More, faster, richer, bigger. Go for the win. Those are the highest aspirations of our Western culture. It’s what drives a capitalist economy in which you and I are most valued, not for who we are, but for how much we buy and consume. And as consumers, we look for prosperity and happiness in the acquisition of material wealth.
That’s the reason why we Western Christians tap-dance around some of Jesus’ central teachings. When he talks about denying ourselves, losing our lives in this world, emptying ourselves, being content with being last and lowly, personally identifying with the marginalized, and bearing our cross, we have a very hard time even imaging what it would look like to embody those principles. I think some of us admire these qualities in the “super saints” we idealize (the St. Francis’s and Mother Theresa’s of the world), but we simply cannot fathom taking on these traits as our primal way of living. It turns out it’s much easier and less costly to idealize than to emulate.
That brings me to a Holy Week story from Jesus’ last days. He’s in the Temple courts with his disciples, and Luke tells it like this:
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”Luke 21:1-4
Let me just say right off the bat, preachers just love this passage. Oh my, do we love it. It’s a favorite go-to Bible story to turn to when we’re trying to fill up the offerings plates. Even if you’ve never sat through a “stewardship sermon”, I’m sure you can figure out how we preach from this passage.
“Now, everyone,” says the preacher, “if this poor, poor widow who had nothing else to live on could give her last two cents for the work of the Lord, then really now, what more could you give?”
After a final amen, the sermon is followed by the singing of “Take My Life and Let It Be” which contains this little gem: “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite [the widow’s mite!] would I withhold.”
Isn’t that brilliant?
You might be relieved to know that this typical approach glances off the more significant meaning of Jesus’ teaching.
Let’s look again at the timing of this story of the widow’s offering. Jesus is mere days away from his death. On that day, Jesus would demonstrate once and for all what it means to give up everything he had to live on. He gave away his entire life. Put the story of the widow’s offering in that context, and what more is he trying to say to us?
Jesus and his cross are teaching us a counterintuitive truth about life and abundance: self-emptying always leads to abundant life.
Let’s be clear, this is not abundant life the way our Western capitalist culture defines it. It’s far more profound than that. Abundant life is a pattern of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Abundant life is an intimate connection with all created things, subject to subject, enjoying it all for its own sake and inherent beauty. Abundant life is a life without ego, control needs, power-trips, self-centered wants, judgmentalism, and non-forgiveness.
The more we cling to things— to anything, really— as our private possession, the more separate we are from the rest of the world. We must then assume the stance of having things to protect, to compete for, and to differentiate from everyone else’s. It’s very difficult, it not impossible, to love unconditionally within protective, “me versus them” dynamics like these.
While shielded within our self-protective silos, giving of ourselves becomes a metered, tempered and calculated risk assessment based on merit and return instead of an ongoing, unlimited and abundantly gracious outpouring of our very best. Which of these modes do you think most resembles Christ?
Jesus was indiscriminate towards those whom he healed and gave to. He never turned away anyone (if you don’t believe me, look again), never judged anyone’s worthiness, and gave to each whether the recipient was grateful or not. The ultimate expression of this outpouring of unconditional graciousness was his death on the cross.
And just days before, an anonymous poor widow whose name we would never know, whom everyone would have missed save for Jesus, epitomized all of this in a humble act of giving.
So the rest comes down to our response. At every moment we face a choice. Will I consume and protect or will I let go and give? Will I live in full embrace and communion with all things, or will I fence off myself in the name of self-preservation? Will I judge or will I love? Will I live in the “system’s” false understanding of abundance or in Christ’s? Will I give life or withhold it (while losing it eventually anyway)?
Holy Week teaches us some invaluable, timeless human and divine truth about what it means to live, die, surrender, and thrive. We would do well to be students of the One who revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), not merely as a religious precept, but as a total way of living and being. Then we will discover the abundance of self-emptying.