple with a prayerful look on his face. He looked religious. He glanced around the temple and saw that people weren’t watching him as he wanted them to, and so he pulled out ten large silver coins that he knew would make a large clank when he dropped them into the offering boxes. He dropped them slowly and distinctly: clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, and clank. By the third or fourth clank, everybody was watching. Jesus poked at his friends, and they all smiled as they watched.
Well, then came in a little old lady. No one noticed her. She was almost invisible to the busy, noisy crowd. She was humped over, wearing a brown skirt, brown blouse, brown apron, and brown shawl. She was obviously poor, looking like an old washerwoman. She was an old widow, in her mid-seventies, and walked slowly, like she had arthritic pain. She had a cane in her right hand, feeling the granite floor for edges, as she approached the offering boxes. Into a box, she dropped in two small coins, worth less than a penny. Jesus whispered to his friends as they sat quietly on the bench. (whispering) “Do you see that little old lady over there? She gave her last penny. Those other people gave from the abundance of their pocketbooks; they have plenty to live on, but that little old lady there, she gave from the abundance of her heart; she gave everything she had.”
Well, this is what happened one day when Jesus was people watching in the temple.
This little old lady is the model in the Bible of a person who is excessively generous. She is one of the four people in the New Testament who are living examples of what it means to give generously. First is Zacchaeus, the short little man who defrauded everybody around. Jesus came to his house and got into his heart, and Zacchaeus then announced he would repay everyone double the amount he stole from them and give half his goods to the poor. Zacchaeus gave way beyond what the law required; that’s what happens when Jesus gets into your heart. The second living example was Barnabus in the book of Acts who sold his property and gave the proceeds to a widow. Again, he was far more generous than the Old Testament law required. The third example of enormous generosity was the church in Macedonia. This congregation is described in II Corinthians 8 and 9, which is the classic passage on giving in the New Testament. The words, “enormously generous” or “rich in generosity” are repeated at least five times in this passage. And the widow who gave her two pennies, all she had, is the fourth example of enormous generosity in the New Testament.
I used to make a theological mistake with this widow and her widow’s mite. I used to think that she was an example of a person choosing poverty like a nun chooses to live a life of poverty. I gradually discovered that this is a passage, not about being poor and choosing poverty as a way of life, but this is another example of someone who was “enormously generous” even though she was poor.
Now, what was this little old lady’s name? Of all the people in the Bible, the Bible certainly would have recorded her name, wouldn’t it? What was her name?
Please tell me, what was her name? The Bible doesn’t bother to tell us. She is one of the most generous givers in the whole Bible, who gives it all away, and the Bible doesn’t even bother to tell us her name. We know the name of Zacchaeus and Barnabus and the church in Macedonia; but we don’t know her name. So, I am going to give her a name and call her Hannah.
Now, Hannah was in stark contrast to the other religious folk in the temple that day. She was in contrast to the Pharisees and Sadducees, in contrast to those elegant dressers in purple and black. The Sadducees and Pharisees were active church members; they worshipped regularly and they came to church often. The Pharisees and Sadducees were good, moral people but they were tight fisted with God. They had good incomes and gave far more money than Hannah, but they were far less generous. That is, they gave about 2%.
How do I know that they gave 2% of their income? That’s what average church people have usually given. I received a letter the other day from the Lutheran Church, and in that letter, it said that the average Lutheran in the United States gives about 2% of their income to charity. So the Pharisees and the Sadducees were about the average Jewish family of their day, giving about 2% in my mind.
Can you tell me why Lutherans only give 2% of their gross income to charity? Can you tell me why? I have never been able to figure it out, so if you can tell me why, would you do so after the worship service. Let’s not focus on the average Lutheran today; that is depressing. Instead, let us fix our vision on Hannah.
The question for today is this: why was Hannah so generous? Why was Hannah such a generous giver?
Hannah had four qualities, and these four qualities are marks of a generous person.
