The Fruits of the Spirit: Generosity
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Further Questions for Consideration
Do you think of yourself as a generous person?
In what ways are you generous?
Who has been unexpectedly generous to you?
How could you incorporate more genuine, healthy generosity into your daily life?
This story from the Gospels, chronicled in Luke and Mark, is often called the story of the widow’s mite for the name of the coins she contributed. When I read it, I look at the necklace I wear almost every day. For my sixteenth birthday, my parents gave me this [hold it up]: a mite, a coin from first-century Judea. They told me that they gave me this gift on an important day because I gave so much of myself to God. The necklace is precious to me because of this meaning and especially because it was a loving and thoughtful gift from my father and mother.
As I’ve learned, the term “mite” comes from the Dutch and was popularized from its use in the King James Bible. This coin was actually called a lepton, so the impoverished woman who had been widowed contributed two lepta to the Temple treasury. These were the smallest Roman coin and the least valuable currency circulating in Judea. So, in our context this would be like contributing two pennies. What might be spare change to some was this woman’s only remaining money.
As we journey through Lent together studying the Fruits of the Spirit, our theme for this week is Generosity. Often, the woman who gave her last two pennies to the temple is upheld as an example of generosity and service: we, too, ought to give our all to God or to the church, rather than simply giving out of our surplus like the rich people in the story. What if Jesus didn’t point out this woman as a paradigm for giving and service, but to call attention to the system that caused her desperation-- and lament? This woman’s sacrificial giving came out of a place of unmet need, and still she was giving. Is this actually good? And who or what should have been caring for her?
I am thinking about this woman... Maybe Jesus knew she was a widow because of how she was dressed. We do not know if she was old or young, if she lived alone or with other women. I wonder, did she expect any more income in the near future? It certainly doesn’t sound like it. What was her relationship to the Temple where she was giving her last two coins? Is anyone in the religious community looking out for her? Does anyone talk to her when she visits the Temple? Does it occur to the rich people, who gave a fraction of their income to the treasury, to make sure this woman has enough to eat?
Now, I don’t know a lot about the situation of widows in first century Jerusalem, but I know that over and over, Jesus exhorted his followers to care for widows and orphans, who were some of the most vulnerable members of his society. Knowing that this is the Jesus who describes this widow’s offering, I make some inferences.
It is important that we consider this text within the context of the Gospel of Luke, in its last few chapters. Jesus will soon be betrayed by a friend, detained, tried, and executed, so this observation at the Temple is one of the last things he shares with his companions. In Luke 20:46-47 (the verses immediately preceding our story), Jesus says, “Beware of the religious scholars, who love to go about in their long robes and be greeted deferentially in the marketplace. They take the front seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets. They swallow up the property of women who are widowed and make a show of offering lengthy prayers. People like them will be severely punished.” After such a message of woe to those who exploit widows and increase their poverty, Jesus notices a widow entering the temple herself.
This woman may have experienced the very exploitation Jesus deplores. Has she been manipulated into giving what little she has left for her own needs? Or is she giving genuinely, even in her vulnerability? I cannot claim to know. However, I would like to connect this woman with the passage in ROmans, in the hopes that it will mean something to us, the people of the United Parish in Brookline and friends.
Every day, you have opportunities to be generous: with your time, your talents, your money, your energy, and more. Maybe you are asked to speak in a worship service, or you see an opportunity to bring groceries to a friend who is caring for a sick relative. You might consider giving money to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Brookline Food Pantry, or this church. Have you coached a children’s sports team or consulted for a friend of a friend who needed legal advice? Have you watched someone’s children while they went to therapy? All of these are examples of generosity. Opportunities to be generous come in our personal, professional, and spiritual lives.
According to Paul in Romans 12, generosity is one of a number of gifts that people possess, as diverse members of the body of Christ. I argue that we can be generous with any gift: whether it be teaching, caring for children, math, leadership, baking, playing an instrument, growing a garden, or just about anything. But this listing of gifts is followed immediately by this requirement: “Your love must be sincere.” The fruits of the Spirit and virtues we are exploring as a congregation are all rooted in love, God’s love and our love as a response to the love of God. Today I encourage you to be generous in love--but to do so sincerely. Be generous with others and with yourself. If you are able to drive someone to the airport sincerely, while still caring for yourself, then this is an act of genuine generosity. If you are not able to share a story in worship right now because you just have too much to do or are uncomfortable, then it may be the most generous thing to say “no” (even if I am the one asking you!) and to care for yourself.
Just before the passage I read, in Romans 12 verse 5, Paul writes, “...so all of us, union with Christ, form one body. And as members of that one body, we belong to each other.” The rich people in the temple, the religious scholars who devoured the houses of widows, did not recognize or care that we all belong to each other. And we do. The woman who is widowed belongs to the legislator, the legislator belongs to the grocery store shelf stocker, the lawyer belongs to the MBTA operator, the first grade student belongs to the nurse administering COVID vaccines at Fenway Park. And so, let us all be sincerely generous to one another and with ourselves, as God is generous to each and every one of us.