Stupid giving: The offering as a complete sacrifice

August 5th, 2015

"Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44 CEB)

Thumb through pages of an annual report of any organization affiliated with United Methodists. Visit websites and peruse collateral material of conferences or charitable foundations. Invariably, you will read of John Wesley’s teachings about stewardship. Wesleyan scholars and purists observe that stewardship was central to Wesley’s preaching and spiritual practice.

John Wesley considered the failure to practice Christian stewardship a major threat to the spiritual health and effectiveness of the Methodist revival. He wrote the following in 1786:

"I fear, wherever riches have increased (exceeding few are the exceptions) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality. And these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, and anger, and love of the world in all its branches."(1)

Like others, I believe recovery of a Wesleyan perspective on stewardship could be the means by which the next generation of United Methodists will have the form and the power of authentic faith.

United Methodists and other denominations struggle to address the realities of poverty. This is particularly true for many rural, urban, and ethnic-majority congregations. The economic circumstances in these communities are calling for the church’s attention. Likewise, the church is called to introspection and acknowledgment of its many disparities. Division and inequality exist throughout our connection between those living out of abundance and others living in poverty. Perhaps the church’s response is better informed by recognizing poverty as an individual or communal circumstance rather than as a character flaw in those who suffer. According to scripture, the truly poor are those who lack the spirit. Even more confounding is scripture’s assertion that the poor will always be among us.

One reminder is a powerful scene described in Mark’s Gospel. In the text, Jesus is analyzing patterns of giving. Jesus continues his condemnation of the religious legal experts. He charges the religious legal experts with cheating widows out of their homes (Mark 12:40). An indictment against the socially and politically affluent and economically advantaged was based on the following: leaders confused social affluence and influence with divine approval, yet they were defrauding those who were socially vulnerable. Jesus brings into question the religious philosophy and practices of the church’s material, political, and social elite.

Jesus condemns the religious legal experts for their offensive practices and corrupt hearts. His critique is based on an theological precept inherent to Jewish and Jewish-Christian traditions: A nation or community is obligated to defend and care for its widows, orphans, lost, least, and oppressed and not become agents of or indifferent to their demise. James Cone wrote about the Black Diaspora and American experience: “The task of theology, then, is to explicate the meaning of God’s liberating activity so that those who labor under enslaving powers will see that the forces of liberation are the very activity of God.”(2)

God is God of the oppressed. God through Jesus Christ intends to liberate the captive, heal the sick, empower the poor and weak, uplift the downtrodden, and radically transform the political, social, and economic systems of this life.

In Mark 12, Jesus identifies a “poor widow.” A widowed woman in antiquity, most times, had no voice in the community. Being a widowed woman resulted in not having a “covering” or advocate. Thus a widowed woman, more times than not, was vulnerable—or even worse, made to feel like a victim.

Not much has changed. Being black, brown, and woman means you are probably paid less and have to do more. A woman of color living in a low-income and highly criminalized community is more likely to be victimized than someone in any other gender or ethnic group. Being black, brown, and female means your personhood and identity are demeaned, sexualized, and stereotyped.

Jesus recognized she was poor, getting along on meager fare, alone, and in need. Jesus not only identified her present position in life, but he also emphasized to the disciples her condition. Jesus understood the factors and influences that impacted her choices, safety, and well-being. He notes the contrast between the woman’s reality and her response to life’s situation. Yes, she was poor but not of spirit. In other words, her circumstances did not define her. By analogy, a church’s physical buildings or its people’s financial and material situations should neither cripple nor define its character of ministry.

Financial stewardship in economically strained communities requires empathy. Clif Christopher encourages churches to acknowledge they are nonprofit institutions within a marketplace economy. Christopher, quoting Peter Drucker, cites nonprofits as human change agents because their principle product is a changed human being.(3) Church is a marketplace entity with a divine purpose. The church should never become a hindrance to its people. Instead, its very agency and acts of stewardship must change them and their situations for the better.

