You have likely heard the phrase, “Here’s my two cents.” Some dictionaries say the usage began with the cost to send a letter, the “two penny” post. Others say it comes from poker, where you place a two penny ante to play the round. Both usages imply, “I’ve paid my price to have an opinion, whether you want to hear it or not.” Another possibility is the 16thcentury English phrase “a penny for your thoughts.” If you got a long answer, the reply was “I guess that was two pennies worth.” Of course, the oldest possible usage comes from our scripture text about the widow giving her last two pennies. Sometimes “my two cents” means, “These are my humble thoughts.” It may not be worth much, but it is what I think.
What is the meaning Jesus gives to the widow’s two coins in this story? The scene begins with Jesus pointedly speaking his mind. Here’s his two cents about scribes. They wear their long robes, the have the seats of honor in the synagogue, box seats at Fenway and the Garden, but here is who they really are behind the scenes. They devour the houses of the widows.
What ticked Jesus off about the scribes? Scribes were often the fiduciaries for widow’s estates. In a patriarchal culture, women and children were legally property of the male head of household. When the husband dies, the widow doesn’t keep the property, she may remarry and let the new husband manage the money. Or she needs to have a scribe do this for her, who gets a percentage for his trouble, slowly devouring her net worth. (Beware of those two percent annual fees of mutual funds, folks!) Here is Jesus, two full millennium before women had the right to vote, before Lilly Ledbetter, saying a woman was not property, but actually had a right to her own property.
Jesus is speaking about structural injustice. If your poor, the system works against you. I taught financial management classes in a shelter program for eight years, and I saw how unforgiving the system is. How do you manage a standard NY State welfare grant of $358 a month? Imagine being homeless and your goal is to get a job and an apartment. You have to pay for your basic needs like clothes and transportation and save for a security deposit. If you had any debt, you might be accumulating 20 percent interest. Getting an education requires a loan. If you are on probation or parole you have to pay a monthly fee. And if you have a bank overdraft, that $30 just blew 10 percent of your monthly income. Some people get rich off the poor, through pay day loans, predatory lending, and credit cards. Remember the reason Ferguson, Missouri quickly exploded after a deadly confrontation on the streets was a system where municipal government was funded through excessive use of violations and court fees that kept people poor and feeling harassed. That is Jesus’s two cents about economic exploitation.
Then we come to what we would call Stewardship Sunday. They didn’t have ushers with offering plates to allow you to slip in a few bills anonymously. Instead, you had to go up to the altar, carrying your coinage and put it out there before God and congregation. There was no paper money or checks, so the wealthiest givers had servants along to carry all the heavy bags of precious metal coins. It must have been a real “who’s who” in Jerusalem event.
As the disciples are watching the wealth of Jerusalem pouring into the Temple treasury, Jesus says,
Wow, did you see that? The most precious gift of the whole day!
Where, where? The disciples look around anxiously for a glimpse.
Right there, that women who just left the altar.
What? You mean that bag lady? Who is she, the miserly millionaire next door? Where are her servants that carried such a large sum?
No, you fish heads, you are missing the point. She put in her last two copper coins. In God’s eyes she was the greatest giver on Stewardship Sunday, because she gave not what she could afford, but all she had.
On the surface the disciples could understandably be skeptical of Jesus’s point. Why is she giving her last two cents? Wouldn’t it be more prudent for her to buy food? According to the Gospels you could buy a roasted sparrow for a penny at the market, so she could have at least afforded a small meal. Now she doesn’t have anything. What is going to happen to her? Where will her next meal come from? Jesus doesn’t give her money, or send one of the disciples after her. Apparently he is content to make his point and let her walk. I’m surprised Judas doesn’t have a fit.
Jesus could have used the moment to talk about how poor people are exploited by imposing an obligation to give to the Temple. You may think about televangelists who prey upon the poor rather than pray with the poor. The message of the prosperity Gospel is – If you give, then God will come through and give you what you want. God will reward your faithfulness and make you rich. But for the most part it just makes the Evangelist rich.
But Jesus goes in a different direction. He has already made his point about structural injustice, and now he doesn’t turn the widow into an object lesson about rapacious scribes. Instead he wants to emphasize her faith, her dignity, her courage. Jesus does not see her giving because she is being exploited by religious propaganda. In fact, she is not giving to the Temple at all, she is giving to God.
Perhaps she is giving out of gratitude. That may sound crazy, after all she is poor and now has nothing, but who says you cannot be grateful for life even while you are poor. I remember sitting with a client in a transitional housing program. He was a recovering alcoholic, a combat veteran with PTSD, a string of DWIs. His morning routine was to write down his gratitudes. He said, “First, I am glad to be alive, since I should be dead given everything I have done to myself. Second, I’m glad to be sober. Third, I’m glad I slept in a bed in a dry place. I write down these three things every morning to remind myself how lucky I am. That’s how I stay sober and do what I need to do.”
This widow may indeed had her house devoured by scribes, but Jesus’s makes a point of lifting up her faithfulness. She is fulfilling the great commandment he just taught in the previous verses. Here is someone who loves God with all her heart, with all her mind, with all her soul. She loves God down to her last two pennies.
What is the real message of the whole of this text? Here are my two cents. First, don’t be like the scribes, sucking up all the privilege for ourselves, not realizing how others don’t have the privileges we may have, maybe we are even judging them. In fact, sometimes privilege is based on injustice. Faith must pay attention to political and economic reality or it is just hollow piety.
But faith is not just our politics. It is also examining ourselves, developing a mindset of faith, walking in a daily relationship with God. Here are two implications of the text for me this week.
Why do we do the good deeds we do? Is it out of a sense of obligation? Do we hope to gain prestige and recognition for ourselves? Or is it out of gratitude? If I do things because I want to prove myself, or because I want to impress others, or just not look bad, it is hollow. I wonder about what I am getting out of it. I wonder if I am doing enough, or if it has any value. When I do things simply because I am grateful to God, and because it is right, I am much more free. If I do something out of love I am free. I don’t care if anyone thanks me. I don’t ask so many questions about whether my efforts are worthy. It is an act of love, freely given.
I have had several conversations recently with people wondering whether they are doing enough. We see the huge problems, like climate change, the epic fires in California, and the resulting flood of refugees (which are more than 50 times the number of people in the so-called caravan from Honduras). Does what I do matter? It seems so small. And then we get disheartened, and often stop doing anything because it seems worthless.
The message I take from the widow mite is to stop counting, stop calculating, stop worrying if I am doing enough to transform the world. Just love. The gift is not in the amount, but in the heart. Just focus on letting our whole heart go to God. I wonder on my best day how much of myself I really give over to God? Is it half? Is it two-thirds? If I got even to 75 percent would that make me a saint? The point is stop counting. Stop worrying. Know that we are forgiven for falling short. Take your two cents and give it your best shot.