Out of Her Poverty
Mark 12: 41-44
When I was a kid, I had a children’s Bible with pictures. I think the picture for this story from Mark’s gospel must have been on the front of the book, because I remember it much better than any of the other pictures. It showed a modest, frail, elderly, bent woman with a head covering and her bony, small hand was reaching out from her robes. Even though I couldn’t actually see this in the picture, it seemed like her hand was shaking as she reached out. She was just in the middle of dropping her two coins in the offering plate at the temple.
When I was a kid, I don’t know if I ever actually read the story of the widow and her offering, but that picture made a big impression on me. She was in the middle of the busy temple and she was just about the least important-looking person there. Her clothes weren’t fancy. She wasn’t strong or young. She wasn’t saying anything to anyone. She came alone. But her skinny, bony hand was reaching out with those two small and insignificant coins.
Probably because of this picture, I grew up thinking that this story is about money. I grew up thinking that even though there were impressive, fancy, strong, rich men in that temple that day, giving a lot more money than this poor widow, their gifts didn’t mean as much as hers. Two small coins could be a better gift than stacks of money.
And I think I got that part right. I think that’s part of what this story is about – it’s not the size of the gift but how much it costs the one who’s giving it.
Afterall, Jesus is watching all this unfold in the temple that day and what does he say? When he sees her put her small gift in the offering plate, he calls his disciples over to hear what he has to say about this. He says, “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” (Mark 12: 43-44).
Everyone else was contributing out of their abundance. Out of what they had left over after their own needs had been met. Everyone else was making a gift out of the surplus in their lives – and even after their gifts, there would be more leftover. Everyone else was making big gifts but, because they had plenty before and after their gifts, it didn’t cost them too much to offer these big gifts.
Those two coins the widow drops into the plate are worth a penny, Mark tells us. At that time, a day’s wage was equal to 64 pennies (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p.1835). All she has to live on is 1/64 of what other people make in 1 day – and she gives it all away.
It probably sounds like I still think this story is about money.
Let me tell you another story. This one is about John Wesley, the Anglican priest who started a revival in the Church of England in the 1700s and ended up with a new church, the Methodist Church. He hit a hard spell in his life and he wasn’t sure he knew what he was preaching about anymore. He started to wonder if he even had any faith left. Can anyone relate to this?
So he went to talk with a friend of his and told the friend he wasn’t sure what to do. He was depleted and out of gas and didn’t believe what he was saying and didn’t feel like preaching. And the friend gave him simple instructions: “Preach faith until you have it.” If they were having that conversation today, he might have told Wesley to “fake it until you make it.” Keep going – especially when you don’t think you have anything left – and you will get to the place where you have more than you did when you started. Keep going – even when you don’t know how to go anymore – and you will get to the place you never thought you could. Preach faith until you have it. If Wesley’s friend had been thinking of this story about the widow, he might have said, “Preach out of your poverty.”
The reason this story still has a hold on me all these years after my children’s picture Bible days, is that it captures that moment when you think you have absolutely nothing left – but you give all you have anyway. Everyone else gives out of their abundance, their surplus; she gives out of her poverty, her lack, her depletion, her weakness.
Can anyone relate to this?
I can. I have one more story to tell and it’s a story about one of the moments I thought was my worst as a minister.
A few years back I led a group of students on a trip to Israel and Palestine. It was a great trip and we learned a lot and I was very ready to come home again at the end of the two weeks. I didn’t know that the last 2 days would be the worst. We were in airports and airplanes for more than 24 hours before we finally made it to JFK airport in New York, where we had to catch one last plane for Richmond.
Have I mentioned I was tired?
The other minister on the trip had stayed behind to do an extra few days of traveling so I had responsibility for the entire group and was trying my best to hurry us along to our next plane through the busy and confusing airport. But when we got to the counter –even though we still had 45 minutes until our plane was to leave – the agent told us it was too late and there were no more planes until morning.
The whole group was behind me with all of our suitcases and baggage and I stood with my back to them, facing the airline agent. I was exhausted and I knew I had no gas left in the tank. There was no way I was going to try to shepherd all of us through the streets of New York to some hotel for the night and then back again in the morning to the airport (this was the agent’s idea).
That’s all I knew. That, and the fact that, no matter what happened next, I was going to cry. I tried not to. I gritted my teeth. I thought about all those students standing behind me, waiting to hear the news. I thought about the unhelpful agent and how much I didn’t want to break down in front of her. And for several moments, I kept trying not to cry, with a huge, painful lump in my throat.
But as I turned back to my waiting group, I knew it was useless. Those tears were coming. So I went over, sat down in the middle of them and said something like, “Everything is ok and it will be ok but I am going to cry now. Don’t worry. I am working on another solution but I will probably just keep crying while I do it.”
As it turns out, through the power of cell phones and another helpful airline agent and a credit card, I got us on another flight later that night and we finally made it to Richmond and then all the way back to Charlottesville sometime in the middle of the night.
But for a while I thought that was my worst moment as a minister. I thought I should have been able to just handle it all without crying. I thought students might think less of me if I cried in front of them. I was embarrassed that I was crying on all of the phone messages I left the trip organizers and the other minister back in Israel. I was glad I got us home but I wished I could have done it some other way. Some cooler, stronger, less vulnerable way.
And then, a few months after this, one of the students on the trip told me that one of the most impressive things she’s seen me do as a minister was just sit down and cry in front of everyone on that trip. That was an instructive moment for her, about how to lead.
I can say this: Though I didn’t feel like I was using my best leadership skills that night, I was definitely giving out of my poverty.
That’s why this story about the widow keeps sticking with me now. Because I know a little something about giving out of the precise place you don’t think you have anything left to give. When you are wrung out, strung out, weak, defeated, and on your knees…Can anyone here relate to this?
That widow was the least powerful person in her society: old, female, poor, without a husband or family. But she gave more of herself than anyone else at the temple that day. She gave all she had to live on, transforming a penny’s worth into the biggest gift of her life.
When what you have isn’t much…when what you can give doesn’t measure up to what others give…when what you have to live on is not enough to live on – much less, give away….when you don’t know what you’ll do next but you give anyway….That’s giving out of your poverty. That’s giving out of where you feel empty and lost and weak and unimportant and forgotten. That’s giving out of the exact place you have a hard time showing anyone – even God.
Giving out of our poverty means making our lives a gift to God – our whole lives. Not just the pretty, shiny, have-it-all-together parts, but the crying on the floor of the airport parts….
Giving out of our poverty means recognizing that the first and last thing, the most precious and valuable thing we have to give is ourselves. And this is the gift God is looking for – nothing more and nothing less. Who’s got something to give to God?
Thanks be to God!
© 2012 Deborah E. Lewis
11 November 2012
Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women