There’s a tale that comes from Pacific island folklore. A long time ago, a kangaroo was grooming her joey, a kangaroo toddler, on the bank of a brook. Both of them liked to listen to the bubbling water as the mama cleaned and straightened her baby’s fur.
An old wombat suddenly stumbled toward them, interrupting this mother-child quality time. “Oh my,” Mother Kangaroo whispered. “This wombat is really old, and I think he is also sick.”
As the old wombat came closer and closer to the kangaroos, Mother Kangaroo heard him nearly whispering to himself, “Useless and worthless, worthless and useless.”
“What is useless and worthless?” Mother Kangaroo asked him.
In response, he asked, “Who said that?”
“I did,” she replied. “I’m a kangaroo, and I’m here beside the brook with my joey.”
“Well,” explained the wombat, “I can hear you, but I can’t see you. I’m blind. And you know what that means. Nobody wants an old, blind wombat around. I’m no good to anybody, and all my friends and family members have abandoned me. They’ve left me for dead, and I might as well be dead!”
“Don’t talk like that,” Mother Kangaroo insisted. “I will be your friend. I will happily show you where the most scrumptious grass grows and where the cleanest water is flowing. We’ll start right now. Take hold of my tail and follow along.” He complied, and Mother Kangaroo took him to several tufts of juicy grass and then to some clean, cool water. The old wombat was delighted.
She’d become so involved in doing her good deed that she realized she’d been away from her joey WAY TOO LONG. Back to where she’d left him, she found what she hoped she wouldn’t; her joey had wandered off, which wasn’t unusual for him, but that never kept her from being frightened.
Thankfully, she found him rather quickly; he was napping under a gum tree. She didn’t want to awaken him so she thought things would be fine for a few more minutes while she went back, not so far from where the joey slept, to check on the wombat. She had almost gotten back to where she’d told the wombat to wait for her when she noticed something moving in the bush. It was an Aboriginal hunter who, obviously, planned to kill the wombat for dinner. The hunter was already poised to throw his boomerang, which would most assuredly kill the wombat.
Mother Kangaroo froze; she couldn’t even allow herself to breathe. A few quick thoughts told her that noise was her only hope so with her feet and tail she began to pound the ground and the branches around her. The hunter was distracted and turned toward her. She screamed out to the wombat, “Run! Run! A hunter wants to kill you.”
Not knowing where he was going, the wombat pitifully began to run as best he could run in all directions, not knowing where he’d gotten to or how safe he was from the hunter’s weapon. The hunter forgot about the old wombat. He asked himself, “Why have stringy, tough old wombat meat for dinner when I can bring my family fresh, tender young she-kangaroo meat?”
Mother Kangaroo hopped frantically into the bush, realizing that she was getting farther and farther away from where the little one was sleeping. All she knew to do, though, was run for her life and hope the joey would be ok for a while longer. She saw a cave and hopped in there, falling to the ground exhausted. If the hunter prevailed, at least she had taken cover, and other animals wouldn’t have to see the horror of her execution.
The determined hunter ran past the cave’s opening. A few minutes later he walked past the cave’s opening, going in the opposite direction. He didn’t look in or around the cave. As soon as Mother Kangaroo thought the coast was clear, she hopped as rapidly as she could back to the gum tree. Her best hopes realized, the joey was just waking up from his nap, ready to play. She would turn the search for the old wombat into an adventure game for the sake of her little one.
As fate would have it, the old wombat wasn’t a wombat at all. He was the god Byamee in disguise. He had descended from the realm of the deities above on a mission to find out which creature on the earth had the kindest heart. The clear answer was the kangaroo. Byamee wanted to reward her for using her kindness so selflessly; he therefore called upon the sky spirits and gave them these instructions: “Go down below to where the eucalyptus grow tall. Peel the long strips of bark and make a dilly bag apron. Give it to the kangaroo mother and explain that she must tie it around her waist.”
