In a world where bigger is better in the minds of an amazing majority of people, today I want to speak in favor of the underfunded entities of the world, the mom and pop enterprises, and the small time contributor. Not only do I want to speak in favor of these, but also I want to stress their importance to the well-being of the whole. Bigger isn’t always better, after all, and we know this is true from many perspectives; sometimes a little is lovely!
Most of us from childhood or the childhoods of our children or grandchildren know the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” As you probably recall, various larger engines didn’t or couldn’t pull the train over some treacherous tracks, and the train only got pulled because of the little engine. Interestingly enough, the earliest version of the story appeared in 1906 in a publication for children involved in Sunday School titled, WELLSPRINGS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE . One of the earlier versions of the story reads like this:
A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can't; that is too much a pull for me,” said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can,” puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on, the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I--think--I--can, I--think--I--can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”
One of the classic legends from Hebrew scripture is the story of David and Goliath. Even though it is not an historic account in my view, I still take strong objection to using it as a Bible story to teach young children in Sunday School--or anywhere else fore that matter. It is extraordinarily violent and gory. Still, for adults who can hopefully get past the gore and the praise of violence and nationalism, there’s a story of encouragement for the little gal or guy here--and I don’t mean on the field of battle.
The ancient Hebrews regarded the Philistines as arch enemies, and to make it worse there came a brewing battle when the Philistines brought in their trump card, Goliath. It seems that the earliest accounts of the story have Goliath standing at about six and a half feet in height, which probably made him much taller than the average ancient Hebrew or taller than the average ancient Philistine, for that matter; however, with the passing of time and the repetitive retelling of the tale, Goliath somehow grew three feet. By the time we meet him in the book of First Samuel in the Hebrew Bible, he has grown! Now he is nine and a half feet tall!
And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him (1 Sam 17:4-7 NRSV).
The Hebrews can’t find anyone willing to go out and meet Goliath for some one on one combat. Noteworthy among the big, brave names who find excuses for not taking on Goliath on behalf of the Hebrews are David’s own brothers.
Not only was Goliath quite tall, but also he heckled well. Add his verbal insults to his height, and every last one of the Hebrew soldiers found an excuse for not engaging in battle with Goliath on behalf of their people. There is an interesting twist here. As far as the Philistines were concerned, whoever won this individual battle would be regarded as the winner of the war as a whole. Through Goliath, there was even a promise that if the Hebrews could send out a mighty warrior who could win the one to one against Goliath, the Philistines would declare themselves the losers in the war, and they would willingly become slaves to the Hebrews. Needless to say, Goliath and his Philistine commanders were absolutely certain Goliath would win thus making them the winners in battle and the proud “owners” of the Hebrew people.
The most unlikely candidate among the Hebrews for fighting such a potentially pivotal battle emerges in the story, and the people who first heard the story must have fallen over laughing at the impossible differences between their guy and Goliath from Gath. Of course, the story was being told by a pro-Hebrew storyteller for a Hebrew audience. Chances were, even in an impossible situation, the Hebrews weren’t likely to come out in a bad light. Still, the story, if told well, would have them wondering here and there.
It wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world for stories told about individuals to be, actually, stories about a nation. There is some question about David’s historicity, though most scholars that I read believe he was an actual person and not simply a great literary character. Odysseus, definitely a fictional character, is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, “The Odyssey.” As the protagonist, all the action in the collection of stories relates back to him in some way. One of the highly probable ways of understanding the story is to take Odysseus not simply as a fictional person but rather as a symbol for the Greek people as a whole. He was courageous. He loved his family and only cheated on his wife with a couple of superhuman female beings with whom, he thought at the time, he’d be with forever since he doubted he would ever make it back home; any wife and nation can allow for that kind of cheating, right? I mean, what wife can really compete with enchantresses? He was persistent. He was wise. In the end, he prevailed.
Take the same interpretive model and use it with the David and Goliath story. David represents the best in the ancient Hebrews, a small nation, but a nation willing to risk it all to keep its people free. The Hebrews were willing to take on giants of nations in their quest to keep themselves free, and while the story makes it seem that they may have prevailed over every foe, that is certainly not the case. Still, in the Hebrew eye, though they were very small, they would take on anyone who threatened them.
