I recently heard a speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in which he told a story that might help us understand today’s Gospel reading (Luke 21:1-4). When the missionaries came to Africa the whites had the bible and the blacks had the land. The missionaries told the blacks to shut their eyes and they would teach them to pray. But when they opened their eyes, the whites had the land and the blacks had the Bible.
At least part of the point Jesus was making in the familiar story often known as “The Widow’s Mite” was warning against just this sort of religious injustice. The story comes in the immediate context of Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders who supported the unfair system that behind the poverty of widows. He speaks of them as “swallowing the property of widows while they make a show of their lengthy prayers.” This should get our attention – particularly those of us with any responsibility for church leadership! It is a warning that we guard against taking care of our own institutional interests while ignoring, or even supporting, injustice that feeds our coffers. This context helps us make sense of a story that is otherwise baffling, even disturbing. Why would Jesus praise a poor woman who gives away absolutely everything she has to the church? Isn’t such an action foolish, rather than commendable?
But this short story makes two points. First, it warns us of the dangers of passively or actively supporting injustice, and then it points us toward the heart of a poor woman whose attachment to her possessions was not as strong as her gratitude to God.
Jesus’ focus was always on the heart. This is why I think Jesus would have liked the way a similar story is told in Hinduism.
One evening a sannyasi was just getting ready to sleep under a tree when he was approached by a villager who came running up to him asking that he give him a precious stone. “What stone” the sannyasi asked? “Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream last night and told me that if I came to this place at dusk tonight a sannyasi would give me a precious stone that would make me unbelievably rich. The sannyasi rummaged in his bag for a moment and, smiling, said, Lord Shiva probably meant this one. I found it in the forest today and you certainly can have it. The villager gazed at the stone in wonder. It was as large as his fist and, even in the fading light, filled with luminosity. He took it and walked away. But, that night he couldn’t sleep. He was deeply troubled. Next morning at dawn he rushed back to the sannyasi, and thrust the diamond back into his hands. “I don’t want it,” he said. “What I want is whatever you have that makes it possible for you to give it away so easily.”
This story, like the one recorded in the Gospel this morning, brings us to the heart of stewardship. Christian stewardship is not primarily about money. It’s about 2 things: gratitude, and the difference between a possession and a trust.
Gratitude is right at the heart of Christian spirituality. G. K. Chesterton said that “the best kind of giving is thanksgiving.” Garrison Keillor describes guilt as the gift that keeps giving but this is even more true of gratitude. Gratitude is the link between receiving and giving. It sets up an endless waterfall of receiving and giving. Our culture teaches entitlement, not gratitude. Recall the words of Bart Simpson when asked to say grace at the dinner table: “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” In one sense, of course, this is true. But the deeper truth is everything we have comes to us as a gift of God – every breath, every ability, every opportunity, every moment of life.
Becoming conscious of that reality changes us from the inside out. Research demonstrates that gratitude contributes powerfully to human health, happiness, and social connection. People who keep regular “gratitude journals” report a decrease in physical symptoms and more alertness, energy, enthusiasm, improved attention, better sleep, higher levels of happiness and sense of well being. Initiating even a single contact with someone towards whom you feel grateful has an effect on mood that can last for up to a month
Want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Take a moment and think of 2 or 3 things that you have received as blessings or gifts and notice the gratitude that you do not have to create but which suddenly arises in your spirit. Thank God for these blessings. Do the same each night before you go to sleep. And then watch as your awareness of your gifts increases and as your response to them begins to change.
A second thing that sits right at the heart of a Christian understanding of stewardship is the difference between a possession and a trust. When we view something as a possession we think of it as “mine”; when we view it as a trust, we recognize that rather that it being mine, it is simply “mine to take care of.” A steward is a person who takes care of precious property which is not his or her own. But as Jesus taught in the parable of the talents, stewards don’t just protect holdings, they are also expected to develop them – to put them to use so they produce a yield. Time, talents, and treasures that are recognized as mine in trust, and which are then put to the use of the owner, not the steward, produce yields for God’s work of love and justice on earth. Sharing what we have been given in trust with others is putting them into the service of God so they can bless others. The recipients, in turn, can then also be grateful for the infinite variety of gifts they receive. And so gratitude works as the gift that keeps on giving.
Christian stewardship grows out of gratitude. Daily ask “For what gifts am I grateful today?” Say “Thank you” often – to God and others. And then respond to that gratitude by putting the things God has given you in trust to use for God’s work in the world. Consider how those things that have been given to you have been given as trusts and should be returned to God in trust by putting them into the service of others. The results if you do? I can guarantee that you will feel more fulfilled in your life of Christian discipleship and you will grow in your relationship with the Lord.
Stewardship not primarily about money or giving but about being good managers of the gifts we have been given by God in trust. It’s about putting those gifts of time, talent and treasure to God’s works of love and justice in the world – not holding and hoarding but passing on with gratitude
But I haven’t yet told you the punch line of that story told by Archbishop Tutu about the switch of land and Bibles when the blanks closed their eyes in prayer. With a mischievous smile Desmond Tutu ended his story by saying, “Actually, it was us blacks who got the better deal!”
How could he possibly say this after all the suffering of his people? The reason he could say that it was the blacks who got the better of the deal was because forgiveness flows from the same source as gratitude – openness to God. Opening our self to God allows God’s life and love to flow through us, into the world – and everything that God’s life and love touches is brought to life. This is the good news of the gospel as we hear it today. Thanks be to God!
A homily delivered by David G. Benner at Christ Church Cathedral (Victoria) on November 10, 2010.