There is a logical link between last week's sermon, "Render Unto Caesar" and today's meditation on the "Widow's Mite"; the quality of the gift is the hot issue, and I hope we will be able come to some conclusions about the spiritual component of giving, specifically, and the more general, overarching principle of "service."
Since coming to Alaska, my artistic isolation out in the bush has denied me very much contact with the so-called upper echelon of musicians in this admittedly "bushy" state, but when I was in California it was my pleasure and honor to play with, conduct, and write for many high-level, internationally recognized musicians. At the same time, then as now, I was developing relationships with many more amateur musicians in instrumental ensembles and choruses. The question naturally came up, "whom do I like working with more?"
I must confess, there is a kind of ecstasy associated with standing up in front of a group and actually having it "sound good"; but when I look beyond the surface features of a performance, into the level of spiritual outpouring, that takes place whenever music is channeled from its divine source into the physical, I have to admit that my amateur groups are very competitive with the pro groups. Now, the very best musicians ALWAYS give their best, but there is a class of middle-weight musicians who are well-trained, competent, and experienced, who tend to "play the gig" and take home their checks with a level of blase indifference that results in a spiritual channeling by far inferior to the amateur, in terms of the "quality" of the outpouring. It's the same principle I have spoken of many times before: the harder you try, the more you get; the fact that pro musicians don't have to try as hard as their amateur counterparts, means that they tend to channel spiritual energy of a lower vibratory frequency.
As a conductor, I can FEEL when the members of the group are attempting to transcend their physical limitations and penetrate to the divine realm. It's like I mentioned before in my sermon on the prophet not being recognized in his own hometown:
". . . Robert Hichens, the noted painter of the sea, once sought a boy whose face might reflect the wonder of the sea. After searching he discovered that he could not find such a lad in one of the sea-coast towns of England. In order to find a face that reflected wonder in connection with the sea he had to choose a boy from the slums of London, a boy who had never seen the ocean before. Familiarity breeds contempt. A prophet is not without honor save in his own country and in his own house."
The amateur, who is often discovering the magic of a particular piece for the first time, will always experience a higher degree of intensity than the pro musician who has played that same piece a dozen times. Again, referring to my job at the Urbana Country Club:
". . . I used to play this piece, the Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations, at my piano gig in Illinois. It is a very ornate piece, and the embellishments can be very affecting, but if you play them the same way every time it sounds false. So, every time I play this piece, including this one, I first remind myself to experience it as though I had never played it before. This keeps the music fresh and sincere--but, every time, I have to remember to say to myself, "You should always look at life as though you were coming out of a tunnel." Reminding yourself is the key--being totally conscious is the key."
From my sermon on "Entering the Kingdom of God as a Child", I made this comment:
"I find this passage extraordinary just in terms of its PSYCHOLOGY. Jesus is giving very precise instructions for integrating the two polar opposites of our dualistic nature (remember the sphinxes?) into one synthetic consciousness state. He is not saying that ignorance is bliss, that childlike cluelessness is preferable to advanced knowledge, he is saying that, at whatever level of consciousness you find yourself, at any given moment, you must integrate all your personal histories into a single point of view—LIKE A CHILD. Thus, no matter how much we know, or think we know, that singleness of perspective must necessarily result in a kind of innocence."
Always, it is childlike innocence that we require, to get the most out of spiritual experience. Clearly it is easier for an amateur to have that innocent outlook that the pro who has eaten of the tree of knowledge time and time again.
Notice, as we proceed, that, as in the "Render Unto Caesar" sermon, I am less concerned with the money aspect of the gift than I am with the spiritual aspect of the gift, of which the money is merely a symbol. Indeed, this symbolic dimension of money is not to be ignored. I have made a case for the idea that much of my success is attributable to my willingness to do things for free; I HAVE, DO, AND ALWAYS WILL PERFORM LOTS OF PROFESSIONAL SERVICES FOR FREE. That doesn't mean I do everything for free. Just as my gift of time to the community represents compassion for the devotee, so does money paid to me by the devotee represent respect; without respect, the gift becomes devalued, not to say worthless. Here in Alaska, as in any backwoods place, where the normal high water mark of culture is some maiden lady at the church who "gives pianuh" for a pittance, people often don't appreciate the monetary value of professional music teachers. I demand a medium-high fee for my teaching services (always lower than some pro teachers at my level, but higher than the maiden lady at the church who gives pianuh) not because (as Humphrey Bogart said) "I can get it," but because the investment of money raises the profile of my teaching in the mind of the student. Thus in this one scenario, money can be seen to SYMBOLIZE compassion, respect, and profile, just to name a few. It is the abstract values which we attach to money that determines its real value, which, thereby determines the true qualitative value of its sacrifice.