Goliath is all armored up. He has his trusty javelin, his primary weapon. His shield bearer goes out to the fight with him.
The shamed ranking soldiers at least help David get ready to go into battle once King Saul finally agrees to have such a little guy, and such a young guy, go out to meet Goliath on behalf of the Hebrews. David tries on the armor; it’s too big and heavy. It weighs him down so he decides he will go into the battle with no armor and no heavy weapons. He will take his trusty sling shot and a few stones.
Goliath is laughing, “Is this the best you can do? I’m insulted that you’d send such young weakling to take me on!”
David, though, is determined. He’s not a likely winner in the confrontation about to occur; yet, he does win, and he wins big time, I guess you could say.
He hits mighty Goliath right between the eyes with one of the stones from his trusty slingshot. Both to be certain Goliath was dead and to stress his victory over Goliath and the Philistines, David cuts off Golaith’s head and holds it up for all to see on both sides of the Valley where the brief confrontation took place. “I think I can. I think I can,” thought David ahead of the slingshot hit. With Goliath’s bloody head in one hand, David is saying, “I knew I could. I knew I could!” Sometimes, the little gal or guy, wins out over the big and more evidently powerful entity. Don’t rule out the underdog!
Now here’s a Bible story that’s great for children, even though the implications are much, much deeper than the fine on-the-surface story. The youngest hearers of CHARLOTTE’S WEB get a lot out of the story without realizing that the book isn’t really about animals or a barnyard at all.
The story is a brief episode out of the life of Jesus, and over the years the story has gotten a nickname, “The Widow’s Mite.” There is much more to the story than I ever realized as a kid.
Let’s ease into the story by looking at where the episode is placed in the Gospel of Mark, which is our oldest Gospel. Remember that the Gospel writers weren’t making any effort to present a historical chronology of Jesus’ life. There was a collection of stories circulating orally, maybe a written collection or two before the present Gospels came to be written, and the Gospel writers selected stories and ordered them in accordance with their specific literary and theological purposes.
That said, this little teaching snippet is immediately ahead of the story of “The Widow’s Mite,” which should be called, if we’re going to use this emphasis, “The Widow’s Mites,” and I’ll tell you why in a second.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Jesus had numerous opponents among the Jewish religious leadership, but it’s a serious error to assume that all the leaders were anti-Jesus. Jesus’ most evident enemies within Judaism were the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were in cahoots with the scribes. A Pharisee was a member of a specific religio-political party; almost all Jewish men belonged to such a party. Scribes were the most highly respected interpreters of the law, and because the law was so important to the Jews the scribes were utterly revered. They were also given the sacred responsibility of copying scriptures onto the scrolls that others would study.
In a culture like ours that supposedly values separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state, there is no real parallel to scribes in Jesus’ day. A close comparison might be an imam in an Islamic culture where his word, his understanding of the Qu’ran, his interpretation of political events are taken to be very nearly the word of God Godself.
Jesus tells his listeners on this occasion to watch out for the scribes, and I don’t think these criticisms apply universally to the imams in Islamic cultures around the world. These jabs were for the Jewish scribes whom Jesus knew in his world. If the reprimand fits, whatever one’s religion, then wear it.
Jesus said that not all the scribes were doing what they were doing for the sake of preserving the law or for the spiritual well-being of their fellow Jews. Jesus insisted that some of them, all their years of hard study and work notwithstanding, were much more interested in the perks of the job--such as the fancy, long, tasseled robes they got to wear so they’d be recognized at once as a ranking scholar wherever they went, the instant respect and praise most people wanted to offer them once they realized what their profession was, the best seats at any synagogue event, and the places of honor at social gatherings.
What the scribes are really good at doing, if you want to know the truth, Jesus said, is devouring the houses of widows and saying long, fancy prayers at synagogue gatherings that put most of the people attending right to sleep. By continuing to insist on the strictest possible interpretation of the ancient law, the scribes were continuing to uphold a tradition that made widows the most vulnerable population in any Jewish society. Unable to inherit since only men could inherit, unable to work in most cases because mostly men were trained for the trades, unable to learn to read or write, and so on, many younger widows with sons who hadn’t reached adulthood lost their homes and were put out on the streets.
