When the mockingbird sings

November 12th, 2018

Mockingbirds perch on our roof line, at the top of our backyard fence, and in the pines surrounding our house. They gaze at the sky and into the trees and down toward the fields. Some would say that they’re watching for hawks or snakes or lunch.

Not me.

I say that they’re taking it all in. Sitting quietly with the beauty of it all, neither anxiously scanning for threats nor hungrily spying for the next meal. And when they are filled to overflowing, the mockingbirds sing.

Mockingbirds don’t merely trill or chirp. They compose melodies. That’s why one of Harper Lee’s characters said that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird; all they do is sing their hearts out.

Mary Oliver has taught me to listen for the divine word that nature whispers. It should come as no surprise that Jesus’s lessons convey the same word. 

With the help of Oliver, these mockingbirds have shown me something about living in a world of material things. It’s the lesson that Jesus shares with us as he reflects on the contrast between how rich donors and an impoverished widow give alms.

People of means are tossing relatively large sums into the alms basin. The widow drops in a few coins. In most of our translations, will read that Jesus says that the rich people gave from their abundance and that the widow gave from her poverty. (Mark 12:38-44)

Loads of preachers will take hold of that word “abundance” and tell their congregations that God is a God of abundance. Don’t live by the toxic myth of scarcity. You have enough. Be generous. This will feel like a gimme during congregational annual drive season.

While Jesus has plenty to say about God’s abundance elsewhere, he’s on to something quite different this time. My reading of the passage shifted when I realized that the Greek word rendered as “abundance” here can also be translated as “excess.”

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Let’s take another look at the contrast substituting the alternative translation. The privileged have given from their excess. The widow from her poverty. And, according to Jesus, the widow has given more than the others even though the monetary size of her offering is tiny by comparison.

Poverty is clearly her economic state. This is important and should be explored in another context. But in this space I want to focus on the idea that poverty is also her spiritual posture. It is her habitual way of navigating a world of material objects.

Mary’s Oliver’s poem “Catbird” conveys my meaning:

Will I ever understand him?
Certainly he will never understand me, or the world
I come from.
For he will never sing for the kingdom of dollars.
For he will never grow pockets in his gray wings.

Catbirds—and their songbird cousin the mockingbird—do not need pockets. Accumulating more than they need never occurs to them. So, they would never have a place to store their excess and to keep it safe from others. The very notion of that sort of wealth is foreign to them.

Likewise, the widow has no need of pockets. There is no evidence that she holds material things in disdain or advocates an ascetic lifestyle. Rather, she simply never accumulates more than she needs. 

The widow could have held back her coins for tomorrow’s supper or for next week’s prescription refill. Instead, she responded with what she had to the hunger and the sickness and the homelessness of her neighbor. In her view, everything we have has been given to us so that we can use it to love our neighbor, not to make ourselves more comfortable or secure or important.

At this point you may be thinking, “No wonder the widow is poor! We have to put aside what we need for tomorrow. We have to make sure we will have enough to cover our expenses and to handle unforeseen circumstances.”

In other words, many of us assume that what we get through our hard work is ours and ours alone to keep and to spend however we like. We earned it. We don’t owe anybody anything. Nobody owes us anything. Maybe Ayn Rand is your patron saint. Maybe it’s Adam Smith.

But Jesus challenges us to live with material things in an entirely different way.

Imagine that the world actually resembles the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom where we love God with every fiber of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves. I mean really love our neighbor. Our neighbor’s sorrow breaks our heart. Our neighbor’s hunger leaves us famished. Our neighbor’s joy makes us giddy.

In that world, nobody needs pockets. Each of us gives from whatever we have to feed, clothe, and educate every kid. To house and to tend to the elderly. To treat the sick and to heal the wounded.

Okay, I know this is a dream. But it’s God’s dream — the dream of a world where we no longer need pockets. Some of my dreams won’t come true, but like I said, this is God’s dream and God’s dreams come true. Eventually.

In the meantime, take heart when the mockingbird sings. Let’s do the good we can with what we have.

"When the Mockingbird Sings" originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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