As a fund-raising professional, I operate from a premise that a donor gives for the donor’s reason. The leadership team in a church should identify a donor’s motivation and mode for contributing, as well as means for sustaining their act of generosity. Interestingly, the contemporary church has premised its expectation for financial stewardship on obligation and abundance. It’s not unreasonable to expect people to contribute. But we are unrealistic when we fail to account for impediments to a person’s ability to give. The church, particularly in urban and rural contexts, is charged with rightly aligning its work and witness to the realities of its people.

A donor gives for the donor’s reasons. Research shows those reasons often center around belief in mission, identification with or respect for leadership, and organizational stability. However, in less sophisticated, structured, or fiscally solvent situations, the motivation, mode, and means that undergird giving differ drastically. Personal giving is not for tax benefit. Neither is giving in order to further political interest or solidify social status or gain the admiration and respect of the community. On the contrary, giving in the spirit of a “widowed woman” then and now is an act of survival. Jesus was moved by the woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything she possessed. She offered all she had intended to live on. Jesus lifts her example of sacrifice in contrast to the selfish and sinful piety of church leaders. Jesus wanted the disciples of old and now to receive the revelation of sacrifice through stewardship: “All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had.”

Deny Self

Across fifteen years of parish ministry in socioeconomically depleted communities, I’ve seen how offertory in worship is for many people an ultimatum. The decision to contribute results in having to deny self of something essential. Our tradition’s teaching about sacrifice is simple: it is not a sacrifice if it does not cost you something. Sacrifice is not a sacrifice if doesn’t deprive or leave you without something. Sacrifice is painful. Sacrifice is personal. Sacrifice is memorable. Inherent in sacrifice is an unavoidable sense of hurt, loss, or discomfort. The difference between contributing out of one’s abundance versus poverty is an ability to remain comfortable. For example, an offering for the affluent may remove a zero or a comma in a bank account but not deplete it.

Weekly offertory in most urban churches serves as a referendum of its ministry and management objectives in a stressed community. Jesus critiques the inability of the church to effectually provide ministry or address injustice, due in part to the faithlessness and divested practices of its leaders. Those who needed the greatest support were forced to carry the burden of leadership themselves. Far too many urban and rural congregations are forced by archaic evaluative metrics, itinerate systems, and connectional practices to choose between the essentials of congregational life and paying the bills. Observers should recognize that what appears as meager offerings is the sum subtracted from minimal sustenance.

Deposit Stupidly

Most folk would call a person “stupid” if he or she gave away every penny saved. When was the last time you did something deliriously daring? When was the last time your church or conference engaged in spiritual initiatives that were faithfully foolish? For me, it was when my conference and family set out to launch an urban “parachute” church in an African American context in middle America
almost four years ago. Every church expert recommended never to invest that kind of money. Conference leadership was advised to identify a different planter. The local community was apprehensive toward establishment of another “mainline” Protestant church. More important, common sense and statistics would suggest planting anywhere except the place where we landed. As a connection, we have placed big checks in all kind of pots, but do we do so out of coaxing, coercion, begging, or bribery? Or do we do as Wesley did and take God at God’s word? “Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap” (Luke 6:38 CEB).

Depend on the Savior

After depositing the two cooper coins the poor widowed woman was left with nothing. More times than I wish to admit, we at Wellspring experience the same. Wesley admonished all to earn, save, and give away. In these times that is easier said than done. To borrow from Carroll Watkins Ali, “Today the majority of African Americans live under conditions of genocidal poverty.”(4) The church is uniquely challenged to articulate an agenda and model an approach that accounts for appropriate financial stewardship in challenging socioeconomic contexts.

 1. John Wesley, “Thoughts upon Methodism” (1786), §9, in The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design, ed. Rupert E. Davies, vol. 9 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), 529.

2. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 3.

3. J. Clif Christopher, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 11.

4. Carroll A. Watkins Ali, Survival and Liberation: Pastoral Theology in African American Context (St. Louis: Chalice, 1999), 25. 

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