In my family album, I have a picture of myself as a child of six or seven. I’m sitting primly on one of those professional photography studio chairs in my First Communion Dress.
It’s white and lacy, and I am accessorized with white Mary Jane shoes and white anklets with lace trim, white gloves, a white purse, and to top it all off, I am wearing a white crown and a veil – the perfect picture of a perfect little ‘bride of Christ.’
I have a clear memory that, in my child’s eyes, that was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen and ever hoped to wear until my actual wedding day. I was deeply, deeply grateful for it and very, very happy.
What made it even more special was, like so many children in my neighborhood, this beautiful dress did not cost my parents a penny. The entire outfit was provided for me anonymously by one of the women in my church, done in memory of her late husband.
Actually, the proper Portuguese term was ‘for the soul of’. It was a religious belief that, through this act of generosity, the soul of this man would be glorified in whatever way God sought.
It was an act of generosity and kindness, given from a heart filled with gratitude for life. She was doing it to the honor and glory of God and in loving memory of her late husband.
This morning’s gospel lesson about the Widow’s Mite touches these childhood memories for me in very real and vivid ways. After teaching a stern lesson about the haughtiness and arrogance of some of the scribes, Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury where many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins – worth about a penny. Jesus gathered his disciples around him and said that she had put in more than all those who contributed to the Temple treasury. “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”
I know. Some of you are saying, “Ouch!” In the economy of the Realm of God, generosity of the heart and spirit is a much higher currency than that of the currency of the world. Actually, Jesus is teaching a basic law of the Talmud.
My new best friend, the Rabbi with whom I recently co-presided at an Interfaith Wedding, had some very interesting things to say about the Hebrew understanding of charity – one that continues to shape and form Jews today.
The word in Hebrew, he tells me, is "tzedakah" but like so many words, its true meaning gets lost in the translation. Tzedakah is more than mere ‘charity’.
The word charity suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy.
The word tzedakah, however, is derived from a Hebrew word meaning righteousness, justice or fairness.
In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.
The baseline of tzedakah is 10% of one’s income, from which we Christians get the word “tithe” – as in “strive to tithe”. Nevertheless, how one contributes that ‘tithe’ is important to the religious Jew.
The preeminent Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of the Middle Ages was a Rabbi named Moses Maimonides. Indeed, we sing some of his theology in the great hymn “The God of Abraham Praise” (#401 in our Hymnal) the words of which author Thomas Olivers is said to have taken from the ‘Yigdal’ of Maimonides.
Maimonides wrote that there are eight levels of tzedakah, which, I think, are instructive for us today – especially in light of this morning’s gospel as well as in the Season of Stewardship. In ascending order they are, very simply put:
1. Giving begrudgingly (the lowest form of giving).This last level is known as the highest level of tzedakah and there are a few levels to that: to support someone by endowing them with an outright gift or interest-free loan, or entering into a partnership with them, or finding employment for them in order to strengthen their hand until they need no longer be dependent upon others.
2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully. (I guess I’m shameless. I’ll take a generous contribution or pledge any day from a crabby person.)
3. Giving after being asked.
4. Giving before being asked.
5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity.
6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity.
7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity. (This was the case of my beautiful First Communion outfit.)
8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.
As daunting as all of these different levels are, in the economy of the Realm of God, Jesus has an even higher level of giving - one that flows from a heart unconcerned with amount or recipient or intention or charity or hierarchy of need.
For Jesus, it is the spirit of generosity that matters – a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that flows from a heart filled with gratitude for all that God has done in your life.
That generosity of spirit, for Jesus, counts for more than just money. Giving it all to God because God has done so much for you – even though you are poorer than poor and all alone in the world. Indeed, especially if this is so.
I think we, in this post-modern culture, have lost sight of that sort of gratitude. I know I have. It’s so easy to do in our culture of ‘throw-away’ and ‘easy credit’ and ‘instant gratification’. God forbid we – or our children or grandchildren – should want for anything. Or, have to wait for anything. Or, have to work for anything.
Sometimes I wonder if, in all of our magnanimity, we are actually short-changing our children and children for an opportunity to learn something about – and experience – gratitude.
As I stand before you today, I can acutely remember the deep sense of gratitude I felt for that First Communion dress. As I look at the picture of myself, I can honestly say that I don’t remember much about the dress (If I didn’t have the picture, I wouldn’t remember at all). It was beautiful. That was enough.
What I really remember is how grateful I felt. And that gratefulness deepened my happiness and turned it into joy. That happiness and joy have lasted all these many, many years later and, I think, have inspired some of the choices I’ve made in my life. The sacrifices I’ve made for my beliefs. The risks I’ve taken for my faith. Turns out, gratefulness inspires gratefulness.
There is a saying in the 12 Step Program that, in order to gain a strong-foothold on sobriety, one needs to develop “An Attitude of Gratitude”. Now, one might ask, “What has gratitude got to do with sobriety? How is gratitude an antidote for an addictive disease?”
Good questions. Rather than answer them for you, I’m going to ask you to consider them. Carefully. Talk to someone in recovery. Listen carefully to what they have to say. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn about faith from someone in sobriety.
That may be because there’s another saying in the 12-Step Program: “Religion is for those who fear going to Hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.” While I may disagree somewhat with the first part of that saying, I certainly embrace the latter.
I have found that there are some deeply spiritual people who are members in this church – and, I note, they are among our most generous people.
Conversely, some of the most so-called ‘religious’ people I’ve known in the church of God are also some of the most mean-spirited and stingy people to ever have taken a seat in church. They not only give begrudgingly, with lots of strings and qualifications and terms and conditions attached.
Here’s a few more questions for you to consider: What has gratitude got to do with a life of faith? How is gratitude the basis for generosity? Why is sacrificial giving part of a Christian life of faith? Why do we say that Eucharist is ‘a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’? What does that mean, really? How does generosity help to raise us to ‘the full stature of Christ’? How is developing an “Attitude of Gratitude” reflective of a faith in God?
I don’t have answers for those questions for you. Like sobriety, developing a life of faith is something best done in a community of your peers. But, I’d love to talk with you about these questions and explore what they may mean for your life of faith.
As one Christian mystic once said, “The church is at its best when it understands itself as a community of grateful beggars who teach other hungry beggars where to find bread.”
Or, as Jesus said to his disciples about the Widow’s Mite, “ . . . . [she] has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”