The Problem with Giving ‘Til It Hurts
Written By: Rev. Xavier L. Johnson
I have always been troubled by the story of “The Widow’s Mite” in the twelfth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Something about the way in which this story is often interpreted in Christian preaching and teaching, and how that interpretation has been used in discipleship formation to shape and inform our “theology of giving” and giving practices, just did not sit right with me. Many have understood the story to mean that if people, particularly poor people, “give until it hurts” they will somehow earn a “gold star” from God. That understanding of the text seems incongruent with the Jesus tradition revealed in the Gospels.
Faced with a brutally oppressive system of taxation imposed by the Roman government and an equally oppressive system of sacrifice implemented by a corrupt temple industrial complex, Jews living in Palestine in Jesus’ day often found themselves with very little, if anything, to support themselves and their families after meeting the obligations required of them by the Roman Empire and the Temple. Many of them were left destitute.1 The Jesus we meet in the scriptures was himself a poor, Palestinian Jew. He understood firsthand the economic plight of the poor in first century Palestine, as their experience was his own.
Throughout his ministry, there is a constant concern for the poor that made a commitment to their economic relief central to the “good news” of the Kingdom of God. All of this makes the interpretation and application of the story found in Mark 12:41-44 mentioned above that much more problematic. Why would Jesus celebrate a poor widow giving her last to a vulturous system in support of predatory priests? The fact of the matter is, he did not.
Give Til It Hurts?
New Testament scholar, Obery Hendricks, Jr. offers an interpretation of this story that is much more in line with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. Hendricks suggests that Jesus’ words in verses 43-44 should not be read as a commendation of the widow, but as an excoriating critique of the exploitative nature of the system of sacrifice being employed by the temple industrial complex and the greedy priest who promoted and profited from it. Hendricks characterizes and interprets Jesus’ comments about the widow’s gift as a very public rejection and condemnation of “…a system that made even those who had virtually nothing feel they had to contribute their last or risk being excluded from God’s blessing…”2
Hendricks’ characterization and interpretation are consistent with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, much more consistent than an interpretation that encourages people, particularly poor people, to their own detriment, to “give til it hurts”, as a means of earning divine approval. Jesus’ words in Mark 12:43-44 should be read as a sobering warning to those of us who raise money in the name of religio-philanthropic causes: Everyone should be encouraged to be generous but do not manipulate and take advantage of people for your own gain and/or to advance your organization.
Generosity is Foundational
Generosity, as both a practice and a lifestyle, is a foundational ethic in many religions. In the Christian faith it is at the very core of what it means to be like Jesus. Not being “rich” is no excuse to be selfish or stingy. Generosity is not the sole purview of the wealthy. There is a grace in giving, and access to that grace is not restricted to those who have a surplus out of which to give. In actuality, the testimony of the Christian scriptures is that the grace of giving is, paradoxically, more readily available to those who share out of limited resources. As Kerry Alys Robinson says in her book, Imagining Abundance: Fundraising, Philanthropy, and a Spiritual Call to Service, “Everyone has something to give others” and they should be encouraged to do so.3
As the pastor of a historically black congregation, I know from experience what is possible when people, who individually may not have much, come together and unstintingly share and pool their resources. The black church was started, and has been sustained, by the support of people who had very few material means but gave freely anyway. Even in the history of the most well-to-do and affluent black church, if you look back far enough, you will find that all they have today was made possible by the generosity of faithful disciples, many of whom were black women, who sacrificed and gave out of what little they had scrimped, scraped, and saved.
I am also a theological educator who teaches and trains people who lead in both traditional and non-traditional ministry contexts. I know that, though large gifts are appreciated and celebrated, the reality is that most of what ministry non-profits, para-church organizations, and service organizations are able to do happens because people, with limited resources, give out of what little they have. More often than not, ministry is made possible because of the liberality and open-handedness of poor and working-class people. As Mother Teresa is noted to have once said, we should “Never take the right of another person to be generous”.4 That notwithstanding, we should also not prey upon and cajole people into giving what they do not have to give.
1Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teaching and How They Have Been Corrupted, (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 63-64. 2Ibid. 121.
3Kerry Alys Robinson, Imagining Abundance: Fundraising, Philanthropy, and A Spiritual Call to Service, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014), 15. 4Ibid. 16.
Rev. Xavier L. Johnson, D.Min. is the pastor of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio. He is also the Director of Contextual Ministry Education and an Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.
by Rafia Khader
Rev. Johnson’s example of the Black Church reminds me of the story of Hajar, an Egyptian slave who later became the second wife of the Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon them both). When God commanded Ibrahim to go back to Canaan and leave his wife and infant Ismail behind in what is now called Mecca, it was through Hajar’s sacrifice for the sake of God that she discovered a well that not only provided nourishment for herself and her baby, but continues to serve as a generous source of life-giving to millions of Muslims to this very day.
It was through Hajar’s sacrifice and willingness to obey God’s commands without question – a ritual that is reenacted during the Hajj pilgrimage – that we have this source of water that allowed the once barren Mecca to become inhabitable.
While the discovery of a well may not be regarded by people today as something worthy of being called generous, especially when so many of us are enamored by the enormous gift announcements made by wealthy individuals (without scrutinizing how that wealth was accumulated in the first place), Hajar’s obeying of God’s command was an endowment for the future. A descendant of Ismail who would be born in Mecca centuries later would receive a series of revelations from God that would form the basis of the religion we now know as Islam.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was a man of simple means, yet through his generosity, he inspired all of his followers to give what they can for the sake of God.
Generosity is not for the materially wealthy only. According to a well-known saying of the Prophet, even a smile is considered an act of charity. In another instance, the Prophet told his followers, “Every Muslim has to engage in acts of charitable giving.” In reply, his Companions asked him, “O Prophet of God, how about those who have nothing to give?” The Prophet responded: “They should work with their hands for their own benefit and also give in charity.” His Companions then asked: “And if they cannot do even that?” He further replied: “They should help one who is eager to have help.” To which they again asked: “And if they cannot do even that?” He answered: “Then they should do good and abstain from evil; this is charity for them.”
From this Prophetic saying, we understand that all must give, but all are not required to give at the same levels or even of the same kind. We can all be generous. But at the same time, we must not turn a blind eye toward the fact that what is generous for one person may not be generous for another. It is the intention that matters most: is your act of generosity for the sake of God or is it for self-aggrandizement?
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events