Now, the "widow's mite" texts:
41And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
42And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
43And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
44For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
1And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury.
2And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.
3And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all:
4For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had.
Lesson of the widow's mite
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"A bronze mite, also known as a Lepton (meaning small), minted by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judaea, 103 - 76 B.C.
The Lesson of the widow's mite is presented in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4), in which Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark specifies that two mites (Greek lepta) are together worth a quadrans, the smallest Roman coin. A lepton was the smallest and least valuable coin in circulation in Palestine, worth about six minutes of an average daily wage.
In the story, a widow donates two small coins, while wealthy people donate much more. Jesus explains to his disciples that the small sacrifices of the poor mean more to God than the extravagant donations of the rich.
In Jesus' times in Israel, the small copper coin was called a lepton; there actually were no coins called mites. However, there was a mite in the time of the King James translation. The denomination was well known in the Southern Netherlands. Both the duke of Brabant and the count of Flanders issued them and they were sometimes imitated in the North. Originally, the Brabant mijt (maille in French) was 1/76 stuiver, the Flemish mijt 1/48 stuiver. When the two areas were united under the dukes of Burgundy and later under the Habsburgs, the rate of the mijt was set at 1/32 stuiver. More important, they were the very smallest copper coins. By 1611, they were no longer minted, but they were still in circulation.
In the society of 1611, it was almost a social obligation to give a silver coin at church collections, for there were many framed money galleries and armored safes in churches that needed to be filled. Only the very poor could get away with giving a copper coin and only the desperately poor would give a copper coin as small as a mijt, as their social status could hardly sink any lower. A widow would in principle have to live without any income. The translator probably may have had a beggar and a contemporary widow in mind. All this would have been self-evident to the readers. All of the contributions of silver were made "to be seen of men" as noted below, not as contributions to the church.
Witnessing the donations made by the rich men, Jesus highlights how a poor widow donates only two mites, the least valuable coins available at the time. But, Jesus observes, this sum was everything she had to her name, while the other people give only a small portion of their own wealth.
In earlier times, a number of Christians, especially the Gnostics, Ebionites, Waldensians, and Franciscans, argued that the passage is an encouragement to live in poverty, and not seek riches.
In the passage immediately preceding this in both gospel accounts, Jesus is portrayed as condemning the religious leaders who feign piety, accept honor from people, and steal from widows (perhaps feigning piety in order to gain the trust of widows, and thereby gain access to their assets). Although most Christians understand this as criticism of the actions of certain individuals, racist groups have historically argued that the passages in question justify anti-semitism, particularly as the Gospel of Mark argues that severe punishment awaits those who follow such actions (Brown et al.).
Taken literally, the widow's donation of one mite could have been by obligation, because she could not have given any less. Following this reasoning, some interpreters suggest that Jesus sits down in judgment "opposite" (over against, in opposition to) the treasury; the lesson drawn emphasizes that, while people are impressed with the large sums that are put in, they did not notice that the Temple took half of what the "poor widow" had to live on. Connected with the passage about the destruction of the Temple that immediately follows it in both gospels Mark 13:1-2, "there will not be left one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down", the lesson is then interpreted as promising the overthrow of any worship of God sustained by robbery.
A more likely interpretation has a different focus. Since in any case the woman would have been under no obligation to give the second mite, when she gave "all her living" she could not have given any more. Thus, the traditional interpretation of the passage is that God accounts the value of a gift not by how much is given, but by how much is kept back. Hence, the poor widow is counted as having given a great gift, having kept nothing for herself, while those who give out of their abundance but keep plenty for themselves are counted by God as having given very little. While the passage may or may not be an encouragement to live in poverty, it is certainly an encouragement to give generously."
