November 8, 2009
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
We’ve heard stories of two poor widows today – one from the Jewish scriptures, one from the gospel. Elijah and Jesus. Back in Israel in those days, widows generally didn’t have it so good. No pension, no Social Security, no chance of remarriage.
Not every widow was poor, but these two were. In the Elijah story, the woman’s poverty was made worse by a drought. Nothing to grow in the family plot, no vegetables to trade for grain at the market. She was out gathering sticks for her fire, so that she could make a final meal out of the last bits of grain and oil she had, and feed herself and her son. They were about to starve.
Elijah had received word from the Lord about this woman, and what he was to do. So he found her and had the audacity to ask for food from her. Not only that, but when she said she only had a handful left, he told her to cook it for him first, and then, if there was any left over, to feed her son. She must have known that Elijah was a well-known prophet, because she did as he asked, as outrageous as it was.
After she cooked her last for Elijah, there was still enough for her and her son. The next day, same thing. The food never ran out. It lasted until the drought ended, the rains came, and she was able to grow food again. The moral of the story? The widow trusted and gave to God first, and somehow by the very act of doing this, there was more, not less.
Jump ahead a few hundred years to Jerusalem. Another holy man and prophet, Jesus. Outside the great temple, he and his friends were watching people coming and going to worship and making donations. An religious leader came by, sashaying around in his robes, praying loudly so that everyone could appreciate his piety, making a show of his donation to the temple.
Then along came a poor woman. Jesus noticed that this widow put in two small coins – no showiness about it, no public piety, just a humble offering. Jesus could see that she was poor, for he said that this small amount was everything she had. She gave her last nickel to God, and had nothing left to feed herself. But my suspicion is that by the very act of trusting, there was somehow more for her, too, not less.
These stories tell us about something that is deeply true and reliable. No matter what our circumstances are, even if we feel squeezed in a tight place, if we give of ourselves first to God, there will be more, not less, for us. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all else will be added unto you as well.
There is a term that is used a lot these days – “zero sum.” It refers to both games and economic theories, where a participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the loss or gain of another. When the total gains and losses are added up, the sum is zero. This is how betting works. Your loss exactly matches the gain of the casino.
On our son’s recent birthday, we took a cake to him when he was with about 15 of his friends, and he shared it with them. If he took a very large piece, others would have to take less. If several of them took large pieces, they would get to zero sum pretty quickly. The amounts those ex-friends enjoyed would exactly match the amounts the others didn’t get.
There is only so much to go around, right? If you have no savings and a fixed income, and you blow $2,000 on a trip to Vegas, you won’t be able to pay your rent. Some of us are convinced that all of life is a zero-sum game. So we hoard and protect what we have. We grip our money, our energy, our time, and even our love, because we might run out if we don’t. We begin to look at the demands of life as a threat, because we think that they will take part of us away and then we’ll have less.
What the two stories of the widows tell us is that this isn’t always how it works. Sometimes, giving more away, even when we are pinched, results in gain, not loss. This is because when we give of ourselves, we participate in the energy of God in this world, and God is limitless. Let me give you two examples.
There are times when all of us get pretty busy at work. You know what this is like. 50 emails in the inbox, 8 phone messages to return, 4 projects with deadlines, a fellow worker with a crisis, and a presentation to get ready for tomorrow. When I’m having one of those weeks, sure enough, in walks a person off the street, saying that they want to talk to a priest.
Immediately, my gut tightens up, and it feels like my head is in a vise. Internally, I say No, I can’t do this! Zero sum has caught up with me. The cake ran out hours ago. But then sometimes, God gets in there and quietly says “Let it go; let it all go. Stop, take a breath. Open your mind, your heart, to this person. Give yourself to me first, and then everything else will fall into place.”
Like the two widows, I take my handful of grain, my last nickel, and offer it. We go into the church together, have a conversation, and he asks to be anointed for healing. Afterwards, I walk back to the office, and lo and behold, the jar is full again. My spirit is spacious. There’s more than enough to see me through. In fact, there is now abundance where there was only scarcity before.
Or how about this. A couple, members here, have a few thousand dollars in debt, a tight monthly budget, kids in preschool or college, and not much left over for fun. They come here to worship, and the preacher is asking them to pledge a percentage of their income to give away for God’s purposes in the world. Is he kidding? There’s no cake left!
But they would like to do it. And so, like the two widows, take their last bit of grain, they risk trusting in God, and they do it. So they step out in faith, and pay that first every month, and everything else seems to work out. They give not out of their abundance, as Jesus said the scribe did, in the gospel story. That’s easy to do. Anyone can tip God when they’re feeling flush.
They give instead out of their tightness. And lo and behold, the fear and the constriction opens up. Their life is spacious again, and there is enough. In fact, there is a kind of abundance where there was only scarcity before.
The abundance may not be a check that magically comes in the mail from a recently-departed rich uncle. It may be instead a new way of looking at money, a willingness to spend less on insignificant things. It may be a sense that by giving, they are not living small, individualistic lives, but are connected with the big world around them. It may be the surprise that when they seek first the kingdom of God and its purposes, all else is added unto them. Some kind of abundance results whenever we trust and give.
It is a tragedy when we apply zero-sum thinking to everything in our lives. For it doesn’t protect us from scarcity; it creates scarcity; it makes us tight and isolated. There are certainly times when we must say “no” and crawl into our shell. We all have these times, when we just can’t give what we don’t have. But as a lifestyle, it makes us small.
Life in God is not a zero-sum. It is an expanding universe that only gets bigger as we give more of it away. God has a way of enlarging things, enlarging our capacity for love, for generosity, for being fully present. But this only seems to happen when we trust, when we give of ourselves to God first, when we risk that last handful of grain or that last nickel. There is something in the act of letting go that opens the door to God’s spaciousness. It is a natural law that we can count on.
That’s why Jesus said
Give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over,
will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
- Luke 6:38