Now, right on the heels of that stinging indictment, Jesus tells a story wherein an unnamed widow is the heroine, and people like scribes are the ones to boo! Evidently, the scribes made really good money, and because they followed the law to a tee they tithed on their income. As a result they were pumping big bucks into the Temple treasury. When has a religious leader disliked the people who were giving the most to support her or his ministry? It’s rare indeed. Yet, Jesus is praising a widow who put two coins in the coffer. Two little bitty coins. And he’s castigating the givers of the larger financial gifts. Clearly, it was a good thing Jesus didn’t go into the fund raising business.
It’s hard to tell what kinds of coins Jesus is referring to here, but good candidates would be a type minted up until 12 CE, when Jesus would have been about 18 years old. It took two of these coins to equal the least valuable coin available by the time Jesus was referring to them. In our time, if the US Mint decided to get rid of pennies, the next coin up would be a nickle. Some of us would remember years from now that five pennies were equal to a nickel, but our pennies we’d long since spent or held onto as memories.
Jesus is telling this story somewhere near the beginning of his ministry, in the year 24 CE or so. If this were the coin he had in mind, the widow had to have kept the coins for years. Without banks, people were responsible for keeping up with their own money, and what seems to be happening here is that the widow must have saved those coins for years, from the time her husband had first earned them. She has spent through everything her husband left her, and all she has to give to an offering that she thinks shows her honor for God are these two coins--so old by the time she tossed them into the offering plate they weren’t in circulation any more.
Even so, Jesus said, “Hers is the greatest offering, much more valuable in God’s sight than what the right people gave who didn’t have to feel a thing in order to pass along their tenth; they weren’t going to miss it at all.” The message of this little story is not that people should give all they have to operate institutional religion, but rather that a very small offering--maybe not one other givers think would be worth bothering with--can make a big difference. You can make a difference with what you have. Jesus said that the offering of a woman in such poverty that she had given all she had, probably meant finding herself on the streets with no place to live soon after she had made this trip to the Temple. The scribes would soon devour her house.
It’s interesting to think about reasons the widow would have given her last two mites. Perhaps as long as she had been married, she and her husband had tithed according to Jewish law; she continued the practice as long as she could. There was no way she could have given a tenth of two mites; it took both of the dated coins to make a single one of the smallest coins being circulated in Jesus’ day. Maybe she tossed in her last two coins to try to curry some divine favor. Her theological framework would have taught her that her husband’s death was God’s will and that her poverty was God’s will; she must be getting punished for something she and/or her husband had had done. If she gave all she had to the religious institution she understood to be God’s preferred one, maybe she wondered if God would suddenly bail her out. There were certainly some stories in the Hebrew Bible that had God rescuing desperate widows just in the nick of time.
Financial contributions to religious institutions do not buy God’s favor. God’s love for you is unchanged by how much or how little you give to a church or a synagogue or a mosque. God would not ask you to give your last nickel to the church, but even the smallest of contributions when combined with the contributions of others can make a huge difference for a cause or for a world.
Religious institutions have a tremendous responsibility to mange and use and invest the money constituents give to support their ministries. In a modern era where we are being bombarded with news about how institutions we have trusted have wasted, otherwise abused, and sometimes stolen money entrusted to them we need to be reminded that the church is neither exempt from responsible money management, nor are religious organizations free of people who would use money given as an expression of their faith to pad their own pockets and sometimes in excessively grotesque ways.
Most people that I know who give money to a church do so in some way as an expression of their faith commitment and/or as an investment in the kinds of ministries in which the particular church is involved. It is not uncommon for people who belong to a church to make personal sacrifices in order to support the church they love. One of my church members in New Orleans who was a kind of stay-in-the-background person surprised me one day when she confided that she had had to take out a loan to pay her pledge for the year. She was a single woman and had had some of those unexpected and unwelcome events requiring a major outlay of cash. With all of that on her mind, she still loved her church and refused, she said, to have anything keep her from giving what she had promised. I assured her that the church would understand if she had to change the amount of her pledge, but she wouldn’t hear of it. I imagine that there are many more like her than we know, and some of them belong to churches where the members are guilted into generous giving with promises of earthly and heavenly rewards for the really big givers.
