November 11, 2018

TAKING THE EXTRA MILES

BIBLE READINGS
Mark 12:38-44
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146

REFLECTION

The teacher of a Sunday school class once taught about giving. He asked the children, “If you had $100.000, would you give your money to the poor?”

“Yes!” answered the children enthusiastically.

“What about $10.000, would you give all to the poor?”

“Yes!” answered the children with a loud voice.

“What about $1.000?”

“Yes!” answered the children.

“$100?”

“Yes!”

“$1?”

Suddenly, there was a dead silence in the class. No child said anything. The teacher was confused. Why did they children stop when they were asked to donate $1 to the poor. After all, they would give $100.000 if they had the money.

So, the teacher asked Roland, one of the children. “Roland,” he said, “Why did you say nothing?” Clutching his pocket, he answered with a soft voice, “Well, it’s because I do HAVE $1.”[1]

Friends, it’s not the amount of money that makes it valuable to us; it is what the money means to us that matters. $1 to a little boy may mean a lot more than $1000 to a millionaire. 

That’s what made the widow who gave two small copper coins to the temple offering remarkable. She defied her situation and wasn’t dictated by her condition.

In Jesus’ time, widows were the ones who usually received help from other people. The book of Deuteronomy includes widows within a group of people who were vulnerable (alongside foreigners, orphans, and the Levites who were to serve in the Temple).[2] In ancient time, the majority of widows were poor and poor people were not required to give.[3] 

So this widow gave more than what she was required to do. She went beyond the expectation. She didn’t want only to become a passive recipient of other people’s generosity. She wanted to become a contributing member of the society. She wanted to feel that she too had a role to play and was not only a burden on someone else’s shoulder.

We find similar situation in the widow that served the prophet Elijah. Now, we may say that, unlike the other widow, this widow didn’t take the initiative to give. She didn’t give gladly either. Elijah had to convince her to give what she had.

But we have to be fair with her. Her situation seemed to be far worse than the situation faced by the widow in Jesus’ time. She and her son were on the brink of starvation and the food with her was the last one they had. No wonder she was reluctant when Elijah asked her to give him the food.

But, in the end, she did what Elijah asked her to do. And, once again, God turned the table upside down. The one who was supposed to serve became the one who was being served. And the one who was supposed to be served became the one who served.

Both widows transcended their own conditions and situations. They both did what Jesus said when he asked his disciples to walk the extra mile.[4] But they didn’t only go the extra mile; they went the extra five miles or even six.

Friends, poor people can be more generous than the general population. Mother Theresa of Calcutta once told a story about a man who had been paralyzed for twenty years. His paralysis made him unable to use his left hand. Because of his condition, it was hard for him to find a job. They only job he could tolerate was working in the tobacco factory.

One day, the man donated $15 to Mother Theresa to support her work with the poor. It may be only a small amount of money for us, but it was a significant amount of money for him. He told Mother Theresa that he had stopped smoking for about a week. And the money he gave was that money that he had saved from not buying cigarettes. Mother Theresa was deeply impressed by his sacrifice. She then used the money to buy bread for the hungry.[5] Poor people like him often gave more than what they should; more than what they themselves could afford.

We can see this in many social experiments that we can watch on the internet. In these experiments, people pretended to be homeless and begged on the streets. They then recorded the whole experience to see how other people treated them. 

Surprisingly, in all of the videos I’ve watched, the most generous people were the homeless themselves. Most other people were busy with their busyness – some stopped to give their loose change.

But the homeless people did not hesitate to share their entire food or even money. They knew how it felt to be homeless and they didn’t hesitate to help people in similar situation. They were showing the highest level of empathy by putting aside their own needs to help others. 

These people can teach us about generosity. They don’t wait to give. They don’t wait for the ‘right time’ or after their condition changes before they can give. They are not conditioned by the situation they face. They transcend their limitation to reach out to other people who are also in need.

Some may argue that these people act foolishly. They should care for themselves first before they care for others. But remember, the Apostle Paul says that God chooses the foolish in the world, not the wise.[6] 

Yes, we can learn from the Apostle Paul himself. After Jesus, Paul is the second most influential person in Christianity. He was the founders of many congregations within the non-Jewish communities.

And he was so effective because he did not wait for the right time before he began his ministry. He continued working regardless of the hardships and challenges even persecutions that he faced. 

But he did not let his situation dictate his agenda. He said in one of his letters that he has learnt to be content with whatever he had.[7]

He then said:

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
(Philippians 4:13)

Paul’s ministry did not depend on the situation; it depended on Christ who strengthened him.

Friends, we are to learn from the author of Psalm 146. He envelops his Psalm with the Hebrew word, “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord!”

The Psalm is an example of the kind of enduring strength that faith gave to the people of Israel. The Psalm invites the people of Israel, and us, to praise God no matter what our circumstances are.

Praising God is a matter of discipline.[8] We don’t worship God only when it’s convenient. The best worship is when we worship God in our worst situation. “... praise is not the result of external happiness, but stubborn belief in the face of evidence to the contrary.”[9]

When Ruele Howe was 15 years old, his house was burnt down. He and his family managed to escape the fire. But the only things they could save were the clothes they were wearing.

They lived in a remote area with no neighbours around them. So, to get the supplies, he and his father had to walk to a distant village.

As they were walking back from the village to their burnt house, Howe saw something remarkable. Beside the charred ruins of their house, her mother had prepared a lunch for them on a log nearby. She had even arranged wildflowers in a tin can and put them on display on the log.                                                                                                       

That image stayed in Howe’s mind for the rest of his life. Her mother did not try to gloss over the tragedy that they had just experienced. What she did was simply to put a symbol of hope in the midst of a gloom scene.[10] The message was clear and simple: with or without a house, lunch must be served. And it must be served in style. 

Friends true and lasting joy does not depend on what we have or on our situation. All advertisements that we see or hear or read in the media have one basic message. And the message is this: if you want to be happy, you have to buy this or do this or go to this place. You have to buy this particular brand of car or purchase a house in this area or go on this holiday.

But we can be happy despite of what we have or what kind of situation we are in. True and lasting happiness is found when we follow God’s way in our life despite the condition that we face.

Friends, true giving is born not when we have everything that we want or need. True generosity is born when we still give even when we don’t have things that we want or need. True giving transcends our situation. And true generosity will take us from this mundane world to the heavenly and holy space where God resides.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] From Sermons.com website for Proper 27 (November 11, 2018).

[2] Deuteronomy 14:28-29.

[3] Emerson Powery, Commentary on Mark 12:38-44, on WorkingPreacher website (November 8, 2015).

[4] Matthew 5:41.

[5] From No Greater Love, by Mother Teresa. © 1997 by New World Library.

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:27.

[7] Philippians 4:10.

[8] Beth L. Tanner, Commentary on Psalm 146, on WorkingPreacher website (November 11, 2018).

[9] Beth L. Tanner, Commentary on Psalm 146, on WorkingPreacher website (November 11, 2018).

[10] From Sermons.Com website for Proper 17 (November 11, 2018).