[I would like to interject a comment here on the subject of "keeping back": as I mentioned at the outset, my take on the "widow's mite" scenario is from the standpoint of a music director; I have said that the pro musician tends to give less than all he has, out of tired worldly experience--for many musicians, "the thrill is gone" long before they play their last note. Thus, instead of pushing themselves to discover the music as the fresh innocently exhilarating event they knew as children when they were first drawn to music, they "hold back" their enthusiasm by simply limiting their identification with the newness of the spiritual manifestation--a manifestation which is necessarily an anomalous event in the newness of time and in their own subjective experience.
How often do we hold back our engagement with experience because it is the "the same old thing?" How often do we deny the people around us the opportunity to share in enthusiasms which ought to inspire spiritual excitement, but turn into drab re-enactments of dried-up formulae? More on this later. Back to Wikipedia:]
"Coming as it does immediately after the condemnation of the religious leaders of the day--who sought and enjoyed the praise of people while "devouring widows' houses"--there is also likely a second implication. When someone does something to be "seen of men" (Matthew 6:5, 23:5), they have their reward, as the rich who made an ostentatious show of their generosity. They certainly impressed each other and those watching. But it was the quiet "small" gift of the poor widow that impressed the Son of God. If we do our works to be seen of men, we have our reward. If we do our works as the poor widow, if we are wholeheartedly devoted to God instead of seeking the praise of people and instead of spending riches on our own pleasures, we will receive a far greater reward which He has for us."
Thus, as in the "Render Unto Caesar" sermon, we see that the rich, by giving less than they might (haha), are rendering unto Caesar; the ostentatious show they put on, to inflate their sense of righteousness in the eyes of their rich friends, has nothing of spirituality in it, and it is certainly not a gift to God. Jesus repeatedly spoke out against the shallowness of worldly prestige, which, as we know, is one of the primary commodities that money buys.
On November 13, 2006, Herb Ely wrote:
Should The “Widow’s Mite” Story Make Us Feel Guilty?
"This gospel passage led to extensive discussion among my friends at lunch on Friday and at home over the weekend. Here are some observations:
• In the gospel Jesus offers a criticism of the scribes,
• Jesus recognizes – but does not criticize – the rich for contributing large sums, and
• He contrasts the behavior of both with the widow.
The behavior of the three reveals a spiritual reality about wealth. The possession of wealth can be poison, making one so grasping that it leads to power and glory-seeking as well as a willingness to defraud the poor. Wealth can lead to contributions of large sums – presumably on-going behavior on the part of the rich people. The widow’s willingness to “contribute all she had, her whole livelihood” is also a reflection of psychological and spiritual reality. Most of us are willing “to turn over our lives and wills to the care of God” only after we have been through a dark night and learned that our wealth cannot save us. One wonders what led the rich people to be so generous.
These observations led to a set of questions:
• How should any of us decide how generous we should be with our funds?
• Assuming that the “rich people” know that the scribes were mis-spending funds“ on honor and glory, even to the point devouring the houses of widows,” what was their responsibility?
• How do we choose among contributions to the temple or to other worth-while charities?
• What happens if we interpret the phrase “all that she had” to mean more than just finances?
We get some help on the first question from 2 Corinthians 8. (Note that this letter is Christianity’s first direct mail solicitation of funds!) Paul praises the Macedonians who gave
“according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, ..”(2 Cor. 8:6)
Then he gives the people of Corinth some different advice on how much to give:
"For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have; not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality."
This advice doesn’t let the Corinthians off the hook. While they need not impoverish themselves, they – and the rest of us – still need to determine how much is surplus.
2 Cor. 9:6-7 offers more advice on how to how to discern how we should contribute, and on where we should make our contributions:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity (Book 3, Chapter 13)….
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.”
