read Mark 12. It’s almost Christmas, and every corner has a Santa Claus ringing a bell, reminding us to be filled with the Christmas spirit. But what do we do when we don’t feel like giving?
At first glance, Mark 12 seems to confirm our worst fears. Stories of giving God everything abound. And yet, if you walk around in the stories, you start to discover that when God asks us to give Him everything we live on, it’s something entirely different than we thought. In God’s math, we get to give. We get to give to God the things we don’t want, and receive from Him the things we do. Consider this:
The chapter opens with Jesus telling a story of tenant farmers who maim and then kill in order to avoid giving the vineyard owner his share. The tenant farmers say want to own the vineyard, yet this is impossible because the owner, apparently, has enough power at his disposal to kill every one of the tenant farmers. The workers are deluded. As so often happens in the parables, it’s not just some of the people whose behavior is strange; it’s also the vineyard owner. Why, if the owner has this great power at his disposal, does he continue to send just one man at a time to collect his share? Why not crush these upstart tenant farmers the moment they hurt the first collector? Is the owner, too, deluded? Is he a bad manager? Is he as codependent as the hopelessly hopeful wife of an alcoholic who wakes up with her husband snoring in a drunken heap beside her and thinks: maybe today will be different? Nobody’s behavior in this parable makes sense.
After Jesus tells the parable, he ends by quoting a cryptic verse from the Hebrew Scriptures about how the stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. Anyone with the smallest familiarity with Christianity senses immediately that Jesus is talking about Himself. He is the rejected one who becomes the cornerstone of salvation. But what does this rejected stone have to do in the context of giving? What is it that we reject that becomes the key ingredient on which we can build a new home – a place, unlike that of the hoarders, where we can actually live?
The chapter then tells of how the religious leaders try to trap Jesus by asking him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar, the conquering Roman ruler. They seem to be hoping for an Occupy Wall Street moment. Jesus finesses their question by asking for a Roman coin (suggesting that Jesus apparently carries no money), asking whose picture is on it, and responding: “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus’ reply “amazes” the religious leaders. I’m not sure why. The religious leaders are portrayed in the gospels as so hard-hearted that they don’t understand anything. They are an image of the terrible danger of self-righteousness. What about Jesus’ reply breaks through to them? Is it because they recognize that on one level, if God really is God, then everything belongs to God, so Jesus is saying we are to give to God everything? Or is it because even self-righteousness is no match for the way Jesus’ answer suggests that when we ask God about how much money we’re supposed to give, we’re asking the wrong question? Jesus’ response raises the question: what does belong to God? What are we supposed to give to Him? Perhaps it is the very question that starts to amaze us. Perhaps, somewhere in the asking of this question – what are we supposed to give God – we start to sense that God wants us to give something completely different than we thought.
Next, people who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead ask Jesus about marriage in heaven. Okay. So if these people don’t believe in the resurrection, they can’t believe in their question. Are they, too, just trying to trap Him? Jesus tells them that there is no marriage in heaven. I’ve always found this a little sad. If you’re single on this earth, or if your marriage isn’t everything you hoped for, isn’t heaven the place where we finally get to have our knights in shining armor? Apparently, there is a profound sense in which Jesus is our bridegroom, and in which marriage to Him satisfies our deepest desire for a perfect union. I’m not sure we can understand that, this side of heaven, except in moments of encounters with the divine which fill us with the supernatural peace and joy we’ve always longed for but can’t sustain on our own. After explaining that we won’t be married in heaven, Jesus then dishes out to his questioners what sounds like a reprimand: “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures and you don’t know the power of God… he is the God of the living, not the dead. You have made a serious error.” The reprimand feels like a slap in the face – as stinging to us, reading it over 2,000 years later. Is it possible that, we, too, in being terrified of what God is asking us to give, are underestimating the power of God? Are we, too, forgetting that God promises to give us life? Again, one has the nagging feeling that one is missing something. But what? What is our serious error?
One man apparently starts to get it. He asks a question of Jesus not to trap Him, but out of a serious desire to understand. He gives us hope that if we approach God with a sincere desire to understand, He will answer our questions. The man asks which is the most important commandment. Just like the religious leaders, he seems to be asking about quantity – how do you number and prioritize? Jesus tells Him to love God with his heart, soul, mind and strength and to love his neighbor as Himself.
Oh, is that all? WHAT! Love God with everything and love our neighbor as ourselves? It sounds impossible.
