November 11, 2018
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity
(Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44)
To explain, I start with a lesson in metallurgy. Before 1982, the penny was made of copper. But that year, the cost of the copper required to create one penny rose above 1¢. So since 1982, the U.S. Mint coined pennies made primarily of zinc. The cost to produce them has continued to grow.
Legislation has been discussed about possibly eliminating Abe from our coinage altogether, but not with any level of seriousness. However, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have eliminated their pennies already.
At the crossroads of metallurgy and political legislation, companies began collecting pre-1982 pennies and melting them to resell the copper. Copper prices kept rising and scads of pennies disappeared. Business was booming.
Copper melting proved so lucrative that illicit activities sprung up. Thieves began stripping copper wire from construction sites and utility connections. A 122-year-old copper bell was even stolen from Saint Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. The Mint had to produce enormous numbers of zinc pennies to offset the circulation deficit created by copper penny melters. So in 2007, laws were passed making penny melting illegal.
That's when the second penny industry emerged - penny hoarding. People stash pre-1982 pennies away, hoping for the rumored legislation that will do away with the 1¢ coin. At that point, penny melting would again be legal, so they think anyway.
At worst, these stashes of pennies are worth 1¢ each – or exactly what was paid to get them. Zero lost on the investment, if the Mint keeps the penny or the penny hoarder loses patience and cashes out.
For many of us, pennies are more purse-clutter than currency. You can't even find 1¢ gumball machines at grocery stores anymore, so what good are they? I guess we should all go to Disneyland and use them in the penny press machines!
But in this text from Mark 12, a penny was all that a widow had to live on. One penny. Well, the Greek words are lepta and kodrantes. Two lepta or coins worth less than a kodrantes or a penny. What she had was worth less than, let's say, a post-1982 penny.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching the people in the temple. As the religious leaders strolled about the courtyards, Jesus used them as a foil. Their garments were ornate -- a cultural sign of leisure and dignity. They expected formal public greetings -- the first-century equivalent of saluting an officer. They always looked for VIP seating. They maintained their status through the financial support of widows. They prayed publicly with pomp and eloquence. In short, they were consumed with external abundance. They wanted prominence and deference. They liked their standing in society and the comfort that came with it.
In like fashion, Jesus noticed the rich giving their huge offerings in the temple. Clearly the right hand knew what the left hand was doing, because Jesus could tell they were giving large amounts, even from across the room.
Then a widow came and put two copper coins into the offering. And after that, a penny hoarder came and traded the treasurer two zinc coins for them. Scholars believe that to be a scribal addition from about 2007 A.D.
Two coins were nothing compared to the sacks the rich had offered. In fact, our idiom "my 2 cents" probably draws from this story. We say, "I'll put in my 2 cents, for what it's worth."
Recall the adage, "See a penny, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck." Well good luck may not be worth 1¢ anymore. If you saw a coin on the sidewalk, would you pick it up if it were a quarter? A dime? A nickel? How about a penny? That creates a powerful comparison to this gospel reading. A couple of pennies -- that's what the widow gave when the temple passed the plate. Jesus commended her for giving what most of us would not stoop to pick up off of the sidewalk.
From the narrative of the widow and her pennies, several themes emerge that we should consider today.
Jewish religious leaders were religiously zealous in an increasingly pluralistic culture. However, it's possible they came to enjoy their position of power and privilege to such a degree that they lost a sense of religious and spiritual purpose. Jesus' indictment of them shows that they loved abundant status, abundant comfort and abundant deference from those around them. This story begs us to thoughtfully look for abundance in our lives. We must start from awareness, and then talk to God and others about what to do about the abundance we inevitably discover.
Pennies From Heaven is a 1936 film starring Bing Crosby (not to be confused with the 1981 Steve Martin film, which shares only the title). The film's story -- of flawed but well-meaning people trying to do the right thing and stick together amid adversity -- has been largely forgotten, but the title song, emblematic of the Depression Era, has endured as a jazz standard. Pennies From Heaven is also of historical significance because it was one of the first films in which an African-American -- jazz musician Louis Armstrong -- was given major billing. This was at the insistence of Crosby.
The song's lyrics reflect on how the pre-Depression world had forgotten how "the best things in life were absolutely free." Because no one appreciated marvels like the blue sky and the new moon, "it was planned" (presumably by God) "that they would vanish now and then."
You had to buy them back -- but with what?
"Pennies from heaven" is the answer:
That's what storms were made for
And you shouldn't be afraid for
Every time it rains, it rains,
Pennies from heaven.
