Of God and Gratuities: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
It’s a disturbing story. We are told about those who give everything they have, such as the widow, and “others”, not named, who merely give out of their abundance. It is, for the vast majority of us disconcerting. It calls into question our personal system of priorities and the way in which we honor God with our time, talent and, indeed, our treasure, whether large or small.
Too often, I fear, we are prone to give to God that which is left over. Our time is spent in the pursuit of our own aims and subject to the calls of employment, familial duties and/or personal ambition. Our talents are used to serve the particular ends which these calls make upon us. Our treasure, which we garner from the application of time and talent, is spent first for the maintenance of our own lives, and those whom we love, and then used, according to our own discretion, mostly for ourselves first and then for others. For most of us, we evaluate at the end of the process that which can be given to God. Perhaps we can serve in some area of practical ministry within our church, an hour, or two or three, or four a week. Perhaps, on the side, we can make use of some particular expertise we possess to benefit others. Maybe, when we calculate our income and set our household budgets we can determine some percentage to give to the Church or to a charitable cause with which we are familiar. Yet, in all of this, we tend to give of our abundance. In our brighter moments, we would wish to be the widow, giving all in holy abandon. In the shadows of the everyday, however, we fear that we are closer to the “others” in the Temple.
A good friend of mine, Fran, worked her way through diaconate training as a waitress. In watching people preparing to pay their bills, she stumbled upon a theological truth. The person would receive the bill and then, especially for Fran as a waitress. came the moment of truth – what would they do about the tip? Some people would take the bit of change in their pocket, regardless of the amount, and leave it on the table. Others, especially tables of lunching housewives, or so I was informed, would first meticulously divide up the bill to the last penny, and then discuss, at length, the amount of the tip which would then be similarly divided. Yet others, because they disliked this or that about the cafe or the selection, or the service, would depart leaving nothing. A few, usually regulars, would leave 10%-20% of the bill for Fran every time. One day, having served a large table and wondering what the gratuity would be, Fran was struck by a terrible thought. It occurred to her that our modern approach to Christian stewardship of time, talent and treasure, is treated very much as though we were giving a tip after a meal. We account ourselves “correct” if we arrive at the proper percentage; we usually reflect in our giving our approval or disapproval of this or that policy, sermon, program or pastor. In short, we often not only give of our abundance, but we do it as though it were a gratuity. It is, I believe, a horrifying consideration.
Perhaps the poor widow has shown us a better way; for she, like God himself, did not give a part of what she possessed, but gave all that she had in love and devotion. You see, the widow’s coins of copper differ little from Our Lord’s cross of wood, for both signify a sacrificial gift, not of a calculated portion of substance, but of all that had been, was, and ever could be; for that which was given was not merely what they had, but who and what they were – a devoted widow bereft of the love of her husband and the Incarnate God bereft of the love of those he created. Whether widow or Savior, the giver was, in fact, the gift.