This quote from an unknown author is fun:
Interest on the Widow's Mite
"It is estimated that if the widow's mite had been deposited at the First National Bank, Jerusalem to draw four percent interest semi-annually, the fund today would total $4,800,000,000,000,000,000,000. (Four sextillion, eight hundred quintillion). If a bank on earth could multiply the widow's mite to such an astronomical figure, think what treasures this dedicated woman will have in heaven where "moth and rust doth not corrupt."
from Shawn Blanc's internet article, The Reality of Our Widow’s Mite
"We read the story of the widow’s mite and we think; “How noble. She only had two pennies and she gave them both. She gave all she had. When I am in that situation I hope to do the same.” But if you think about it, aren’t we all in that situation? All of us only have a widow’s mite to give God. If you have built up the biggest ministry on the block it’s still just a goofy looking crayon drawing with stick-figured purple haired folks when we compare it to the majesty of God. What makes our offerings mean something is if we give them with love in our heart. The reality of our life is that no matter how ‘successful’ or ‘productive’ we are, it’s all just a meager offering to God. What matters is not “deeds of righteousness,” but to engage our hearts in love to God."
Indeed, it is pride that sullies the radiance of the pro musician's gift of music. Pro musicians can parade their gifts like self-bestowed medals, puffed up with vain self-satisfaction, and STILL not give all they have--as if a small fraction of their best effort were enough! So few of us stand on the verge of eternity and contemplate the possibility that this may be not only the FIRST TIME we are doing something, but possibly the LAST TIME. If we played our songs every day, as if it were our last chance, would we invest any more in them than if we thought we would soon be home in our beds watching TV and munching popcorn, preparing to go to tomorrow's gig for $30/hr?
People who believe in reincarnation (similar to those who believe in predestination) have the comfortable thought-cushion of second chances--if we screw this up, we can try again. Jesus never mentions reincarnation, which is not an argument for or against its existence; but He does convey a sense of urgency about the significance of the present moment; everything in His ministry points to the idea that we have to commit everything we have to the pursuit of spiritual knowledge RIGHT NOW, not later, not when our T-bills mature, not when the economy settles down, not when our children have gone off to college, not when our mortgage is paid off, but NOW. The widow does not put in all she has when it is comfortable, she faces eternity in the present moment and gives her all IN THAT PRESENT MOMENT. Faith in the future protection of the saints imbues her act with serenity and calm, because she knows her reward in spiritual coins is worth four sextillion times more than the two mites she throws into the pot.
Now in the first paragraph of this sermon I mentioned the "overarching principle of service". It's time we got to that. The question, for the purposes of this Sunday morning worship service is not, "Why do we play music?" but, "WHY DO WE DO ANYTHING?" It is impossible to ignore that fact that, in giving our all, we are affirming our own existence in this vast cosmic drama, that we are opening to our own sight the glories of spiritual reality; but remember that, as disciples of Jesus, using Him as our example, we most effectively affirm our own existence by affirming the existence of our neighbors. By giving of our best selves to any mundane activity, we can open the view to cosmic terrains to those around us. We can inspire our neighbors with the motivation to join us in our quest for enlightenment--we can join with them in higher cosmic identity.
Remember that every time we touch the spiritual mind state with our lower minds, we expand ourselves outward into a diffused but heightened ego state. I do not mean this figuratively--we literally grow, like a bursting sun, to encompass those around us with the radiance our our inner spiritual identity. My music students often tell me they love me. I do not believe this; it is not that the connecting arms of divine love do not enfold us into one being, it is that they do not love ME. It is the God in me that they love. I may have been the channel for this manifestation of divine love, but that same love transcends us both. The good feeling they get from me is not of me, it is beyond me, beyond us both. Thus the "they" they identify with, is more than they, and the me to which they attribute the experience is beyond me. It is gratifying to hear such words, but I cannot accept the credit nor the identification--it is an experience richer than the puny worn-out words "I love you."
The work of the widow who gave all she had is not done. She will rise again, the next day and the next, and give all she has again and again, because the all she has, given freely in the present moment must necessarily replenish itself as she becomes, every day, a channel for divine love, love that blesses the giver, the givee, and the gift.
Let us pray: Jesus thank you for the opportunity to give. Thank you for placing us in the middle of a chain of causes which allows us to transmit divine reality into the physical dimension. Remind us, ever, of the source of these gifts, and the ultimate receiver of these gifts--it is all You first and last. Amen.