SCRIPTURE: Mark 12:38-44
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
SERMON: Penny For Your Thoughts, Mark 12:38-44, November 11, 2012
Today people stash pennies away as an investment strategy but Jesus makes it clear that giving them away is the better investment. Long ago, there was a lady who -- instead of hoarding her last pennies -- gave them away.
In order to explain, we start with a lesson in metallurgy. Before 1982, the penny was made of copper. But that year, the cost of the copper required to create one penny rose above 1¢. So since 1982, the U.S. Mint coined pennies made primarily of zinc. That was cost-efficient until 2006 when the penny production cost rose to 1.23¢. In 2012, it costs 2.41¢ to make a penny.
Legislation is now considering eliminating Abe from our coinage altogether. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have eliminated their pennies already.
At the crossroads of metallurgy and political legislation, two cottage financial industries have subsequently emerged. The first was penny melting. Companies began collecting pre-1982 pennies and melting them to resell the copper. Copper prices kept rising and scads of pennies disappeared. Business was booming.
Copper melting proved so lucrative that illicit activities sprung up. Thieves began stripping copper wire from construction sites and utility connections. A 122-year-old copper bell was even stolen from Saint Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. The Mint had to produce enormous numbers of zinc pennies to offset the circulation deficit created by copper penny melters. So in 2007, laws were passed making penny melting illegal.
That's when the second penny industry emerged: penny hoarding. People stash pre-1982 pennies away, hoping for the rumored legislation that will do away with the 1¢ coin. At that point, penny melting would again be legal.
At worst, these stashes of pennies are worth 1¢ each – or exactly what was paid to get them. Zero lost on the investment -- except to inflation -- if the Mint keeps the penny or the penny hoarder loses patience and cashes out.
But the upside is 120 percent profit! Every penny can be melted and resold for 2.2¢ – and that's a falloff from copper value earlier this year.
For many of us, pennies are more purse, pocket, or car-clutter than currency. But in this text from Mark 12, a penny was all that a widow had to live on. One penny. Well, the Greek words are lepta and kodrantes. Two lepta or coins worth less than a kodrantes or a penny. What she had was worth less than, let's say, a post-1982 penny.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching the people in the temple (v. 35). As the religious leaders strolled about the courtyards, Jesus used them as a foil (v. 38). Their garments were ornate -- a cultural sign of leisure and dignity. They expected formal public greetings -- the first-century equivalent of saluting an officer. They wanted prominence and deference. They liked their standing in society and the comfort that came with it.
In like fashion, Jesus noticed the rich giving their huge offerings in the temple. Then a widow came and put two copper coins into the offering. Two coins were nothing compared to the sacks the rich had offered. In fact, our idiom "my 2 cents" probably draws from this story. We say, "I'll put in my 2 cents, for what it's worth."
Recall the adage, "See a penny, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck." Well good luck may not be worth 1¢ anymore. If you saw a coin on the sidewalk, would you pick it up if it were a quarter? A dime? A nickel? How about a penny?
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard has just finished telling her readers about a childhood game of hers in which she would hide pennies for other people to find -- emblematic of her later work as a writer -- when she moves on to reflect on the significance of seeing (or failing to see) discarded pennies on the ground:
"It is still the first week in January and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But -- and this is the point -- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded with the site of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?
It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get." --Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (HarperCollins, 2007), 17.
What do we see when we look at a penny? Do we see worthlessness or hope for the future? It’s not the value of the penny itself, but what it represents that’s significant.
A couple of pennies -- that's what the widow gave when the temple passed the plate. Jesus commended her for giving what most of us would not stoop to pick up off of the sidewalk.
From the narrative of the widow and her pennies, several themes emerge that we should consider today. Abundance is subtle, Money is a barometer, and Attitude trumps appearances.
Jewish religious leaders weren't a horridly corrupt lot -- we must be fair. They were religiously zealous in an increasingly pluralistic culture. However, it's possible they came to enjoy their position of power and privilege to such a degree that they lost a sense of religious and spiritual purpose.
Jesus' indictment of them shows that they loved abundant status, abundant comfort and abundant deference from those around them.
