“God is the Original Giver”
25th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 27B)
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “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.”
1. God is the original giver
There are many different places we can look for inspiration to give. Stories in fiction and non-fiction might spur us on to greater generosity or boldness. We might turn to family members who gave us presents through the years. Or we could turn to wealthy philanthropists who support charities and foundations. Or, on this Veterans Day, we might look to the sacrifices made by our military personnel through the centuries.
All of these are human examples of different ways of giving. But the impulse to give, the desire to share goodness with someone else, when you don’t have to, that doesn’t just come from the human heart. It comes from God.
God is the original giver. God breathed life into the universe in creating the sun, moon, stars, and the earth. God gave a covenant of love and faithfulness to Abraham. God gave the Law to Moses. God gave a kingdom to David. And because God loved the world so much, God gave us the Son, Jesus Christ, “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile the whole world to God” (BCP, 361), “so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” (John 3:16, CEB).
So throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, he cannot help but give to those in need. He gives abundantly and generously at every turn because he is God in the flesh and God is a giver. This culminates in Jesus giving his life on the Cross.
2. Jesus is the widow who gives to the undeserving
But well before the Crucifixion, Jesus tried to teach his disciples about the character of God as the ultimate giver. Like any good teacher, he would not only model with his behavior but also tell stories and make examples.
In our Gospel story today, Jesus sits down and watches others give to the Temple. He sees the rich come by, showing off as they give their large sums. And he watches as a poor widow deposits her last two pennies into the treasury. He praises her for giving “everything she had, all she had to live on.”
I don’t actually advocate anybody giving away their last bit of money or the things they need to survive on, and I’m not sure that Jesus is either. I wonder if Jesus is trying to teach us something through type.
Sometimes, when we read the Bible, it is helpful to ask questions like: Which character would Jesus be in this story? Which character would Israel be in this story? Which character would I be in this story?
In this story, I think Jesus would be the widow. We might find ourselves in the rich people or in the crowd, but Jesus would definitely be the widow. He, if no one else, knows what it is like to be poor, overlooked, and mistreated. He knows what it is like to give everything he has, even his very life. Jesus can identify with the widow’s sacrificial act of giving that is so generous as to be considered foolish.
Right before he begins watching the treasury, Jesus warns the disciples about the scribes, who serve the Temple by creating copies of the Bible. He isn’t criticizing their work, but their attitude. He says that they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
This is all a way of saying that the Temple leaders are proud and hypocritical. They amass wealth for themselves at the expense of the poor and needy. Jesus calls out the Temple for its corruption and its exploitation of the weak and lowly. The leaders live extravagant lives while the people who support them suffer. Can you think of some religious leaders today who fit that bill?
But Jesus admires the widow who gives everything she has to an institution that won’t use it well. He admires the widow who gives to people who do not deserve her gift. To me, this doesn’t sound like financial advice for direct application, but theological advice. We’re getting some insight into Jesus’ mind, into the mind of God.
Just like the widow, Jesus gives everything he has for people that do not deserve it and will never appreciate it. He gives his life for the benefit of selfish, sinful people. Many have called this level of sacrifice foolish and foolhardy. St. Paul expresses this idea in Romans 5: “6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
But again, giving is at the heart of God’s character. God is the ultimate giver. So God gives even to the undeserving, even when it is foolish because God is love. And love and grace seem crazy to the apathetic and scornful. Again, in the words of St. Paul, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
God’s giving comes from love. Love is the driving force of all God’s activity, and God is calling us to follow in the path of love.
3. The Church doesn’t always deserve your gifts, but God is faithful
Here’s what this means. We who lead the church work hard to maintain our integrity and to do right by everyone, but the church is made of people and people are not perfect. Sin infects even God’s Church.
Even if we try our hardest to avoid the corruption, pride, and hypocrisy that Jesus condemned in Jerusalem, we can never fully escape the power of sin in our hearts. Human institutions are always fallible.
Now, St. Matthew’s and the Diocese of Georgia have lots of sensible controls in place to try to prevent any hint of financial wrongdoing. We can talk in detail about those preventative measures in a different time, but each of them is rooted in our firm belief that no one is above sin and temptation.
But by God’s grace, people continue to give to support the church because they continue to see the light of Christ shine through our broken vessels. Through generosity and faith in God, we can spread love to our neighborhoods and communities. We can become beacons of hope in an increasingly hopeless world.
And this only makes sense if we believe that our hope lies in something greater than church buildings, and budgets, and pledge campaigns. Our hope lies in God, the ultimate giver.
We can give out of love and gratitude for all of God’s gifts to us. We can imitate the Great Giver in pouring out love through our time, talent, and treasure. And we can pray together that the Holy Spirit will guide the church’s stewards to manage our gifts wisely and faithfully.
God is more faithful than we can ever hope or imagine to be. God’s promises never fail, and so when we put our hope in God, we can rest assured that our giving won’t be in vain. Amen.
Lacy, Lonnie, and Cynthia Taylor. “The ‘Why’ of Stewardship.” Sermon delivered at the 197th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, Albany, GA, 9 November 2018.