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7th November 2021

Growing Generosity

Passage: Mark 12;38-44


Why would a woman desperately poor choose to put her last two pennies into the temple offertory boxes? This is the question which has been puzzling me all week. Yes, Jesus had been sounding off about hypocritical religious leaders squeezing money out of widows, but there is no suggestion that this particular widow was being pressurised. Her giving comes across as spontaneous. Jesus praised her generosity- she is giving everything- and he was clearly moved and impressed, which he would not have been had he suspected that someone was holding a spiritual “gun” to her head.

Jewish society in general was very compassionate. In the Old Testament (the Jewish scriptures) there are constant reminders to take care of widows and orphans. Women at that time were unable to earn money for themselves; they were totally dependent on either their male relations or community charity for their survival. And, whilst people were expected to contribute to the running of the Temple and the keep of its priests, this was done on a “sliding scale” depending on your means. So yes, there were spiritual blackmailers around, as there are, sadly, in any religion, they were not all like that. Many religious leaders at the time of Jesus were genuinely devout, caring men who would never have demanded the last two pennies from a widow’s purse. This woman gave because she wanted to. Which brings me back to my question- why did she do it?

The only answer I can come up with is that this woman believed in the Temple. She believed in prayer and worship. She believed in a public place of worship. She believed in the obligation to contribute to its upkeep. This woman had lost her husband; was desperately poor; living an enemy-occupied country yet despite all this (or perhaps because of this) she believed in the Temple and gave her last two coins. With Jesus, I am awe-struck by that generosity.

I started to think, then, of all the people I have seen from church pulpits during my ministry, whom I know have been or are going through hell, yet still they are there, in church. Some are numb with grief or shock; some are drained and exhausted by stress; some are in deep pain of body or mind; yet there they are, still believing in God, still believing in the power of prayer, still believing in the value of worship as a church community. And, once again, I am awe-struck, humbled by such people. Because this is another example of incredible generosity, generosity of belief. People who feel that they have little, or no faith left in their broken, battered lives, still find it in them to hold some belief in God and in the church. More than once, I have stood in the pulpit looking at them with tears in my eyes.

Moving wider into life, I guess we can all name people who are generous in their believing: family members who will set personal hurt aside after being badly let down by the others because they still believe in the family; partners of a person no longer able to look after themselves, offering loving care to the limits of their strength and beyond because they believe in the relationship; NHS and care workers who have endured months of overwork, personal risk and, in some cases, abuse from frightened, panicking people because they believe in the work of healing.

And I would like at this point to add each one of you to the list; all who have continued to believe in our church through the long months of pandemic; who have been deeply generous not only with your gifts of money but also with time and skill and creativity and commitment and a willingness to risk new things. In the face of such generosity with money, time and belief within this church community, I am both humbled and encouraged.

For, I believe that, in the generosity of human beings, we see a reflection of the generosity of God himself. If we believe in Jesus Christ as God giving himself to the human race, coming to live among us so that we might know him completely, that is an incredible level of generosity. And such generosity surely means that God must believe in us. God must place the highest possible value on the human race. We are worth it!

There is a saying that “virtue is its own reward.” Personally, I sometimes wonder if that is so. Would I not be happier if I had smacked that rude, unhelpful person round the face rather than practising the virtue of forgiveness? Would I not feel more satisfied if I had jumped up and down and screamed in the long queue at the hospital rather than practising the virtue of patience? Quite possibly, yes, but only in the short term.
If generosity is truly a reflection of the nature of God himself, then surely we must find our deepest happiness and fulfilment in such generosity. I remember reading an article about seriously poor elderly people; those who have only the basic state pension to live on. And one such lady said of how she somehow managed to make a tiny but regular contribution to a charity each week because, she said, “for a few minutes in the week I am able to think of something other just than my old self.” Generosity, when practised sincerely (not just for show or for emotional blackmail) brings incredibly deep joy because it lifts us out of ourselves; it involves us in something greater than we are; it places our hand right in the hand of God. Jesus may have criticised the religious leaders who got a kick out of showing off their large donations to the Temple, but I also think he may have pitied them because they knew nothing of the joy the poor widow gained from giving coins because she believed passionately in the temple as the place of prayer and the house of God.

If you know anything about Jewish history, you will know that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans no more than 40 years after that widow gave her last two coins to its upkeep. And you cannot help wondering whether her sacrifice was justified- giving her last penny to something which might well not even have survived her?
Would she still have given if she had known that the Temple would not remain standing? Who knows?

But the generosity of God is never affirmed in its value by immediate results. When Jesus came to live among us, the majority of people he met despised and rejected him. Yet we were still worth it to him. We were worth going to the cross and enduring an agonising death. On his way to crucifixion, remember, he turned to a group of women who were weeping for him and said, “don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves.” It was they who were suffering from living in a callous, cruel society, where you were reduced to the level of wild beasts, focussing only on your own survival. He was caught up in something infinitely larger and greater and lovelier, a power which would outlast even death itself. And millions of people since then have found faith, hope, love, salvation in abundance as they have turned to him to save their lives from self-centredness and sin so that they too might become part of something greater, caught up into the glory of God. That was what the woman in the story was looking for and even if her coins would not save the temple building, they would keep her in touch with the ongoing community of faith, which is planted but which spreads out far beyond any church walls.

Maybe some of us have questioned our generosity in giving and in supporting this church and asked ourselves if it will still be here in 40 years’ time? Who knows? Yes, we need to be challenged by such questions. We should be careful and prayerful in the stewarding of our resources- both in terms of finance and in terms of people. But our joy in giving and our generosity in belief are their own reward because they increase faith and they increase love and they increase hope in us, all of which we desperately need at a time such as this. For what else can we rely on, as we walk into the unknown?

So let us challenge each other to ask God to keep our eyes open to opportunities to be generous: not only in financial giving but in love, in forgiveness, in belief, in commitment to something greater than ourselves. And let us pray that in our generosity we shall find the reality of God and of his love for us.
Close with Prayer of St Ignatius
Teach us, good Lord, to be generous
to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.