First, Hannah knew the Lord. She had a personal relationship with God. She was involved with daily prayer, and daily cleansing, and a daily walk with God. Hannah didn’t merely believe in the existence of God. Hers was a living relationship with God…. In the Epistle lesson for today; the Apostle Paul describes the church in Macedonia. The church in Macedonia was a generous church; these Christians gave excessively; and the Apostle Paul asks the question: Why? Why were they so generous with their money? The Apostle Paul answers: they first gave themselves to the Lord, and so it was with Hannah. She first gave herself to the Lord. You cannot be a generous giver if you have not given yourself to God first, and that is what Hannah did, and that was why she was such a generous giver. The Old Testament understands this: faithful Jews gave their first fruits and first lambs because they first gave their hearts to God. This profound awareness is found in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain gave some of his grain to God; Abel gave the first and best portion of his meat to God; and God was more pleased with Abel’s offering because he gave the first and best portion of his income. This revealed the inner workings of Abel’s heart to God. The way we give offerings reveals our inner hearts, and God knows the inner hearts of all of us, including Hannah. Why was Hannah such a generous giver? Because, like all generous givers, she first gave her heart to the Lord.
A second reason that I believe Hannah was so generous was that she realized how abundantly generous that God had been with her. Hannah had experienced the generosity of God. She may have experienced the good life, for a Jewish person. That is, she may have been married and had a husband who provided for her for many years before he died. She may have had a dozen children and four dozen grandchildren and she may have experienced the good life of a Jewish woman of that time. Or, maybe her husband died when she was thirty years old or maybe she never had children at all. Maybe she was always poor and her husband left her nothing to live on. But in either situation, Hannah still felt this sense of gratitude towards God. She knew that everything she had, and it wasn’t much, in the eyes of the world, was a gift from God. … Hannah and the Hannahs of life feel this way. The Hannahs of life know that everything is a gift from God: our abilities with which we make money; our brains, our work habits, our health, our good fortune, our abilities to make a decent income. The Hannahs of life know this. If you are a generous giver, you know this deeply within your inner person: it is all a gift from God. …But, if you are walking around with the feeling in your heart that everything you have is mine; everything I have I have earned with my abilities and my work and my good fortune and my good work habits, then chances are you are not like Hannah. Hannah? She knew deeply that everything she had was a gift from God.
The third reason that Hannah was so generous was that she was a mature, religious person. She wasn’t a beginner. She wasn’t a shallow believer. She wasn’t a novice. She was a mature follower of the ways of God. I have personally noticed that again and again, it is the mature Christians who are the generous givers. By mature, I mean that they walk with God, talk with God, know the Bible, kneel to receive the Sacrament, and give of themselves in so many ways to others. There is maturity in their discipleship, a depth of piety, a depth of prayer, a depth of commitment to Christ and his values. Their Christianity is not a Sunday only Christianity; it is not a fair weather Christianity; it is not a habit Christianity inherited from their parents. You don’t have to tell Hannah what the Bible teaches about money because Hannah already knows what God wants and teaches in the Bible. She knows what is in the Bible and lives according to the Bible regarding her family life, her prayer life, and her married life. Hannah knows what is in the Bible and does it, because she is a mature Christian. Hannah, without reading II Corinthians 8:1, knows that God’s grace is the power that worked in the lives of the people in Corinth, and if anyone is a generous giver, it is because of God’s grace at work. Guilt only produces 2% or less.
Fourth. Hannah knows that she will have more than enough to meet her own needs after she has given her offerings. You don’t have to tell Hannah that. You never had to say to Hannah: “After you give your generous offerings, you will have more than enough to meet your needs.” You don’t have to tell Hannah that because she has lived that kind of life for so many years. … It is interesting to me that in my nearly twenty-five years of parish ministry, I have never met a generous giver who complained about lack of food, lack of clothing, or lack of the basic necessities of life. Not once in my twenty-five years have I heard a generous giver seriously complain about the lack of basic necessities. There is a man who today who told me this story a long time ago: he was a child, six years old, and his father died and his family was dirty poor; and they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. Miraculously, a lady from the church came with a basket of food and the family was able to eat. He said, ever since that basket of food, I knew that God would meet our needs, and I became a tither.
In conclusion, I ask you two questions. One question is easy and the other question is hard. The first question is easy: why was Hannah so generous? And now the hard one: What would it take for you and me to be like Hannah? That question is not so easy at all. Amen.
The children’s sermon was good. The children were up front; they were asked what the offering plate was. A pizza pan? A flying saucer? An upside down hat? The kids all knew that these were offering plates. I then asked for a volunteer and had that child sit in the plate and I put that child on the altar, as if they themselves were the offering to God. I shared with the children that this is what God wants most: for us to give ourselves as an offering to God
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