They did as they were told, and Mother Kangaroo agreed to do what the sky spirits directed her to do. The instant the apron was tied in place, Byamee transformed the apron into a permanent pouch on Mother Kangaroo’s belly. Now she had a means of carrying her little one with her and keeping her joey safe. Wherever she went, she could easily take her toddler.
Kangaroo Mother was happy with her gift; of course, she was, but because she was the kindest creature of all, as the god Byamee had discovered first hand, she couldn’t help thinking about other kangaroo mothers, wallaby mothers, and other marsupials. Byamee loved her generous heart, and without having to be asked, he instantly made pouches for all the other marsupial mothers. Ever since then, their babies almost never get lost.
A Chicago commuter was rushing toward a downtown train so he could make it to work on time. As he neared the station with very little time to spare, he saw an older homeless man crying. The homeless man was so hungry, he couldn’t bear it, and person after person rushed by him, each one ignoring him.
The commuter didn’t want to bothered either so he was taking two dollars out of his billfold to toss to the man when he would hurry by him. Before he got close enough to the man to toss him the two one-dollar bills, he was stunned to see a young woman, a hippie type, stop and talk to the man. She patted him on the back and then opened her backpack and took out a sandwich and a bag of chips, certainly her lunch for that day, and she gave both items to the older man who felt that hunger pangs were about to do him in.
The old man, call him a beggar if you will, was thanking the young hippie when the commuter hurried by and pressed the two bucks into the man’s hand. I mean, two dollars were better than no dollars. The beggar was trying to thank the commuter, but obviously felt he had to say a great deal more to the generous young lady.
The commuter ran on and made his train, but he realized there was a lesson for him to learn as a result of what he’d witnessed and in his small way participated in. He realized that he could have and should have done more. The old man was so hungry and so hurt from being ignored by all the well-fed people passing him by, the commuter could have done much better than two bucks.
In addition to censoring himself, however, he silently praised the young female hippie who must have been a kid–late high school probably, maybe early college. He realized that he himself hadn’t been generous at all that day, but the young woman had been remarkably generous.
This is what the commuter wrote about the incident in a note he shared with his friends:
“My big takeaway was this: the kid was more generous and willing to help the elderly guy than the ‘adults’ out there. I guess that includes being more giving than me in that situation, too. Thus, maybe the age-old mantra that the younger generations ‘just don’t get it’ is wrong. From what I saw, they ‘got it’ even more than people in my generation.”
The widow’s mite. I have probably pondered the deeper meaning of this story more than all the stories I know from Jesus except maybe for the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Lost Son. Lynne just read the little snippet from the brief collection of Jesus materials that made it down to us; let me flesh out the story a little bit. And I’ll tell you in advance that when Jesus told the story originally, instead of seeing the person whom Jesus was complimenting and affirming in the story as worthy of such praise, many in his audience became angry at him because they wanted their counterparts in the story to get the accolades. Why there were still regular hearers of Jesus around who expected him to speak long-approved traditional perspectives rather than his own fresh insights, often a new way of looking at a recurring challenge, I can’t grasp, but that’s exactly the way it was.
So, Jesus was at the Temple, and on this visit he had noticed, probably not for the first time, several practices that irked him. The story is told about Jesus by an anonymous narrator; this is not a story Jesus himself is telling. The narrator has two issues in mind: 1) the inappropriateness of forced contributions in a place of worship; and 2) the cruelty of forcing a poverty-stricken widow to make any kind of contribution anywhere, including at her spiritual home.
The Romans taxed the Jews for the privilege of using their own, the Jews’ own, Temple; and then the Jewish Temple hierarchy taxed their sister- and brother- Jews for Temple services. Well, the priests had to be paid, didn’t they? And someone had to buy the incense; the Romans certainly weren’t going to gift the Jews with incense to be offered to some G/god whom they claimed was the only one.