A preacher has no right to promise anybody anything in exchange for financial gifts; the biblical blessings promised to those who give of their means to faith-based initiatives are not material rewards. Yet, I can’t tell you the number of people I run into who clearly have in their minds that God rewards God’s people with money, maids, and motorcars is sizable! Part of the reason that the money contributed doesn’t go further to help with the ministries of a given church is that the religious hucksters who make people feel guilty for failing to give take it for themselves. Churches have also been known simply to mismanage money.
If a church sets realistic goals and realistic budgets, then anyone in that membership who gives can make a difference with her or his gift; the smaller gifts combined with the larger gifts become enough to make a difference. The fixit people often have a slogan on their trucks and business cards, “No job too small.” And churches should say, “No gift too small.” Every gift counts toward something good and worthwhile; or it should.
A friend of mind from Charlotte, North Carolina, called earlier this week to tell me about a high profile religious leader down his way who is being sued for income tax violations. It turns out that this clergyperson who also owns some funeral homes--talk about a conflict of interest!--has been indicted on fourteen different counts of tax violations including five counts of tax evasion and five counts of tax perjury.
In a five year period, this person earned about two million dollars and underreported his income to the tune of about $800,000. His expenditures exceeded his income according to his tax forms. He leased luxury vehicles with a price tag of $70,000 annually. He and his wife have two homes with annual mortgage payments of $75,000 and $100,000 respectively.
The pastor insists that he’s innocent. If he has violated no law, he has certainly violated the trust that many people place in their clergy, and I don’t think the IRS should be allowed to stack up years of charges against someone. If someone is botching tax returns then she or he should be called on it at once.
In the eyes of many church folk, their pastor can do no wrong so this guy is still a saint as far as that group is concerned. Others will never give to that church or any church again because of such high and mighty living.
One of my great mentors, John Killinger, emailed me the other evening, and in addition to getting me caught up on a few items and asking me write a brief piece for back matter in his next book, he told me about the fiasco going on at the Riverside Church in New York City where the new pastor’s installation was challenged in court by a group within the church calling themselves “Friends of Fosdick.” They had their vote on whether or not to call Brad Braxton as their next pastor, but their contention is that the pastor search committee told the congregation nothing about the financial deal it had worked out with Brad, who is a friend of mine and someone whom I love.
Brad did nothing illegal, but he has certainly been a part of bringing condemnation on himself by negotiating an annual package of something like $600,000. His package includes salary and housing and an extra housing amount so that he can buy a home away from the rental in the city. It includes tuition so that Brad’s daughter can attend an exclusive private school. He and his wife get a full-time maid out of the deal. Travel, study, retirement. You name it; it’s there. And he also got $300,000 to hire his second in command.
The judge who heard the case didn’t rule on it, but encouraged both sides to try to reach some peaceful agreement. That could be tricky. It seems that the descendants of John D. Rockefeller who literally built the church for Harry Emerson Fosdick are opposed to this package and have sided with the law-suit-filing group. I wish Brad the best. I’m jealous that he will make in a year what many clergy have to work ten years to make. And this huge amount doesn’t reflect what he can command as a guest speaker and preacher since he serves such a prestigious church--though a very troubled congregation. I’m not sure who would have turned down such a lucrative offer...no one I know; however, it has really hurt the church, and there is no way to recover from that kind of black eye. The related stories are all over the New York newspapers, and all over the internet too. The membership of Riverside Church has been in decline for some time; this isn’t going to help at all. There’s a congregational meeting next Sunday to try to sort it all out. My, oh my.
When widows throw their mites into the synagogue or mosque or church treasury, they don’t expect to be paying their for their religious leader’s full-time maid. If a clergyperson wants to hire a maid out of what she or he is paid in salary then that is no one’s business.
Jesus said that high paid religious leaders who have money to burn can give some big bucks to religious organizations and get lots of praise from clergypersons and fiance committees. But, he said, the more significant offerings are those given by those who feel every nickel they part with, including the nickels they give to their faith communities. And when widows and others, who don’t have much of this world’s goods, struggle to contribute to an organization’s ministries those offerings will make a difference if the policies of the faith group are in order.