We can’t love God like that. We can’t love our neighbors like that. We can’t love ourselves like that. Half the time we don’t even want to. In confronting this truth, however, is where the secret of this chapter begins to unfurl. Perhaps, here in our inadequacy, lies the mystery of what God wants us to give to Him. Perhaps God is asking not for our money, or for our ability to make a list, but for the truth about our hearts. Perhaps God is begging us to give Him our inadequacy. Maybe, just maybe, God wants us to give to Him our very inability to give.
Jesus drives this counter-intuitive point home by saying that when we humans do “good”, we do so for praise. He points out that the more proudly someone parades around seeking praise for their generosity, the more likely it is that that very person cheats. And they don’t cheat the rich, Jesus says. They cheat the “widows” – the people whom the Bible calls the most under-championed sector of society. They cheat the people who have no voice. They cheat the people who can’t complain, so that only God sees what’s going on.
This brings us to the end of the chapter. Jesus praises a widow who places two small coins, known in other translations as mites, into the collection box in the Temple. Jesus says that while others gave a tiny part of their surplus, “she, poor as she is, has given everything she has to live on.” v. 44.
That floored me. Oh, no, I thought. God is asking me to give Him everything. I can’t.
Three days went by with me being unable to write this. Then it hit me that the widow only put in two mites. She didn’t put in very much. Yet Jesus praised her. What if I tell God that I don’t have very much to give Him?
The answer is: He will leap for joy.
Because suddenly, we stumble upon our inadequacy. And in the moment of recognizing our inadequacy, we simultaneously recognize God’s kindness. We forget God is kind. It’s strange, but we seem to have some kind of built-in collective forgetfulness when it comes to the attributes of God. We really don’t seem to be able to hold on to the thought that God is good, kind, forgiving, and loving. We think He is a cruel taskmaster, come to demand we hand over to him power of attorney to our bank accounts and walk around in smelly clothes, to be beaten up and lit on fire like those poor homeless men who sleep on the subway until they happen to meet some restless teens with matches in their pockets.
God loves us. He asks that we come to Him with just our two mites. He asks that we give to Him all our bad stuff. We get to give to Him our pride – the thing that prevents us from living joyful lives. God wants us to give Him our self-righteousness – the lie that prevents us from loving others, because we live under the delusion that we’re better than other people. God is begging us to give to Him our miserliness – the hoarding part of us that resents having to share what we achieve, even when we achieve it by standing on the shoulders of giants. These qualities – pride, self-righteousness and greed – are the cornerstones of miserable lives. We have more cornerstones – vanity, jealousy, lust, coveting and fear. This is “everything we have to live on”, and we would happily toss these mites into the collection box.
Here’s the cornerstone of the new home: Jesus makes up the difference between our two mites, and what it really costs to build God’s Home. Jesus paid the price for the construction of the heavenly home where we can live with God. Jesus paid the price by giving everything He had. Jesus gave up his life in order to give us life. He went to the cross, and nailed our pride to it. If even a bad manager will finally break down and level the insubordinate tenant farmers, Jesus was the one who stepped in the gap, paid the price owed by the farmers, and gave them what they wanted: ownership.
All He asks is that we remember. We so often resent the death of our pride, just as those tenant farmers resented having to give to the vineyard owner his share. We forget that while the death of pride, self-righteousness and greed hurts, in the end it brings joy, freedom and a supernatural ability to love ourselves, God and our neighbors. When God looks at us, He sees us through the covering of Jesus’ perfection. He sees us as perfect, because Jesus takes our two mites and, like a divine Rumplestiltskin, spins them into gold, over and over again.
So we, poor as we are, can do our Christmas shopping with light hearts. Buy what you can afford. Give what you have decided in your heart to give. Make a list. Check it twice. The New York Times reported recently that it makes people nervous if you give them an expensive present; it makes them fear they have to somehow repay you. Give to humans not to buy their love, because that will backfire, but out of the fullness you receive from God. Giving to earn praise or affection will never work.
Most of all, give grace to others – because God, in his kindness, mercy and love, gives us everything, when we deserve it least.
So go buy something especially nice for that truly horrible person on your list. Buy a present for the person who drives you crazy. Buy a gift for restless violent teens with nothing but matches in their pockets. Buy a present for someone who hates you. Send it anonymously. Imagine their smile. You know how they will feel. You, too, have received a present you don’t deserve. You, too, can admit you only have two mites, and still have joy. Remembering that fills us with light brighter than a star that once rose in the East and came to rest over a child born in a manger, because there was no room for him anywhere else.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 16, 2011