Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

Mark 12:38-44

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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

As was noted in our sermon today at church, this week marks Opening Day of the annual "Beg-a-thon" in the Episcopal church--stewardship drive season. The season of pledge cards and prayerful consideration of the same. I have heard this story many times about the faithfulness of this widow and her two copper coins, and all the praise heaped upon this poor woman for her ability to trust God. But you know, there's a back story here, and the back story is worth discussing.

I think back to something my buddy A. has told me in the past about "tzedakah." Tzedakah is one of those Hebrew words that doesn't quite translate. We think of it meaning "charity" but it really means "charity as it relates to fairness and ethical behavior." Judaism actually recognizes eight different levels of it, but the levels don't have anything to do about the AMOUNT. It has to do with the willingness of the GIVER, and the level of need the giver to be noticed or recognized for it. These levels range from the lowest one of "giving begrudgingly" to the highest one of "teaching the recipient to be self-sufficient by giving of not just your money but your time, your insight, and your love."

This is rooted in ancient Judaic law that outlines that all people have a legal right to the very basic level of food, clothing and shelter. When one cannot afford even the most basic, this law must be honored by those who CAN pay. In Judaism, it is not simply unjust for Jews to not give charity to those in need--it's illegal.

(Interesting when you look at that law in light of the recent health care debate, isn't it?)

Charity in Jewish legal tradition is therefore an obligation, a "self­-taxation", rather than a voluntary "feel good" act.

The baseline in Judaism is in Deuteronomy 26, the base benchmark being the "tithe" or 10% of "what you have" whether that is money, grain, livestock, whatever. Rabbinic scholars have been wrestling with what that 10% is for thousands of years and we continue the tag team wrestling match. The Talmud defines it as giving at least ten percent of their annual net income to tzedakah. Maimonides later affirmed this. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5). Some schools of rabbinic thought argue that giving ten percent can be a "sin" if you are capable of giving more than ten percent. Other rabbinic schools of thought state that giving MORE than 10% when you are not able to give more is a form of sin because it makes some people lazy about giving their ten percent, or discourages others from giving their ten percent ("I can't be as good as Moishe over there.") There's not much agreement on much except that the nebulous 10% is the benchmark.

In our modern Christian culture, we continue to wrestle with this benchmark. Is this 10% before or after taxes? Is this just for the church, or is this ALL charity since other forms of charity outside the temple did not exist in Biblical times? Lots of opinions, very little consensus.

Therein lies the back story in this text. It's too easy to simply (as much as it should be done) "praise the widow for her generosity and move on." I wonder if part of the reason Jesus showed this woman to the disciples, as we say around here, "put the red-ear on everyone"--to shame them just a little bit by example instead of talk. This woman didn't give ten percent--she gave 100%. She gave all she had. She walked away with nothing, including the knowledge of where her next meal was coming from.

The scribes and priests, all of them so knowledgeable in Judaic law, who KNEW that basic food and shelter was a right--did they make ONE move to stop this woman from putting in those two coins?


When they knew that it was ILLEGAL to deny food, shelter, and clothing to the poor, they just took her money and said nothing.

Now, one could argue that Jesus didn't either, but one of the things I try to "trust" in the stories of the Gospel was that "maybe something happened that didn't get written." I like to think by showing this to the disciples, maybe someone in the crowd, or one of the disciples, gave her a hunk of bread, or pressed a bigger coin in her hand, or shared what they had with her. She trusted in God to provide, just as the Hebrews of the Exodus trusted for manna to show up each day. I want to believe that trust was rewarded.

Every year, I sit down with that pledge card and stew, as do many of us. We all wrestle with whether we have the guts for that 10%, and how much of that 10% is for our parish. So many of us learned conflicting and difficult lessons in our families of origin about "trust" when it comes to money. Many people have learned more lessons in guilt and shame about money (or the lack of it) than lessons about "tzedakah." Honestly, I don't think there is a "right" number, or even a "magic" number. Maybe the trick in all this is to think about our Biblical family of origin rather than our biological one--a weighty proposition, indeed, and one that does not reflect a dollar value but a value of justice in God's reign.


Now I´m really confused...having been of the, well, err, flowing robed variety at a earlier alter I do know the difference between share and show...more thought is required now that you´ve made me think, I mean morally think, about my personal accountability again.

Thanks gobs.

Señor Twirl and Spin

I was reminded of Melanie Hamilton taking the gold wedding band of her beloved Ashleigh and donating it to the cause and her touching may do my husband more good off my hand than on...and then of Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton's last minute tossing in of her wedding band from the deceased husband she didn't really love...and then Rhett Butler's returning them both.
No deep meaning - just what came to mind.

I also began to think that by giving all she had she made herself eligible for being cared for by the community... Our current health care "system" requires that all "widows" give their "last penny" before they become eligible for Medicaid assistance. Once again, no deep thought really, just reaction.

Love the Scarlett O'Hara connection. As for your last paragraph, you and I have seen the drill of "spending some old person down to their last $999.99" to be eligible for Medicaid, and how hard it is for little old people who lived their whole life trying to be self-sufficient and "not accepting charity" to make them understand this is the only way the system lets you do it. Sigh.

very well stated about 'tzedakah'. many people don't get it right, but you did good!

one minor correction to the who says what should people give part...

you wrote: "The Talmud defines it as giving at least ten percent of their annual net income to tzedakah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5)."

mainonides lived about 1000 years after the talmud (and about 1000 years ago!). you had it so it seemed that he was your talmudic source.

also, he says that 20% is an exquisite way of doing tzedakah, 10% is 'average', and less than 10% brings on the 'evil eye'...

i find it interesting that 10% become the norm - don't people want to be ABOVE average???

arnie draiman
(teacher of Torah and Talmud, expertise in Tzedakah)

Thank you SO much, Arnie for that constructive correction. I think I edited a "workaround." Yes, it is interesting that the collective opinion got to 10% and let it go at that, and sort of ignored the "but that's just average" part.

I have been blessed to be friends with my semi-retired physician friend A. He uses a lot of his free time studying Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Just being his friend is like having a guest seat in yeshiva. Oddly enough, his faithfulness in studying the Torah and the understandings I learn in his quest to be stronger in his own identity as an observant Jewish person really makes me understand my own Christianity better, and the context of the stories in the New Testament.

I think I would love to sit in on one of your teaching sessions sometime. I find the discussions between the sages fascinating; that all that long ago, they have sat and thought of so many things in human nature that we see today. Thanks for stopping by!

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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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