WIDOWS’ MITES AND BURIED TREASURE?
a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, February 11, 2018
First-century Israel was a place and time of ferment and unrest. And in that place there was teacher and resister of the power of the foreign empire controlling his homeland. He was also a preacher, calling his people to life undegraded by the warping influence of that empire. This man is commonly known in English-speaking lands as Jesus. Jesus often taught through parables, stories that his followers didn’t understand very well. One of those stories goes something like this:
A businessman was preparing to go on a long trip. He called his employees together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first employee went to work and doubled his boss’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand put it in a safe to prevent theft, loss, or careless use of the money.
After a long absence, the boss came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His boss praised him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. I’ll make you my business partner.’
The employee with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his boss’s investment. His boss commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. I’ll make you a partner too.’
The employee given one thousand said, ‘Boss, I know you hate carelessness, that you make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I locked the money in the safe to secure it against theft, loss or careless use. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
The boss was furious. ‘It’s offensive to let your fear dominate you like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to put it in a money market fund, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. You’re fired.’
How many of you heard this story when you were young? How many of you thought the one who got fired got a raw deal? I always did. After all, the boss decided how much to give into their care based on their abilities. That is, he knew their abilities, so what kind of a lousy boss was he that he did not also know their personalities, their weaknesses? And it doesn’t tell the whole story, either, does it? What would the boss have done if the investment of the first employee had cone south, as they say. What if he had invested in real estate right before the bubble burst? What if he had invested in stocks that had been increasing in value for months and then, in a market crash he lost everything? Not all the possibilities or likelihoods are in the story. Would the boss have made a partner of the employee who, in risking the most, lost it all? I don’t think that would have made for a happy homecoming!
Of course, the story has gotten used a lot of ways is its two thousand years. It is a basic stewardship sermon, right? A steward is someone entrusted with wealth or resources that do not belong to the steward. Given to them for safekeeping. Outside of religious congregations, the word “stewardship” is, perhaps, most used, to refer to the way we act to protect and preserve the natural world and the resources in the world. It makes most sense to us today when we refer to the natural world because we live in a time when people are more concerned with building their own stock portfolio and taking financial risks animates many in their personal lives, not just in our lives as employees. The story has also been used to preach against living fearfully, grasping for unattainable security rather than living more fully through taking calculated risks.
These are fine uses of the ancient story. In my title I used the phrase “buried treasure” to imagine a connection between the story and the general cultural motif of finding a stash, perhaps stolen and stored for later retrieval by pirates, the motif of coming on something unexpected that one has done nothing to earn, thereby solving all one’s money concerns. A bit of magic, if you will. Like leprechauns’ gold. But if we are to be realistic, we know that buried treasure almost never saves the day. The way the ancient story is preserved, though is nestled among other stories.
Right before this parable, there is the story of the wise unmarried women and the foolish. The wise ones prepare their lamps and are ready when darkness comes while the foolish ones didn’t prepare and, as a result, get locked out of the banquet. Immediately after the story of the demanding boss comes the story about the metaphorical separation of the sheep and goats, the good and the bad, who are separated from each other on the basis only of whether they have provided care for those in need and in despair. “The least of these…” The story of the mean boss and the untimely dismissal of the employee who squirreled away resources, in this context, it not just about finances, but about preparation and justice. Together the stories tell us that all of our resources and all of our actions are part of a moral universe in which our own well-being ultimately depends on our preparation, our management of resources of all types, and our care for others. We live in a network of relationships that call us to responsibility for each other in the way we use time, talent and treasure. And the story about the demanding boss brings some needed relativism into the moral universe. We don’t all get dealt the same hand. But the hand we get dealt is the one we are responsible for playing.
The other story that I reference in my sermon title, the story of the widow’s mite gives us even more context. Jesus is sitting with his followers where they can see people put their contributions in the box at the temple. The leaders of the community come along dressed to the nines, making sure everyone sees their generosity, making a big show of their piety. And then, along comes a poverty stricken widow who puts two pennies into the box. Mites is the name of these coins of tiniest value, in older translations. Pennies are the closest to nothing coin we have today. Obviously, her contribution amounted to nothing in the grand scheme of things. It certainly didn’t pay the administrator’s salary or replace windows that were old and ineffecient. But Jesus tells his followers that she gave more than the leaders of the community because the level of generosity is not a measure in dollars but in proportion to the available resources. This widow had given more – even though it seemed like nothing.
