November 25, 2017

Giving out of our Wanting

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who 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. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He 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.”

“Giving out of our Wanting”

Photography is an art. My respect for it as an art is such that in order to preserve it from banality I neither own nor carry a camera when I travel. If I take a picture I feel like a counterfeiter. Photography is a special artistry. It is an art not because of the labor in portraying fleeting impressions in a permanent image, like a painter would do on a canvas. It is an art more for what you cut out of the picture than for what you allow to
come to light in it. It is the art of cutting. And in the cutting is the proof of the worth of the detail that is presented, and of the skill of the photographer.

Some years ago there was an open exposition of the “work” of a British movie director by the name of Peter Greenaway that I happened to see while in Geneva. It was spread through the streets of the Old Town of Geneva. The exposition was not about the films Greenaway had made or of something else he had produced. Here and there throughout the old town there were booths that he set in strategic points where one could step inside and look through some cut frames in the structure of the booth that would isolate a detail
in the architecture of the city I had visited many times, but started seeing for the first time.

There in the frame would be a stairway in the entrance of a building I had never before paid attention to. Or else it was a window here, an archway there. In another booth, one would see the detail of gargoyle, or the knob on a door. This is the art of the photographer. He did not create anything; his was the art of cutting, the art of preventing our gaze to be absorbed in the immense complexity of perceptions that fill our retina. It is the art of drawing our attention to what would seem an unimportant detail lost in an immensity of impressions. It is in this cutting, in what is excluded that beauty is revealed, an awesome vision that was always there but not really seen because our sight wanders.

Our sight wants it all, and in that misses the essential; the essential that is in the detail. Now consider this scene. There he is, Jesus, sitting opposite to the treasury and watching the multitude pass by and put in their offerings. And this was just after his harsh criticism of the scribes with their pompous attires, unscrupulous dealings and pretentious piety. This was a great opportunity for Jesus, the prophet, the social critic to give yet another dynamic discourse. Did he not make the obvious connection between the temple treasury
that filled up by offering of the ordinary people and the ostentatious life of those who benefited from it? The question was begging. It was all there, the connection was there just waiting to be made. But Jesus did no such thing. Why didn’t Jesus make much of it?

It was an opportunity for making a pronouncement on the tax system, on the practice of tithing and its relation to the structures that benefited from it. Yet, consider Jesus, the photographer. Consider the art of cutting. All relations are suspended; all theories and intricate arguments about how all of this holds together are brought to a halt. There is suddenly only that woman, a widow, singled out among so many anonymous faces. There is suddenly that woman and her gesture of dropping two almost negligible copper coins into the treasury. Where is that money going to go? Has anyone announced the beneficiaries of the day’s offering?

Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Should she have looked to the other side and given this money to Jesus and his disciples who certainly would make better use of it?
Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Should we inquire into the tithing system and see if justice was being done? Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Should we be wondering about what she was going to when she went home? Cut it, and behold the woman dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Fix this picture on your retina, be aware of its frame, be knowledgeable about the cutting, for in the cutting you know that your sight is not going to drift away. Rest your eyes on this picture: a women dropping two copper coins into the treasury. Do you see what she is
wearing? Can you reckon her age by the wrinkles on her face? Can you identify her as a widow, someone not unlike the widow of Zarephath, or the widow Ruth? Can you capture in still motion those two coins falling? Do you see in the releasing of those negligible coins her livelihood being relinquished? Behold that sight and erase everything else. Behold the woman in this frame and cut out all the rest, for in the cutting lies the
lesson.

Now look closer and consider the hand releasing two almost negligible copper coins ad remember that it came from her want, from her poverty. Is this not a lesson in stewardship? It is indeed a lesson in giving that we will never match because we fail to enter that picture with its sharp black and white definition between giving and wanting, between releasing while not having. The picture is an icon for an ideal we will never
reach while we anonymously follow the procession of those who give out of their excesses? And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact Jesus does not frame the other contributors to the treasury and cross out their picture saying what they did was wrong and what the widow did was right. He only cut them off from the picture because it is beyond right and wrong. It is about the nature of the gift, the nature of giving. It is about giving without reserve. It is about subverting the commerce implied in what we often erroneously call a gift. A gift ceases to be a gift when we expect a return. An expectation of any kind of reciprocity makes it a pay off which in itself destroys the gift. Expressions like,
“They don’t deserve it,”
“What difference is that going to make?”,
“It is not worth,”
“Could he at least say thank-you”
are what we often use in our own bondage to the economy of investment and which we even justify by calling “responsible stewardship.” Most often if not always, we want our donation to make a difference even and above all when our offering is only the two last coins that we have, the two last minutes we have
before rushing to another meeting, or the last two minutes of our afternoon nap time, or just the last two moments with the person that expects from us more than what we want to give. We want our offering to make a difference even when we are giving up something exactly because it won’t make any difference to us. And, this where we miss it all. It is about investment or return. The woman was not “investing” her last two coins, she was giving them, not to make a “difference” but simply to give. She walked away not because she felt good about giving, but because it was goodness that she just gave. Forget about the two coins and look at that woman, the grace shining on her face. It is the grace of heartfelt giving. That is what it is all about.
In the cutting is the proof of the real worth. It does not even need to be the last two coins.

It does not need to be the last two minutes; it does not need to be the last of anything. The lesson of stewardship lies not in what you give. It is not in the difference it makes nor is it in its worth. It is quite to the contrary. The lesson lies in the freedom of the gift, the freedom of the giving, the gesture itself. It is about the simple act of releasing the gift knowing that all the rest, all the economy that tries to arrest and to control the gift has been erased, cut off from the picture, so that the detail remains as the only essential thing.

Behold that woman. Can we see the hands opening in a gesture without reserve letting go of two small copper coins which for her were so precious? Can we see in her face the total absence of any question about what difference that single gesture would make? If you see this you have a picture for a word humankind has vainly attempted to define, but one you will not fail to recognize: freedom. Freedom is a word that belongs to another economy, a mad economy of total expenditure without return, without investment. It is a
word that belongs to an economy in which power divests itself in weakness, in which Wisdom gave herself as foolishness. And we call this freedom.

A poem by Michel Deguy elegantly captures this
“Giving
Giving is the formula
the exchange without market …
abundance of incomparables without measure taken in common,
a barter where the garlic flower changes into what is not refused
What do you desire to give
It’s the gesture that counts.”

Consider these women, the widow from Zarephath, sharing the last handful of flourl and the remaining drops of oil. Consider Ruth, giving up the security of her people for the mother-in-law she loved, and consider the woman releasing two copper coins into the treasury. They knew about an economy that has never been granted a single Noble prize, at least not in economy. That is why those women are called free.

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