So, Jesus is sitting close enough to the contribution boxes that he can kinda sorta see who is dropping what in. He wasn’t watching to make sure everyone paid up, and he wasn’t watching to be nosy. He was simply taking note of what all Jews, including himself, had to do annually in order to have full Temple access and privileges. If you wanted a Temple official rather than a rabbi in training or an old rabbi put out to pasture long ago to oversee your burial, you’d better pay up at Temple tax time. If you wanted to have your copy of the newsletter mailed to your home via snail mail rather than getting a paperless version, you’d best pay your Temple tax.
The rich were making their large offerings; many of them had no intention of calling attention to their contributions, but it was practically impossible not to see the gleaming gold coins of great value being dropped in the plates causing the Priests to grin with gratitude. Hardly anything in a year’s time made them happier than this.
The Pharisees, legalists all the way when it came to observing the letter of the law, could always be counted on to pay taxes and tithes to a tee. Jesus could see them counting out their coins–counting out loud and using exaggerated motions to direct coin to slot as someone from the Temple’s Board of Finance confirmed that everything owed had been paid.
After you’d seen one Pharisee calling attention to himself in this manner, you’d seen them all. It was as if they’d rehearsed their routine, and, having seen a few, the rest were just a blur; you couldn’t tell one from another. Suddenly the predictable procession to the contribution containers was interrupted by a female, and a poor widow dressed in tattered garments at that. Usually, men only paid taxes and tithes, and they did so for themselves as well as for their families. Rarely was a woman in that line, but here was this widow; she couldn’t hide her poverty. She dropped two copper coins into the treasury, and that was it; that was all.
Pharisees who noticed what she did, thought to themselves as they glanced at each other and shook their heads with disapproval, “Not worth the bother. Why should anyone have to waste time fishing those leptons out of stash; both together wouldn’t buy as much as a slice of burnt pita at the market. God has made her poor, which is the only reason anyone is poor; she should beg on the streets with the rest of them and stay away from those of us who can pay a reasonable amount for Temple privileges and who don’t want to have to look at likes of her when we’ve gone to the trouble putting on our sabbath best to come here to honor God and celebrate our many blessings.” They loved to sing an old Hebrew version of the hymn, “Count Your Blessings.”
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed.
Do not be discouraged, thinking all is lost.
Count your many blessings, name them one by one.
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
The poor would hear them singing their song and wonder until they wept why God had withheld all blessing from them except a little air to breath and a few scraps of food here and there to sustain them until they died, crying because of hunger pangs, or until they died making no sounds and shedding no tears because they were so numb with hunger that they didn’t even feel life ebbing away.
Jesus decides what he has seen the widow do and the context in which she did it constituted a teachable moment for his disciples. He called them to come and sit with him for a moment, and he described for them what I’ve just described for you. Jesus wanted to make sure they understood, though; and the moral of this story couldn’t be left to chance.
He said, “The person who has given the most here today is that poor widow standing in the shadows over there. Everyone else here today who gave, including us, gave out of our abundance; she gave everything she had to give. She can’t even buy a scrap of burnt pita to soothe her hunger pangs. She literally has no money whatsoever to buy food to sustain herself. If there are no relatives to share with her or, perhaps, a beloved friend, her options are to beg or starve.”
The disciples, some of them anyway, were no doubt thinking, “Why is he bothering us with this? She could have given her two coins or kept them. For her, the result is the same. She either goes back to begging or she starves; or, she tries begging and starves anyway. Plenty do.”
Jesus said again to draw them out of their day-dreaming, “Everyone else here today paid their taxes and tithes out of their abundance; they still have money in the pot, even if it’s not a lot. But this widow has given all she has as her way of honoring God. Do you hear me? She gave her all.”
I must have preached some tough tithing and stewardship sermons before I began preaching to liberals several years ago. My friend and former pastor, Dr. Steve Shoemaker, presently pastor of the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, told me in utter sincerity and seriousness as I left Louisville and the seminary faculty there to pastor my first liberal church, this one being in New Orleans, “There’s one thing you have to remember day in and day out when you become pastor to liberals: LIBERALS DON’T TITHE!” There are some extraordinarily generous liberals who give well more than a tithe to their churches, but, pretty much, I say three liberal churches later, Steve was on target.