Don't you know each cloud contains
Pennies from heaven?
You'll find your fortune's falling
All over town.
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down.
In the darkest days of the Depression, it was comforting to think that God might still send the occasional penny our way -- a small, but tangible blessing, symbolic of much more significant blessings yet to come.
The whole idea is reminiscent of a biblical story, that of the manna that sustained the Israelites in the wilderness. They couldn't hoard the stuff, because it would spoil. They had to depend on its daily arrival (with double portions graciously provided on the day before the Sabbath, so they wouldn't have to work picking it up).
If God's daily blessings are indeed waiting to be harvested, there's something to be said for "keeping your umbrella upside down."
Ironically, unclaimed pennies are far more likely to be discovered on the sidewalk these days than they were in the 1930s. Are we really so wealthy that we can afford to just pass them by, hoping for a hundred-dollar windfall instead? Or have we forgotten the simple wonder of finding happiness in the little things in life?
Mark wants us to see a deeper agenda than money we put in the offering plate; hence, his attention to comparisons. He wants us to see giving as a barometer of our internal devotion to God and God's kingdom.
As a parallel issue, consider Jesus' words on words: "It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). How should we apply this -- avoid slander, stop cussing and don't gossip about others, or examine the heart's broken desires that give rise to these behaviors? Tend to the latter, and the former will change.
Giving is the same way. Giving is simply an external demonstration of internal brokenness or virtue.
The point here is not necessarily to give more. Maybe we need to give less and provide for family or radically reduce personal debt so we can give more, healthier and for a longer time. Maybe we do need to give more and give creatively. But those issues are secondary, not primary. What Jesus seeks is heart transformation. Become the widow. As someone once put it, "Change your money and it may change your heart. Change your heart and it will change your money."
The comparisons among the three "characters" of this passage are striking. The religious leaders and rich givers look great on the outside -- they possess the cultural appearance of importance and standing. But their heart conditions show their true appearance to be thin and wanting. In that light, they weren't much different from the Israel of the Prophets. "These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13).
On the other hand, a widow was a cultural outcast in the first century. Widows shared a marginalized standing with lepers, the poor, tax collectors and prostitutes. Yet with a heart devoted fully to God, the widow has a lot to teach us. This nameless, penny-less woman without a family has become an historical metaphor for generosity, dependence, sacrifice and priority.
As we set our own values, priorities and lifestyle choices, we might remember God's words to Samuel: "For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). We may look acceptable to society or even Christian subculture, but our attitudes are the reality. Our inner motivations. What we feel. What we think but don't dare say. These all trump the outward gestures that people may observe.
This appearance vs. reality paradigm comes all the way back to our penny hoarders. These devoted savers probably look like fools to many who scoff at the penny. But they are investing into their future -- a no-risk situation in hopes of a windfall.
Christians are not called to hoard pennies, but to give them away.
Let us pray.
We pray for true leadership in the world, for an end to hatred, an end to war, an end to intolerance and violence, that all God’s peoples can live their lives in peace and harmony. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for tolerance in our own country. We pray particularly for those who see the gospel as a threat to liberty that their eyes be opened to the love, the peace and humanity of Christ’s message. We pray to the Lord.
For our community, that the generosity of the widows in today’s readings may inspire us and that we in turn may be examples of self-sacrifice to others. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our bishops and those in authority in our church that they may not be as the scribes in today’s gospel, seeking places of honour in our temporal world, but that they be true shepherds, humbly guiding the flocks which the Lord has entrusted to their care. We pray to the Lord.
That those who have been elected to serve our nation, our state, and our community may respect the dignity of all their constituents, no matter their wealth, talents, or place in society. We pray to the Lord.
For all veterans, today on Veterans Day, who gave of themselves to serve our country. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, help us to realize that we can only truly love You by loving our neighbor, that without love of neighbor there is no love for You. We pray for the wisdom and understanding as to how we can live more fully this great commandment and be a shining example of Christ’s love in our daily lives. May we learn that the riches gifted us should be used for the benefit of those most in need, the poor, the hungry, the homeless. We pray for the wisdom to think less of ourselves and our unnecessary needs and luxuries and share what we have with the less fortunate of Gods children. We pray for the veterans who have sacrificed their lives for our safety. May those who have lost their lives live in peace eternal; and those who still live, find comfort and solace in Your love and our gratitude. Lastly, Dear Lord, help our newly elected officials truly work to legislate as the populace has called them to do, not in self-serving ways. We ask all these things through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA