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A Generous Gift
Winter Quarter: Sacred Gifts and Holy Gatherings
Unit 1: What We Bring to God
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 27, 2015
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: Matthew 23:1-12; Mark 12:38-44
This last Sunday of the year and the last Sunday in this unit is a good time to take stock and understand where we are and what we have been doing. Remember the title of the quarter’s study, “Sacred Gifts and Holy Gatherings,” which carries us back to both the Old Testament and to Jesus, with glimpses of special moments in Jewish life and His life. The unit has focused on “What We Bring to God.” Fittingly, today we examine giving – both in form and motivation.
We examine the key verse in Matthew 23:12 to begin our examination of today’s scripture. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This paradoxical statement of Jesus sets the stage for two events in Jesus’ last week before the crucifixion.
He has arrived in Jerusalem, where the plot to kill him is far advanced. He spends much of his time in the precincts of the Temple, where confrontation and conflict rule the day. With Pharisees, Sadducees, and Temple officials, he has had discussions on many points of Jewish life and practice. Usually, as he literally did with the tables of the money-changers, he has turned over pet beliefs and sacred practices.
The stage is set for his teachings about the scribes (legal experts) and Pharisees who do not practice what they teach. We are far removed from His references to their dress, where fringes and phylacteries are mentioned, but the message is loud and clear about attitude and ego!
Jesus urges the people to keep the Law, for, in doing so, the faithful are reflecting the nature of God. There are limits, and he chastises the religious professionals for adding minutiae to their faithful practice. In addition, and more to the point, the leaders “do not practice what they preach!” The leaders are wrapped up in titles, privileges, and status and forget the people they are to lead by word and deed.
As these lessons are being written, Pope Francis is visiting the United States. He has spoken to national leaders in Washington at the Congress and to international leaders at the United Nations. In clear words, backed up by his own personal example, he has enunciated what these leaders need to be and to do for the people! His attitude is clearly one that exemplifies the key verse. He sits in the seat of Peter, but his actions are those of a humble human being, aware of the needs of the masses of refugees and the poor of the world. For example, after the address to Congress, he declined a formal meal with the national leaders and went to a soup kitchen in a poor neighborhood in D.C. He practices what he preaches!
The phylacteries were small leather boxes attached to the left wrist and to the forehead containing four reminders of the Law. (Exodus 13:16 and Deuteronomy 6:8) The passages were (and are!) Exodus 13:1-10: 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. Usually, these are very small, but not so for these guys! Their goal was “to be seen by others.”
The fringes were originally added to outer garments as a reminder the wearer was a faithful observant Jew. (See Numbers 15:38-39) The two worn together, phylactery and fringe, proclaimed quietly who the wearer was! Not so the Pharisees! Jesus condemns this ostentation of dress, behavior, and life-style the leaders show to the people, while demanding strict observance of rules that were burdensome and expensive by people who already were struggling just to live.
Hypocrisy is a constant threat to the faithful, God-centered life. We easily slip into doing “good deeds” to be seen. Look at the plaques listing givers on walls! Look at the different levels of giving! Look at the list of donors in magazines from colleges, schools, charitable organizations, etc. Are our actions and donations designed to be seen and given recognition? One of the hot topics about revision of the U.S. tax code is to remove many deductions, including those listed as charitable. Would we still give if we didn’t get the deduction?
The second scripture for study today again is focused in the Temple during the days just before Good Friday. Mark 12:38-40 begins, like Matthew, with the condemnation of the religious leaders for their demeanor and behavior. In addition to flowing robes and acknowledgement of their importance, the charge is added of “devouring widow’s houses,” or as CEB has it, “cheat widows out of their homes.”
We have all heard about the “scams” directed at the elderly preying on fears and causing these susceptible persons to lose their security. The vulnerability of the weak and helpless has opened the door across the years to those who would take advantage of such people. Such actions demand retribution. Jesus promises, “just you wait!”
At that moment, while watching people making their gifts in the Temple, an elderly widow came to make her gift. Mark describes the contrast between the donations of the wealthy and her “widow’s mite.”
The location of these 13 bronze receptacles shaped like trumpets was between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women so anyone who came to the Temple could give. Not only give, but make noise in giving, as the sound of metal against metal reverberated around the walls! Jesus is watching – listening!
The amount of the gift is never the important factor – not size, but sacrifice! In a financial campaign in one of our churches, the theme was “Not equal gifts but equal sacrifice.” The widow’s mite was a much larger gift than the noisy gifts rattling in the metal trumpets.
IRS statistics indicate Americans give away an average of 7.6% of their discretionary income. The average for wealthier people is 4.2%. The poorest give twice as much percentage-wise. The truth is many of us give out of our abundance rather than sacrificially. When we love God with heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, the form and the motivation of our giving come together in a perfect unity. Doing so gives God the glory! AMEN.
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at email@example.com.