Generally, what he described was nearly “gospel truth,” but in that very church in New Orleans, there was a widow who made a pledge to the church, and about half way into the church year she had some kind of financial setback. Thinking that pastors keep watch over who gives what, which doesn’t describe YOUR pastor AT ALL, she found me in the hallway after church one Sunday and said she had something very important to tell me. I was concerned. I invited her into my office to tell me what was troubling her; she said, “No,” it will just take a minute, and here is fine.” She then said, “I realized a few weeks ago that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my pledge for this year. I was mortified to think that I would let my beloved church down in this way so I’ve taken out a loan to pay the pledge in full. It will take me a few weeks to get things straightened out, but the church will have from me, the very best I can do.” I was sputtering and interrupting her right and left to make sure she heard me say that she should not put herself under that kind of pressure, that she should take care of herself this time and catch up with the church when she could comfortably do so. She completely ignored me.
A treasured friend recently made a big mid-career shift and went into “development,” the modern-day word for fund-raising. He told me at dinner the other evening that while many donors are kind and naturally generous, many are the opposite; they are temperamental snobs who have to coddled into giving with a fair amount of bowing and scraping, and frequently their greatest concern is how and where their names will be put on display for perpetuity.
Echoing that, a college friend has made and is making her mark in the world of development for higher education. She has been highly successful, and her university benefits; she doesn’t get commissions! She told me once, though, that I’d never believe all she had to do to get probable and potential donors to sign on the dotted lines. Once she had to ride through town in a brand new sports convertible; the donor/driver wanted his friends to see him with a pretty young “thing” before he made official his substantial gift to the university. Small price to pay for a Director of Development huh? The donor still made his gift. Other potential donors, she says, make no bones about the fact that unless they are honored in some way no money will be given period, and sometimes the cost of the means of honor they desire eats dramatically into the promised gift itself.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, once prayed:
Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to ask for reward save that of knowing that I do your will.
When I hear the prayer of Ignatius, I can’t help thinking of a line in the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “For it is in giving that we receive.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who celebrated his eightieth birthday yesterday, has in recent years praised Ireland for its widespread concern for those in need within Ireland and around the world. Addressing the whole nation in a speech delivered in Dublin, he said:
You have been wonderful in your generosity to us and to people in other parts of the world who have been less well off than yourselves. One of the wonderful things about yourselves has been your capacity to remember how you were when you didn’t have the Celtic Tiger [the nickname for Ireland’s decade long economic rebound]. You supported us at the time of our struggle against apartheid.
Speaking of the Archbishop, he has often used a South African word, “Ubuntu.” He has on several occasions attempted to explain its meaning to non-South Africans. I think we are not getting it–not that the defenders of Apartheid were getting it either. This is what the peace-loving Archbishop said about the word that lacks a simple definition:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu–the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality–Ubuntu–you are known for your generosity.
Here’s another vocabulary builder for today. Add to “Ubuntu” the word “Dana.” It looks like and sounds like a fairly frequently used name for females and males in western societies, but the origin of the word can be traced back to India, 500-plus years before Jesus of Nazareth was born. Most simply, it was a synonym for our English word “generosity.” It was much more, though, than generosity as a financial contribution or donation, however substantial. There was more to generosity than that. According to the Southern Dharma Retreat Center, generosity the word “Dana” described meant:
1) Living in love and trust and connection rather than self-centered fear and separation;
2) Opening our hearts to give as we have received;
3) Creating a world of abundance rather than a world of scarcity; and
4) Honoring our oneness and interconnections.
Ultimately, Dana is “about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of world you want to participate in creating.”
Sir Henry Taylor, the nineteenth century British author, grasped the truth that all of us who have anything at all to share should also grasp: “Those who give what they would as readily throw away, give without generosity; for the essence of generosity is in self sacrifice.”