What a gift these readings are in the season of stewardship campaigns! They have a lot to say to us about trusting in the providence of God, about sharing, about giving, about the rewards of a faithful offering. What a gift!
The problem that I kept coming back to, reading these stories this week, with elections going on and election campaigns going on and on and on, with four full seasons to go before an end is in sight – anyway, the problem that I kept coming back to is that we recognize well enough the scribes who devour widows’ houses; we know that our systems are skewed towards the rich and powerful as much as ever, and we know that it is easy for those removed from poverty to overlook the individual stories of loss, destitution, and despair that those systems promote. We know that this is not the way that the kingdom of God needs to be organized. We have heard Jesus time and again promote the least and the last above the important and the rich. We hear his commendation of the poor widow and her mite-y gift. We know that this is not how we tend to respond in our everyday lives.
I’m going to say this, even though it might get me into a little bit of trouble, but it has been bothering my mind: nowhere in the Bible, that I can find; nowhere in the prophets or in the teachings of Paul or in the sayings of Jesus has the kingdom of God ever been described as a trickle – those with ears to hear, let them hear. The justice of God, the providence of God, the grace of God does not trickle down, so that no one even notices the difference. It comes like a rushing flood, like a thundering flood. It changes everything. I could quote from our new Presiding Bishop’s sermon from last Sunday; that this movement of God, in Jesus Christ, turns everything upside down, which is really right-side-up.
So if we are going to make a stewardship sermon out of these two women, these two widows, a byword in the Bible for the last and the least; if we are to take them as an object lesson and an example, let’s begin again with Elijah. We know, we know from experience, that a miracle is not always available. Even Jesus, referring later to the story of Elijah, is given to remark that “there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon” (Luke 4:25-26).
What happened to all of those widows to whom Elijah did not go? What happened to their sons and daughters, when the drought lasted three and a half years and the famine was fierce? We cannot always depend upon receiving a direct and personal miracle of our very own, especially if it must come at the expense of our neighbours. And if it did, what would we do then? Whom would we invite to share in our own, private miracle?
And then there’s that widow at the Temple, a model of faithful giving, of generous dependence upon the providence of God. More proactive than the widow in Zarephath, she doesn’t wait to cook a last meal and die; she actually gives away the last that she has to live on, and walks away. But there is no longer any famine in the land, and she lives in a system where the religious duty of the people; not only the religious duty but the way of life of the people is to take care of widows and orphans. It would bring shame upon her neighbours to see her go hungry. No matter what she has given away; she will be fed tonight. Her neighbours, her temple, her people, all will be Elijah to her, and her oil will not run out.
There are definitely themes that we can pick up from these stories and carry over into our own stewardship prayers and discernment. We can ask whether we are sufficiently trusting of God’s providence. We can look at our abundance and our poverty and wonder out of which do we offer God our treasure and our trust, and with whom do we share it. We may also wonder how we approach the problems of stewardship in times of famine, or dependence, or under the shadow of scribes who devour widows’ houses.
The story of the two women – the one in Zarephath and the one in Jerusalem – both are stories not only or even about money or possessions, but about relationship. The widow to whom Elijah comes makes the choice to share her last meal with a stranger, rather than let him die alone, just out of sight of herself and her son. The widow at the temple makes the choice to add her little coins to the treasury of the many, in order that they might do some good, since they are too little any more for her to live on. Both women look beyond themselves and their immediate situations, even in dire straits and destitution, to consider their relationships with the world around them, the world that God has made for us to dwell in. It is a world in which the poor and needy, the last and the least are not merely the consumers, but they are the chief donors of charity; it is a world turned upside down, which is really right-side-up.
If you want to read a great and accessible book about Christian economics, I recommend William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. Here’s what he has to say, in a nutshell, about our relationship to our material goods (and they are goods; insofar as all that God has made is good).
In the Christian tradition, the use of material things is meant to be a common use, for the sake of a larger body of people. We do not help each other as individuals but as members of one another. According to Paul’s famous image (1 Cor. 12), we are all members of the same body, the body of Christ. … “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). The reason that we do not cling to material things is precisely because of our attachment to others. We must constantly be ready to relinquish our claim to ownership, and to use our goods for the common good of the whole body.*
Our stewardship, how we use the time, talents, treasure with which we have found ourselves, one way or another; our stewardship is not about the bottom line, or the budget, or the by-laws. It is not about the electricity bill or the building. It’s not even about the food pantry and the community meal and the people who come in day by day looking for a small personal miracle. I mean, of course it is, but that is not enough. Not really.
Because our stewardship is not about us and our stuff. It is about us and our relationships: our relationships with our stuff, with each other, with our neighbours, with our God. Our stewardship is about building up the body of Christ. It is seeing and recognizing and praying for and working towards and truly desiring the kingdom of God.
What we do here, in our own little temple, is a microcosm of the change we want to see in the world. It is a foretaste of the flood of justice rolling down like a mighty river. If we do it right, it is a sign, a sacrament, a visible, tangible marker of the movement of God, of Jesus, among the people of God, laying the foundations for a movement that will turn the world upside down, which is really right-side-up.
*William T. Cavanuagh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008), 52-53