Pennies From Heaven is a 1936 film starring Bing Crosby (not to be confused with the 1981 Steve Martin film, that shares only the title). The film's story -- of flawed but well-meaning people trying to do the right thing and stick together amid adversity -- has been largely forgotten, but the title song, emblematic of the Depression Era, has endured as a jazz standard.
The song's lyrics reflect on how the pre-Depression world had forgotten how "the best things in life were absolutely free." Because no one appreciated marvels like the blue sky and the new moon, "it was planned" (presumably by God) "that they would vanish now and then."
You had to buy them back -- but with what?
"Pennies from heaven" is the answer:
That's what storms were made for
And you shouldn't be afraid for
Every time it rains, it rains,
Pennies from heaven.
Don't you know each cloud contains
Pennies from heaven?
You'll find your fortune's falling
All over town.
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down.
The song's message may sound silly or simplistic, but in the darkest days of the Depression, it was comforting to think that God might still send the occasional penny our way -- a small, but tangible blessing, symbolic of much more significant blessings yet to come. (A penny was still worth a little something back in that day, but still it wasn't very much.)
The whole idea is reminiscent of a biblical story, that of the manna that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. They couldn't hoard the stuff, because it would spoil. They had to depend on its daily arrival (with double portions graciously provided on the day before the Sabbath, so they wouldn't have to work picking it up).
If God's daily blessings are indeed waiting to be harvested, there's something to be said for "keeping your umbrella upside down."
Ironically, unclaimed pennies are far more likely to be discovered on the sidewalk these days than they were in the 1930s. Are we really so wealthy that we can afford to just pass them by, hoping for a hundred-dollar windfall instead? Or have we forgotten the simple wonder of finding happiness in the little things in life?
The writer of Mark wants us to see giving as a barometer of our internal devotion to God and God's kingdom.
As a parallel issue, consider Jesus' words on words: "It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). How should we apply this -- avoid slander, stop cussing and don't gossip about others, or examine the heart's broken desires that give rise to these behaviors? Tend to the latter, and the former will change.
Giving is the same way. The abundance of the religious is contrasted with the abundance of the widow. Giving is simply an external demonstration of internal humility and trust before our maker.
The point here is not necessarily to give more. Maybe we need to give less and provide for family or radically reduce personal debt so we can give more, healthier and for a longer time. Maybe we do need to give more and give creatively. But those issues are secondary, not primary.
What Jesus seeks is heart transformation. Become the widow. As one pastor puts it, "Change your money and it may change your heart. Change your heart and it will change your money."
The comparisons among the three "characters" of this passage are striking. The religious leaders and rich givers look great on the outside -- they possess the cultural appearance of importance and standing. But their heart conditions show their true appearance to be thin and wanting.
On the other hand, a widow was a cultural outcast in the first century. Widows shared a marginalized standing with lepers, the poor, tax collectors and prostitutes. Yet with a heart devoted fully to God, the widow has a lot to teach us.
This nameless, penny-less woman without a family has become an historical metaphor for generosity, dependence, sacrifice and priority.
As we set our own values, priorities and lifestyle choices, we might remember God's words to Samuel: "For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
We may look acceptable to society, or even Christian subculture, but our attitudes are the reality. Our inner motivations. What we feel. What we think but don't dare say. These all trump the outward gestures that people may observe.
St. Francis of Assisi was hoeing his garden when someone asked what he would do if he were suddenly to learn that he would die before sunset that very day. "I would finish hoeing my garden," he said. This is the widow's perspective.
Contrast this with the story of the woman who came rushing to the preacher saying, "That woman there says she saw a vision of Jesus at the altar! What should we do?" The pastor replied, "Look busy." This is the Pharisee's perspective.
If you are ever tempted to think that what you have to offer God is insignificant, remember the widow and the two coins.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a dream. She told her superiors, "I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage."
"Mother Teresa," her superiors chided gently, "you cannot build an orphanage with three pennies. With three pennies, you can't do anything."
"I know," she said, smiling, "but with God and three pennies I can do anything!"
(Robert Schuller, You Are Wonderful (Norwalk, Connecticut: The C.R. Gibson Company, 1987), 20.)
With God, and whatever God has blessed you with, great or small, you, too, can do anything! Amen.