Please forgive me, but I am going a little crazy. There are two trails in Patapsco State Park near our house. Let’s start at the Thru Trail. You turn left, go between the roots of two gigantic fallen trees, go left at the intersection, take the ridge path overseeing the river, walk over this rocky area, wander a bit in the woods and then turn left at the marked tree. Easy. I’ve done it many, many times. Now, let’s do it backwards. Start off at the same marked tree, follow the trail, take the rock steps (which, yes, is different from the rocky area), go up the hill to the right, zig zag a bit, get a little lost, turn right, and bingo, bango you’re walking between the two huge roots. Same starting points. Same ending points. But for the life of me, I don’t know where they connect. Somehow, somewhere I leave one trail and end up on another; and I don’t know where. And it is driving me crazy.
There’s a connection in the Bible that often gets lost that should drive us crazy, as well. It’s the connection between gratitude and generosity. Here’s the first trail: People who are grateful demonstrate their gratitude in generosity. Here’s the second trail: Generosity produces gratitude. And what is clear in the Bible is that you can’t have one without the other. If you start out on one trail, you will end up on the other. Now, the opposite is also true. The more miserly you are, the less grateful you will be; and the less grateful you are, the more selfish you become. The litmus test, then, for gratitude is not praise or worship or even thanksgiving, but generosity.
There’s a great story in Mark’s gospel (it’s also in Luke). Jesus is in the temple area, and he is people watching. Just a side note here. I bet Jesus did a lot of people watching. Eight times in the gospels, we read that Jesus knew what someone was thinking (see for yourself, Luke 5:22 – “Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, ‘Why are you thinking these things in your hearts?’”). We often chock up that ability up Jesus being God; but I think it is, rather, that Jesus knew people. Maybe people watching isn’t an accurate expression. Maybe Jesus was a serious student of people and their behavior.
In any case, Jesus is people watching in the temple area, and he spies this widow. In the court of the women, there were 13 chests in which people could place their offering; and each chest had a trumpet-shaped opening so that people could hear how many coins someone gave by the noise the coins would make as they rattled down the spout. Now, Jesus must have been taken with this widow as soon as he saw her and for several reasons. First, she was obviously poor. Second, Jesus had a huge heart for widows, knowing their plight from his own mother’s experience. Third, Jesus knew that widows in Jewish society were often forgotten and destitute. But what really captured Jesus’ imagination was that, in spite of this woman’s terrible poverty, she had come to the temple to give an offering. Imagine if, in the middle of one of our (regular) services, maybe even during the prayers of the people when everyone has their eyes closed, a homeless person walked in and made her way straight to the offering basket. That someone would walk in at that point of the service would cause all sorts of eyes to open to see who it was. That the homeless person made her way to the front would cause even more eyes to open. That she made her way to the offering basket would cause every elder to open their eyes and to “police” her to be sure she didn’t take anything out of the basket! And imagine if we all stopped praying and just watched her as she dropped a nickel and four pennies into the basket and then said, “I found these on the sidewalk, and I just wanted to give them to God.” Now, that would be something! We would all feel ashamed, and we would all take up an offering right then and there so that this woman could get a meal or two or three.
That is basically what is happening here. A poor, neglected widow walks into the temple courts and takes out two copper coins and places them into the receptacle. No one has seen her enter the temple court, and no one notices what she does. And no one hears her two coins rattling down the tube because two coins don’t a lot of rattling make. (In case you were wondering, the two coins were worth 1/64th of a single day’s wage which would be barely enough to buy a small meal.) But Jesus sees her. And Jesus is so overcome with emotion that he calls his disciples together and says, “Did you see that?” And Peter [okay, I’m making this part up] says, “Yes! That guy over there in the purple robes just put a week’s salary into the offering plate. Did you hear how the coins almost made a song as they jingle jangled all the way down?” At that, John would have interrupted and said, “No, Jesus is talking about the Scribe over there! He brought his young son with him; and together, they put a month’s worth of silver into the collection. They even called the temple trumpet trio to announce it so that the boy would feel the excitement of giving. It was tremendous. And you should have seen the chariot they were driving! It was a three-horsepower Roman Fiat!” And Jesus says, “No. I am talking about the widow. Didn’t any of you see the widow?” And all the disciples said, “What widow? There was a widow?” And Jesus just shook his head. And then he said, “Yes, there was a widow; and although she was terribly poor, she gave everything she had! Don’t you remember just two chapters ago, how the rich young ruler refused to give up his great wealth so that the poor could be fed? Don’t you remember how you all thought he would make a great disciple with all his money and influence and network of friends? Don’t you remember how I called him to give up his great wealth so that he could follow me with a pure heart? And don’t you remember how he turned away because he couldn’t let go of his money? And then, here comes someone who would truly be a great disciple, but you looked right through her. Here is a widow who gave everything she had in gratitude to and faith in God.” Now, I know the text doesn’t say anything about the widow’s gratitude or her faith, but why else would she give everything she had? She trusted that God would take care of her because he already had given her so much, and she was so grateful that she had to give. And there you have it, faith, gratitude and generosity; the three go hand-in-hand.
We had an experience of this recently. There was a hairstylist in the salon where Kathy S. works who had collected a few tips before the lockdown happened. Instead of taking them home, she stashed them with her stuff, probably anticipating that the lockdown would last only a few weeks, not months. Very sadly, during the lockdown, she passed away. When everyone came back to work, they discovered her tip money with the rest of her gear. It wasn’t a bundle by anyone’s standards, but the women in the salon wanted to honor the memory of their friend with it. They all knew that this woman loved going to church, and so they gave this tip money to Kathy and asked her to give it to our church. Kathy quietly slipped it into our offering basket at outdoor church, and we gave thanks for a gift of gratitude and generosity. I never met the woman. I don’t even know her name. But it was all the tip money she had, and I am sure (from what Kathy told me) that she would have been delighted to see that money go to a church. See, gratitude always leads to giving.
In this Thanksgiving season, let us not only give thanks with our words and in our worship and let us not only remember friends and family, but let us remember to connect our gratitude with our giving, to express our faith in good works and to overflow with an attitude of gratitude that shows itself in rich generosity. Especially in these difficult days of Covid, it is more important than ever to make sure we connect those dots and get on the right trail.