Two Biblical writers (Luke and Mark) reserve 4 to 5 sentences to retell a very short story of Jesus watching people drop their offerings into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. It was not unusual for the rich inhabitants of the city to “throw in” large amounts of their wealth into the Temple coffers. Their gold and silver would clang into the treasury, the louder the noise your offering made, the more ‘honor’ you received (at least in your own mind) because you gave a bigger gift to God than the last guy.
As Jesus watched the loud giving of the wealthy Jews, he spotted a poor widow quietly sneaking up to the treasury and placing two small coins made of not gold, not silver, but copper (worth a few cents, max). Jesus points out this rare site to his disciples and explains how the value of a gift should be measured. The wealthy gave a lot, but they gave out of their excess. This poor widow gave little, but she gave out of her poverty. She gave everything that she had to live on. In doing so, she was trusting God to provide for her in all ways, beginning that very day; she wasn’t saving anything. In the culture of that day, the widow represented the most destitute and voiceless, the helpless and impoverished. She had no sons and no husbands to protect or provide for her. She gave up what little security she had. Jesus shows that the widow’s gesture was prized in Heaven, because it showed her belief that whatever possessions she had came from and belonged to God; none of it was hers. Luke 21:1-4; Mark 12:41-44.
This short story provides an amazing view into how Jesus thinks and what it means to really sacrifice in the way we give of our money, our time, ourselves. The story has been told for generations. We retell it to our children before bedtime and try to teach ourselves the important lessons that the story illustrates. But, I think, we leave out one important perspective. We forget about the Temple and its leaders who received the widow’s offering. What does this story say about or to the receiver of those two copper coins? The message to the giver is loud and clear, even if little followed. But what is Jesus’ message to the recipient of that sacrifice?
I need to know the answer, because last week I received those copper coins. Without going into the theology behind “giving to the Temple” versus “giving to God” versus “giving to others” and all the philosophy and religion we might debate, I need to ask for your help, team. The widow gave me her two copper coins and I don’t know what to do with them.
For the past few years, I have walked alongside a special woman named Sahra; we call her Momma Sahra. She is a refugee from Ethiopia in her fifties, but she looks and acts like she’s in her seventies. She suffers from type I diabetes and, four years ago, she was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer. Doctors gave her six months to live. She didn’t want to die in America with little family around her (we don’t care for our dying elders like they do elsewhere in the world). So her husband put her on a plane and sent her back to Ethiopia to die in her home village, surrounded by her family. A year later, she was still alive and feeling strong. So she came back. She returned to Denver only to find that her husband had already moved in with another woman and refused to accept Sahra back into his home. She was homeless and still fighting cancer and diabetes, unable to work.
For three years now, Momma Sahra has relied on the kindness of her friends in the Ethiopian community for housing and assistance. She rotates from home to home, feeling helpless and powerless, usually sick and unable to even eat. She’s not a widow per se, but she represents the same person in society as the widow in the gospel story above–completely reliant on the generosity of others to live at the most basic level, not having anything to call her own. I have felt quite powerless to do much to help her situation. Slowly, however, over the past few years, a group of us has worked hard and her life has slowly improved. I’m still not sure how it has all come to pass, I never had faith that her situation would improve much, but she’s now a U.S. citizen and receiving a tiny amount of disability benefits which provide for her basic needs. We tried for a long time to get her subsidized housing, but there are long waiting lists in our state’s public housing system with priority going to families with children. I’m excited to say that she may finally move into a small public housing project in the next few weeks. Fingers crossed. It is difficult and time consuming to bring even the slightest amount of improvement to Sahra’s life. But it is in this journey with Sahra and our many meetings together that I have come to know and love her and to associate her with the widow that Jesus watched in the Temple.
Momma Sahra and I can’t communicate very well on our own, but we express love to each other and even talk about God through hand-holding, squeezing, facial expressions, and pointing. Sahra is small, frail, and sickly (105 lbs. or less). She’s also caring, generous, and loving. This combination makes her pretty cute and easy to love. She once met my sister and my niece, Peyton. She thought Peyton was the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. She couldn’t give Peyton enough hugs and kisses. A few weeks later, she gave me the cutest little outfit from Ethiopia for Peyton, a beautiful and unexpected gift from someone with so little to call her own. Whenever I show her pictures on my phone of Peyton, she kisses the screen.
One day last week, Sahra visited me during one of my intake sessions at the Colorado African Organization, as she periodically does, to nudge me to do something about her long wait for public housing (as if I can magically construct a vacant home with subsidized rent just for her; but it is in that helpless struggle together that Sahra and I have grown so close). At the end of our meeting, after the interpreter had left the room, Momma Sahra, in quiet and unassuming fashion, slipped four crisp $100 bills into my hands from across the desk.
I was flabbergasted! I refused to accept the money. I couldn’t possibly take money from this poor woman. She has nothing, I have so much. I didn’t know what to do, so I did the first thing that came to my mind, I threw the money back at her and tried to jump as far away from her as possible. I figured, if the money touched her last, she had to keep it, like the game hot potato. I knew I wasn’t worthy of those bills! After all, I don’t even feel like my efforts on her behalf has produced much benefit. Like a grandmother, she hushed my mindless rambling and overcame me with her gentleness, slipping the bills back into my hands. She motioned not to let anyone outside know what she was doing. She didn’t want anyone to know, not even her translators or friends in the community. She gestured around my temporary office and seemed to be saying that she appreciated the time I gave to her and wanted me to continue to be able to help others like her. Then Sahra hurried out of the office so I could help the other refugees waiting in line to meet with me.
Still feeling confused at what was happening and defeated by a weak, old lady, I shoved the money into my pocket and forgot about it. When I got home that evening, I pulled out the wad of bills and felt my breath escaping me once again. I didn’t know what to do with those bills, they seemed sacred somehow. I placed them on my desk under a paperweight and they’ve been sitting there ever since. I don’t want to touch those bills. Whenever I glance at them, I get this sinking feeling in my stomach.
There’s another Bible story where David, the warrior king, was tired from battle with the Philistines. Weary from years of war, he made an off-hand comment to a few of his elite soldiers about how he longed for water from the well in his home town, which was occupied by the enemy at the time. Three of the warriors risked their lives by sneaking into enemy territory and getting a cup of water from the well in David’s home town. When they brought the water to David, he was so shocked by the sacrifice it took for him to receive that gift that he couldn’t drink it. Instead he proclaimed his unworthiness and poured out the water onto the ground. See 2 Samuel 23:14-17.
Many of us have struggled to find meaning in David’s over-dramatic act with that water. Our mouths drop open and our eyes pop out just like those of the warriors who sacrificed their lives for that water. When Sahra gave me that money, I understood how David felt. I only wish it had been water that I could have poured out onto the ground. Or could I? Should I just leave the money in the grass and let the wind take it away? Should I give the money to benefit the poor? Did Sahra want me to spend the money on my own well-being to make up for the income that I sacrificed to help her? Should I take my wife out to a fancy dinner? I’m at a loss.
Despite the story of the widow’s two copper coins being common knowledge to most in the western world, few actually follow its lessons about how and what we give to God. Of course, the story is not just about the money, it’s about what we do with every blessing we have–do we give out of our excess, reserving the rest to benefit ourselves and ensure our future security, or do we give quite literally all we have for the benefit of others? But the question I ask today is: What do you do when someone offers you a blessing that came at a great sacrifice to them? What did Jesus want the Temple to do with the widow’s gift, where she said “I’m all in”? Until I find out the answer to that question, the four $100 bills will remain on my desk.