With All Our ‘Mite’

“(Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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. For 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.”
– Mark 12:41-44

Whenever I read this passage, I often wonder about the widow’s state of mind. What was she thinking as she walked up to the alms box at the temple and put in every cent (or “mite” as the King James Version records it) of earthly treasure she owned? Did she feel a sense of responsibility? Did she feel it was an expectation of the temple that even she, a lowly widow, must contribute to the temple, even if it’s the last scrap of wealth she has? Did she fear a rebuke or retribution or shame if she didn’t give?

Personally, I think she was crazy. If I had been in her shoes I would not have given even one thin “mite” to the temple, let alone two. Why would she want to support the temple system – one that oppressed people like her? Go back a couple of verses in Mark 12 and you’ll find Jesus warning his listeners about the temple scribes – those who held high honor in the institution of the temple. They “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (verses 38-40).

In the very next passage, we find the widow giving all she has to an institution whose leaders “devour widows’ houses”! What kind of fool is this woman that she would have anything to do with an outfit that will take the last of her money – and her house to boot? You see, she must be crazy.

As a Christian, who also happens to be a lesbian, I have been accused of being crazy like this poor widow. I get letters constantly, mainly from fellow members of the LGBT community, who ask, “Why do you continue to be part of an institution that oppresses the LGBT community? Why do you want to be associated with a church whose leaders preach against our sexual orientation or gender identity? Why do you give your money to a club that would rather condemn you than welcome you?”

Like the widow’s devotion to an institution that would deprive her of every earthly comfort, LGBT people who have persisted in staying part of the Christian church may seem crazy to people who have left the faith, or never participated in the first place. From our place however, as we approach the alms box ready to give our all to the church that persecutes us on a regular basis, we understand that out of our poverty, we have much to give to the church.

Jesus was clear on who was in the right as far as he was concerned. The scribes, who lorded their privileged leadership positions over others, “will receive the greater condemnation,” he said. The widow, however, even in her poverty, has “put in more” than all the others who gave from their abundance. Why? Because she gave her all – everything she had – to further God’s work in the world.

As members of the Christian church, LGBT people have been accused of causing the continuing decline in mainstream congregations and have been blamed for schisms in the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and most recently, the Lutheran Church. As these denominations appoint openly gay bishops and begin to recognize the ordinations of partnered clergy, it’s true their memberships are in decline. But, church membership has been in decline for many decades – even before the churches began to deal seriously with opening their pews and pulpits to LGBT people.

In my view, what has contributed to the decline in church membership overall is that the church no longer demands our all. Certainly, churches still want our mites when the plate passes by – but they simply are no longer demanding all our “mite” – everything that we can offer to realize God’s realm here on earth. Those who disagree will often point to the rising growth of fundamentalist churches. Several thousand gather each Sunday morning to hear the likes of Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Their coffers are overflowing with mites from both the rich and the poor. Don’t they demand all the “mite” of their followers and regularly fill their pews and coffers?

Yes, and no. They certainly do demand the financial commitment, but beyond that, all the followers of these fundamentalist preachers are required to commit to is a list of doctrines or beliefs. If you believe rightly in say, the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and so on, then you’re in. No fuss, no muss – no thinking required. The reason these congregations are growing is because it’s easy to be a part of them. It’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “cheap grace” where grace is merely a doctrine. Grace without a cost to the person covered by it is not grace at all – but an intellectual consent to the idea of grace.

The widow – as well as LGBT followers of Christ – understand what costly grace is all about. It requires us to give everything we have – our last dime, our last ounce of energy, our last drop of compassion – to anyone who is in need, whether they be a theological friend or foe. We understand Bonhoeffer when he wrote: “The only [person] who has the right to say that [they] are justified by grace is the [person] who has left all to follow Christ.”

That’s not to say that LGBT believers are not wooed by the attraction of cheap grace. Even as we work diligently to affect change within the powerful institution of Christianity, we too, have succumbed to the siren song of cheap grace. I will be the first to admit that I give from my abundance. I do not give to the church, financially anyway, until it hurts. I have never given the church the very last bit of my money. I have always held back financially – keeping what I needed – even more than I needed, and giving the church a mere portion of my wealth.

In my time, too, I have been stingy. I have not given of myself as freely as I ought. I opt out of ministries to help others simply because I want to do what I want to do. I don’t want to be inconvenienced. I can’t fit it into my busy schedule. I still live, too often, in my “me-centered” universe, not bothering to look outside of myself and work to alleviate the suffering that I see.

I suspect I am not alone in enjoying the self-righteous pleasures of cheap grace. In my glass house, I am loathe to toss too many stones at those in the fundamentalist camp. I admit, the widow outpaces me – my ability to be self-sacrificing pales in comparison to hers, and probably always will.

However, I seek to emulate her faithfulness to an institution that marginalizes her and will devour her house if given half the chance. I believe she understood that she is a powerful witness against the cheap grace that the scribes of her day were enjoying and perpetuating. We, as LGBT people, can follow her example and continue to be powerful witnesses to God’s costly grace as we seek to make the church more welcoming and inclusive of all outcasts, not just those in our community.

Karen Armstrong, in her new book The Case for God, notes that when Jesus asks us to “believe” it is not belief in some list of doctrines that he’s demanding. Instead, the root of the word “belief” means to “commitment”. Jesus asks us to commit ourselves to be his disciples in this world.

“He wanted disciples who would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and trust in the God who was their father […] and live compassionate lives, not confining their benevolence to the respectable and conventionally virtuous.”

The scribes of our day love the adulation of church and society. They love their mega-churches and mega-bank accounts. They confine their “benevolence to the respectable and conventionally virtuous.” They use condemnation of LGBT people to build up their own congregations and coffers, just as the scribes condemned widows to the delight of the wealthy in their own congregations. But, despite the institution’s abuse of her, the widow never faltered. She kept coming and giving, coming and giving, week after week, day after day.

Even if others think we’re crazy, the LGBT community, and its allies, must continue to give all its “mite” to the church in the hope that one day we can reform it – from the inside out – and once again make costly grace the only desirable kind.