Jesus challenges our generosity (2 Cor 9:6-11 & Mk 12:38-44)

The theme for this morning’s talk is summarised in verse 6 of Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth in which he says:

‘Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, 
and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’

I know we are supposed to be concentrating on St Marks Gospel today, but I find it very difficult to look at one passage of scripture in isolation, so let me begin by considering that first reading in a bit more detail.

It is clear that Paul knew the Scriptures from back to front and sideways, and Tom Wright, the ex-Bishop of Durham, suggests that if Paul quotes a line from scripture, even if it is only four or five words, it is worth looking at in more detail … and so it is here. In the short passage taken from his 2nd Letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul makes reference to three separate verses of scripture. Firstly he reminds us that:

“God loves a cheerful giver”

This echoes an idea first expressed in chapter 22 of the Book of Proverbs which says:

9The generous will themselves be blessed,
for they share their food with the poor.”

This suggestion that the generous will be blessed infers that, through their generosity, the generous will receive God’s grace. Hold that thought for a moment because our second snippet appears in verse 9 of Paul’s letter and this time is prefaced with the words ‘As it is written’ and it says:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; 
their righteousness endures for ever.”

Those words are a straight lift from Psalm 112 which is itself a celebration of those who fear the Lord. This verse again obviously speaks of generosity but it also mentions ‘righteousness’, a word that is used elsewhere in the Old Testament which can be translated as ‘behaviour which expresses the people’s gratitude to God’. And now finally, in verse 10 of Paul’s letter, he suggests that it is God who provides,

“seed to the sower and bread for food”

This time the reference leads us back to chapter 55 of the Book of Isaiah which also goes on to say:

12You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; 
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

In return for their generosity, God will provide the people with all that they need and lead them forward in the peace which has been promised through the death and resurrection of Jesus himself.

If you take all of these three separate messages together you come to realise that grace, generosity, and gratitude, are not optional extras to Christian living but are crucial and lie at the very centre of it. So let’s have look at how this plays out in Mark’s Gospel.

Firstly, we are warned about the hypocrisy of some of the teachers of the law — we know that it is not all of them because, just prior to this passage, one of them had approached Jesus to ask which of the commandments was the most important. After a short exchange between them, Jesus told him that he was

‘not far from the kingdom of God.’

Surely an example of Jesus offering praise where praise was due. So, what is under attack in verses 38 through to 40 is not particularly a class or specific type of individual but the idea of false godliness acting as a cloak for injustice. People are condemned for strutting around in fancy clothing and lording it over others by taking the most important seats in the synagogues and at banquets but it comes to a head in verse 40. Here it would appear that they are also being condemned for ‘devouring widow’s houses’: exploitation of the poor was not a sin for which the scribes and pharisees were particularly well known. So, it would appear that this verse is directed more towards ‘trustees’ who had been appointed to look after the estates of the widows, but had been taking more than their fair share in terms of expenses.

Sucking in the admiration and praise of others, and taking money out of the till are the absolute antithesis of generosity. They do not demonstrate any sense of gratitude nor are they worthy of God’s grace. But compare that to the offering made by the poor widow.

We know that the widow was being observed because Mark tells us that Jesus was watching her, but their is no sense that she knew that she was being watched. As far as she was concerned her offering had been made in secret: no doubt she would have been rather ashamed of the small amount she had dropped into the treasury box.
On the other hand the wealthy would probably have been flashing their cash for all and sundry to see, however, this woman quietly slipped her two small coins into the box as an offering made between just her and God. Those coins, referred to in the Authorised Version as ‘mites’, were the smallest in circulation in Palestine. They were so small that they couldn’t be used anywhere outside the country which is why Mark offers the explanation that they were only worth a few pence — this sounds like an exaggeration of their true worth.

She could have walked away from the Temple without parting with her last coins or, at the very least, she could have given one and kept one for herself, but she chose to give them both — an act of generosity which would have put her very life on the line. The wealthy were simply parting with a small portion of their ‘disposable income’: she had parted with her next loaf of bread. Her offering stemmed from a deep sense of gratitude to God and through it she received God’s grace — her true generosity had not gone unnoticed.

It is very easy to assume that passages like this are all about money, but I think there is far more to it than that. Generosity isn’t just about cash donations, it is also about how we use our time and our talents to reach out to others in their time of need. And there is also another form of generosity which is equally important. We need to be generous with other people by accepting them as they are. In doing that we will avoid many of the ‘isms’ that are so prevalent in today’s world including racism, sexism and ageism. And there is another word that sounds as though I have made it up but I assure you is in circulation out there — wealthism! This time it isn’t about how you use your cash but how you view and react to others due to their lack of it. We speak of God as the God of all and yet at the same time we are often tempted to exhibit prejudice or discrimination against some members of our community or the population at large because we assume they are not worth it. But:

‘Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, 
and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’

The lesson is plain for all to see. If we wish to receive God’s grace we should be more like the widow in terms of generosity and gratefulness. So let us step out in faith and in prayer … Amen.

Alan Dowen