Rethinking Stewardship

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I’m going to level with you: I’m not sure what to do with this week’s reading from Mark. I wish I had better news, but there it is. I’m stuck. So I’ll put what I’ve got on the table and if you do the same maybe we can crack this nut together. (Feel free to leave you thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.)

Okay, so the major challenge I’m facing is trying to figure out what Jesus really means with his observation about the widow and her two coins. A lot depends on how we imagine Jesus’ tone of voice and the impact of his words. As is often the case, we know what someone means by the impact of his or her words, and of course we have no access either to Jesus’ tone of voice or the reactions of those around him. So at least two possibilities present themselves.

First, and more traditionally, we may imagine that Jesus is praising the widow. He lifts her up as an example of profound generosity and faith. Indeed, Jesus says her two pennies equal far more than the much larger sums given by the wealthy. Why? Because while they have given out of their abundance – and so probably are hardly impacted by their gifts – she has given all that she has. Now that’s faith, Jesus seems to say, inviting us – especially during fall stewardship campaigns – to do the same.

The second, and less common, interpretation links these few verses about the widow to those that have come just before about the hypocrisy of the Scribes. The scribes were the educated class of religious leaders, professorial types, if you will. And while they love to appear pious and wise and expect to sit at the places of honor at a banquet, yet they not only do nothing for those who are poor and vulnerable but actually enrich themselves from their losses. This is part of a much larger critique Jesus levels at the Temple and its practices more generally, a critique that began with the clearing of the Temple in the previous chapter and continues in this one.

Given that we are in the middle of Jesus’ complaints about the Temple, I wonder if his emotional affect with regard to the widow is less a matter of praise than it is lament. I wonder, that is, if he says what he says not so much to praise the widow but to indict those who would accept all that she has. Is she one of those widows that the Scribes are devouring?

If so, then this doesn’t make a very good stewardship text after all. Indeed, it probably should give us cause for concern: are we wrongfully accepting the gifts of those who are giving too much of their income while we praise, and give influence to, those who give greater sums but hardly feel the impact of their gifts?

I don’t know for sure which interpretation is more accurate, although because Mark is so incredibly careful with the way he places stories side by side I suspect he wanted us to interpret the second story in light of the first.

But even if we decide the second interpretation seems the most likely, the question still remains: what do we do with this interpretation? Do we remind people that charitable giving as a percentage of income decreases as wealth increases (until you get to a place of considerable wealth, $500,000/yr. and above)? Do we ask what it means that over the last half century as individual wealth has increased personal giving has decreased? Or do we direct our gaze inward and ask whether we are using the gifts of our people well or devouring their livelihoods?

I don’t know. I do know it makes me nervous about using this text to talk about Christian stewardship.

And maybe that’s actually where my greatest challenge rests: if I think of stewardship primarily about giving money – to the church or some other cause – then maybe I greatly misunderstand and misrepresent God’s desire for us to be stewards of all that we have and are. The scribes’ problem, it seems to me, is that they are more concerned with what they have than with the needs of those around them. They have bought into the notion that the primary measure of their wellbeing is whether “they are better off than they were before.”

God didn’t set society up that way. Think, for a moment, of the 10 Commandments – these are rules that God gives in order that we take care of each other. For though they may at first seem burdensome when I think of what they require of me to do for my neighbors, when I recall that all my neighbors are doing the same for me, suddenly it all makes sense. We are not isolated individuals but rather are a community, a group of people gathered and bound together by mutual need and caring.

If this is the case, then maybe we should read this passage – the whole passage – first as a cautionary tale about how easy it is to cave into our insecurity and cultural messages of scarcity and be seduced to “look out for number one.” Then we might also read this passage as an invitation to remember the gift of community and fellowship we have been given in our households, communities, and congregations. We are here for each other – created and blessed with many abilities and assets and drawn together to care for each other and the world.

In this light, maybe we should use this Sunday to go over our congregational budget, asking whether it reflects the character of the congregation we believe ourselves called to be. Or maybe we should invite a food and clothes drive for those struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy or from any number of challenges in our own communities. Or maybe we should start planning now to stand with each other as we resist the urge to define ourselves through our shopping over the next six weeks. It is so hard, after all, not to give in to the cultural penchant to calculate our worth via our possessions and to measure Christmas in relation to the number of gifts we give and receive. But maybe, just maybe, if we remember that we are called to be stewards of each other – each member committed to the welfare and wellbeing of the rest of the community – maybe we can experience again and anew God’s blessing of us in and through the family of faith.

Okay, Working Preacher, this is all I’ve got. I don’t know if it’s the best way to read this challenging passage, but I’m confident we’ll all preach it better if we struggle with it together. Thanks for being willing to engage in the struggle, offer your gifts to the company of working preachers around the globe, and risk interpreting and proclaiming this passage to the health and edification of your people. Blessings on your good work!

Yours in Christ,

PS: You’ve probably noticed that we’re in our winter fund appeal, Working Preacher. More than that, we’ve got a challenge gift where if we can get 500 donors in 5 days we receive an extra $5000. Any gift you can make will support Working Preacher and bring us closer to reaching that goal and receiving an addition $5000. Thanks for considering making a gift!