This too is a story that has been used and misused through the millennia. Probably the biggest misreading of the story has been using it to teach or demand that people give “sacrificially,” that is, give beyond their means. The story itself contains no such directive. Rather, the story again stresses the relative value of money, rather than its absolute worth, and, by extension, the relative value of other resources. The one who has little can still exercise generosity of spirit that is meaningful and, perhaps, even world-changing because generosity is a function of proportions rather than absolutes.
The story has been used to say that what is in the heart is more important. It’s the thought that counts. But the story does not support this interpretation. The widow’s intentions are completely unknown. But we know the relation of the two pennies to her life. The story has been used to illustrate the absolute duty of almsgiving, giving to provide for the poor. But, again, the story does not support this, as the person whose giving is noted is, herself, in need of alms. As I said earlier, it is a story that has been improperly used to promote giving that one cannot afford. But all of those misinterpretations ignore its context: the rich community leaders against whom the poor widow is a foil, someone set in contrast.
These particular wealthy community leaders are described as using their position to take advantage of those with lesser means. In the colorful metaphor of Jesus, “They devour widows’ houses.” Put in the context the story itself gives, the widow’s giving is not just a recognition of the relative value, the relative generosity of what one gives. Rather it is a condemnation of a system that values profit over people, a condemnation of a culture that reveres wealth and considers poverty a moral failing. It damns the person who uses their power and position to avoid paying their bills, who acts as if the obligation to build a society where all prosper and all share in mitigating the losses that damage lives.
These are only two stories of the first-century teacher and resister against the powers of oppression. There is more context to be had in the ancient writings. But for now, for this moment, I would like to bring in a more recent bit of holy writ on the subject of money. Remember Hello, Dolly!? The 1964 Broadway musical based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce The Merchant of Yonkers (which Wilder revised and retitled The Matchmaker in 1955). The musical follows the story of the inimitable Dolly Gallagher Levi (a strong-willed matchmaker), as she travels to Yonkers to find a match for the miserly Horace Vandergelder. Do you remember what Dolly said about money? “Money,” she said, “money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”
Just as Dolly sees a mission for money, from which value comes, as we prepare to enter our annual pledge drive here in this Fellowship, we realize that the money we will raise and hope to raise has value in the context of a particular mission. Last year we voted for a new mission statement, which calls us to:
- Grow a loving, active and welcoming community, practicing grace and understanding in all we do.
- Contribute to the creation of a kinder and more just world through consistently courageous action as an ally and defender of the marginalized and oppressed.
- Expand our commitment to the stewardship of our planet for future generations through personal and congregational action.
- Build our fellowship into an essential resource for liberal religion in the Valley by providing for the spiritual development of adults and children.
- Invest in the future of our Fellowship through personally significant commitments of our time, talents, and resources.
Perhaps, we would not think of these actions as calling for resources like manure to fertilize them. But they are reasons, values that call us to contribute of ourselves, to contribute in proportion to what we have for the values that we declared together that we share. Let’s make young things grow! Let’s seek justice! Let’s become an essential resource for liberal religion in the Shenandoah Valley. Let’s contribute to making the world a kinder place. Let’s build a society that protects the vulnerable. Let’s practice grace and grow in understanding of each other and ourselves and the world we share. Let’s take courageous action as allies for the marginalized and oppressed. We have values that call us to participate and contribute from all our resources.
It is all in context. Relative. To be understood in a community of shared values. Our giving, our investing, our saving, our doing is all made meaningful in accountable relationship with each other.
I’d like to leave you with a little challenge. In a recent workshop I attended, we were asked to name our “philanthropic hero.” That is, name the person whose example of giving in its many facets and caring for well-being other than their own has inspired you. And after we spent some time telling each other about these heroes, we were asked something much more difficult: to say whose philanthropic hero we are. The first question, I ask for our brief sharing now. The question of whose hero you are, I ask that you take with you and consider.
Who is your philanthropic hero? Your hero in meaningful sharing large or small. My hero in generosity is…
 Paraphrased from Matthew 25:14-30 (MSG)
 Luke 20:45-21:4
© 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley