A lot of people who don’t know much about church or the Bible would know what you are talking about if you mention the widow’s mite. It’s a story of great sacrifice vs. great hypocrisy and it still grabs us. But we’re likely to say isn’t that nice but isn’t that impractical and what does it really have to do with anything?
A story like this only matters if you believe that what you do with your money shows what you have in your heart. Reba Bond, one of the saints of our church who died a few years ago believed that. When I looked through her Bible in preparation for the funeral service I found hand written note: To find out what you really love, read your check book. Or today it might be, your credit card bill.
And Jesus seemed to believe that where your treasure is, there your heart would be also. Why else would he talk about money and stewardship and material things so much? This teaching is so important that he calls all the disciples together to tell them about the widow and her gift. He puts a no-name, no-account widow who probably can’t read a word of scripture up against the big shots with the big bucks who know the law by heart and she gets it right. It’s not how much she gives, it’s not to what she gives – the temple by this time is a decadent institution that will soon be destroyed. And the story certainly does not imply that Jesus approves of the conditions that have caused a widow’s poverty.
But in this final story of Jesus’ public ministry before he begins the suffering that will bring him to the end of his life, Jesus says – again – what we do with our money grows our faith, or doesn’t. It is a spiritual thing. We make decisions about it every day – even children.
A church in Washington, D.C. took the teaching of this story very seriously when it was founded right after World War II by a man named Gordon Cosby. Cosby was an Army Chaplain who started Church of the Savior to emphasize spiritual growth (inward journey) and mission (outward journey). Instead of a goal to be a megachurch, its goal was to be small and poor and so it has spawned so far 11 little faith communities each with its own style of worship and special mission. (Google Church of the Savior Washington.)
History of Church of the Saviour….
The founding members took Jesus’ teaching about money seriously. They wrote a founding document that said, “We commit ourselves to giving 10 percent of our gross income to the work of the Church.”
There is precedence in biblical history for the tithe, 10 percent of income, and these first members agreed that giving in that way would help them to begin to address injustices of society in a way meaningful to themselves and others.
They asked an eminent theologian of the day, Reinhold Niebuhr, to read their proposed constitution and discipline and comment. He made only one suggestion and it was about the discipline on money. He said, “I would suggest that you commit yourselves not to tithing but to proportionate giving, with tithing as an economic floor beneath which you will not go unless there are some compelling reasons.” So, the members rewrote the discipline which still stands: “We covenant with Christ and one another to give proportionately beginning with a tithe of our incomes.”
I like it that their covenant includes Christ. Christ is the one, of course, who stands there watching the widow and the wealthy and everybody in between. You don’t have to be an accountant to figure 10 percent of a gross income, but the members of the Church of the Savior discovered that they had to get down on their knees before God to understand and do proportionate giving. Proportionate means in agreeable, harmonious, balanced relationship to the whole. The question is — What is our giving proportionate to?
• Proportionate to the accumulated wealth of one’s family?
• Proportionate to one’s income and demands upon it?
• Proportionate to one’s sense of security and the degree of anxiety with which one lives?
• Proportionate to one’s sensitivity to those who suffer?
• Proportionate to our sense of justice and of God’s ownership of all wealth?
• Proportionate to the legacy we want to leave for those coming after us?
The answer, of course, is proportionate to all of these things. For Church of the Savior, in its better moments, each member, seeking guidance of the Holy Spirit, decided what proportionate giving meant in his or her individual circumstances. The hope was, that the proportion of giving would increase the more the givers identified with the oppressed and learned to trust God more deeply and fully.
Overall, the discipline has served the church well. They kept a 10 percent floor for members and 5 percent for intern members. Many struggled with the minimum giving and some turned away. Others broke loose and showered the community with riches. The boundaries of the church’s mission have been expanded. Suffering of the city has been eased, a bit.
Giving has been sometimes excessive and ecstatic, sometimes impulsive — a diamond engagement ring dropped in the offering plate once, a silver service appeared at the door, a check for several thousand dollars representing the entire savings of a young couple.
In a sermon on money, the founding pastor preached that to give away money is to win a victory over the dark powers that oppress us. He said, “We need to grapple with the place of money in our lives at a level which is more profound than ever before. … I am not interested in raising a budget. If we had no budget at all it would be tremendously important for us to look at money, and how it relates to the Christian faith and to our life. Money is a hangup for many of us. We will not be able to advance in the Christian faith
until we have dealt at another level with the material. It is a matter of understanding what it means to be faithful to Jesus Christ.”
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Cosby’s teaching on money meant something in each congregation that grew out of Church of the Savior. Each one began with a nuclear of tithing members. All contributions are used in the missions of the church in the year that they are given. No money is put aside for a rainy day, following the word of Moses to his people as he led them out slavery: “No one must keep any of it for tomorrow” (Exodus 16:19).
Despite this radical and remarkable approach to giving and using of money, though the budgets are large by traditional standards, members know that they represent only a fraction of the potential giving of the congregation. With another disaster in Indonesia, we will see again something of the depth of our resources.
They still wrestle with fear when they consider giving with abandon. Most would say they are not as free from material possessions as they would like to be. Some wrestle with an inner division between the call of the heart says and the caution of the mind. They think of how their faithfulness in the past enabled God to perform miracles and wonder what is asked of them now. Elizabeth O’Connor writes, “One would expect God to applaud our small efforts at faithfulness; instead a Spirit comes and takes us where we are not yet prepared to go” (Letters to Scattered Pilgrims, 10).
But one thing is certain, the widow and her mite is not just a story of childhood faith anymore, it is radical and real and personal. And those who have little continue to teach.
When Gordon Cosby was minister of a small Baptist congregation in a railroad town near Lynchburg, Virginia, a deacon called him up one day and said he needed his help. He said, “We have in our congregation a widow with six children. I have looked at the records and discovered that she is putting into the treasury of the church each month $4.00 — a tithe of her income. Of course, she is unable to do this. We want you to go and talk to her and let her know that she needs to feel no obligation whatsoever, and free her from the responsibility.”
So Cosby went and told the woman of the concern of the deacons. He told her as graciously and supportively as he knew how that she was relieved of the responsibility of giving. But as he talked, tears came into her eyes. And she said, “I want to tell you that you are taking away the last thing that gives my life dignity and meaning.”
Cosby went home and he thought about the story of Jesus watching people put their offerings in the collection plate and what he said.
COPYRIGHT 2006, Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.