Currency. When I hear the word, I think of foreign currency. I think of those bills and coins in my wallet and money pouch the several times I’ve been outside the United States this past decade. Bills in full color, not just green like here at home. Different sized bills, where the 100 is bigger than the 10. Coins adorned with unfamiliar words and bearing the images of other people’s leaders and heroes and heroines.
Foreign currency. As a visitor from the United States, sometimes I had to stop, watch, and learn the value of those currencies. The exchange rate in South Korea two years ago was 1,000 won to 1 U.S. dollar. All those zeroes mesmerized me. Once when I bought a latte at Starbucks near my hotel – costing the equivalent of 4 dollars – I pulled out a 50,000 won bill, mistaking it for a 5,000. I felt really bad for forcing the cashier to make all that change – until I felt grateful she didn’t try to take advantage of the American and offer him a few coins instead of 45,000 in bills. It took me over a week in France this past August to realize they had coins in denominations smaller than the 10 cent piece. I thought maybe the prices of everything were set to end in zeroes. Then some items worth 1 euro 98 or 4 euros 67 cropped up and my money pouch began to fill with 1 and 2 cent coins. I found I could not really use those smallest of coins. Machines didn’t take them. It was always easier just to break a new 50 cent piece than to try and make a handful of 1s and 2s add up to something of value. Most of them never went back into circulation in France, but came home with me to the United States as souvenirs for our grandsons.
Holy Currencies. That’s the title of a book by Eric Law, Episcopal priest and creator of training programs for Christian organizations around multicultural diversity, vital mission, stewardship, and sustainable ministries [Holy Currencies: 6 Blessings for Sustainable Missional Ministries (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013)]. You get his main point just from the cover art. It shows six coins with words on them – the names of the six currencies discussed in the book. One of the coins reads “money,” of course. But there are other currencies, other coins: relationship, truth, wellness, gracious leadership, time and place. The six coins are surrounded by flowing water as if they are circulating about; currency in its literal meaning, related to the word current. Time and place, leadership, wellness, truth, relationship, even money have value, Law says, only if they flow, only if all six currencies circulate together through a congregation out into the wider society and back again in a cycle of blessing.
None of Eric Law’s holy currencies flow in our gospel reading this morning (Mark 12:38-44). Instead, money, truth and relationship, time and place and wellness, above all, leadership, are locked up, hoarded away in vaults for the rich at the expense of the poor. Teaching in the temple, Jesus implores his hearers to beware of the scribes who give a public performance of their privilege, status, and power by parading around in long robes impossible to ignore; by insisting on being honored and praised publicly in the marketplace; by monopolizing the best seats in the synagogues and most prominent places of honor at banquet tables, public gatherings where the social calculus of worth and importance was on display for all to see in who sat or reclined up front and who had to stand at the back. Beware, Jesus warns, for this pious display veils economic opportunism and oppression. The scribes “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (12:40). In Jesus’ society, widows, being women, had no legal standing and so could not manage whatever resources might have been leftover from their husbands. That role of executor was taken on by male religious authorities. But they used it to their own advantage, not for the benefit of the widow. The best places at banquets, front and center, might have been reserved for them, but what the scribes really feasted on was the livelihoods of the vulnerable. They will receive the greater condemnation, says Jesus; condemned for blocking the flow of holy currencies. Money, truth, time and place, and all the rest, stream into the vaults of the religious authorities and never flow back out. Clogged, dammed up, those currencies stagnate in pools of injustice.
Which brings us to the poor widow and her two little coins (Mark 12:41-44). Currency, again. Jesus is seated opposite the temple treasury, observing the religious, economic, and political dynamics at work among his people. The crowds make their monetary offerings. Many rich folk give large sums trailing lots of zeroes. The widow puts in two small copper coins together worth a penny – the smallest coins in circulation and of as little value in the marketplace as my 1 and 2 cent euro coins. Calling his disciples, Jesus proclaims: “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” (43-44). What should we make of Jesus’ words here? Maybe like me, you grew up in church taught to hear them as high praise for the widow’s individual generosity. Surely that forms part of what’s going on – echoing the theme of the great reversal in Mark’s gospel: the first will be last and the last first; one must lose one’s life to preserve it; greatness consists in service to others. The widow had two little coins. She could have offered one to the temple and kept the other for herself. That’s what the rich folk did. They gave out of their abundance, but left plenty behind for themselves. Not the widow. She gave her whole life.
In context, however, the story of the widow with her coins must also be heard as a lament over social injustice, even a protest. Jesus laments currencies that do not flow; money that does not circulate; uncomfortable truths about the lives of the poor that are not heard. He protests against some people being excluded from relationships as unworthy; the marginalized not being granted time and place within society – diminishing their wellness; all structured by religious authorities whose leadership is anything but gracious – rapacious, rather. The first time Jesus enters the temple earlier in Mark’s gospel, he drives out those who were buying and selling there, overturning the tables of the money changers (11:15-17). And immediately after calling attention to the poor widow and the rich folk making their offerings, Jesus overhears one of his disciples praise the beauty and magnificence of the temple. Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:1-2). In between, Jesus comes back day after day to that same temple to teach. A series of trick questions are posed by Jesus’ opponents in hopes of trapping and doing away with him, including one involving a coin and another a widow. Is it lawful for righteous Jews to pay taxes to the Roman emperor or not, they ask. Whose image is on the coin, Jesus asks? The emperor’s. Then give the emperor the insignificant little coin that belongs to him, but give God what belongs to God, your whole human self, stamped with God’s very own image (12:13-17). What if a woman was widowed seven times by the deaths of her husband and his six brothers in a spectacular failure of the social safety net of the time meant to provide for vulnerable women; in the resurrection of the dead, they ask, whose wife will she be? (12:18-23) Jesus sweeps away this stagnant currency of status and worth. When we are raised from the dead and restored to our full human dignity in God, he says, male privilege and the devaluing of women will come to an end.
Yes, Jesus praises the generosity of the poor widow with her two little coins. But he also stops and looks at, laments and protests against the injustice of a system in which widow’s houses are devoured, their very lives taken out of circulation. Not just their money, but all the currencies they have to offer as human beings.
I wonder what obstructs the flow of holy currencies for you and me as individuals, for us as members and friends of this parish in this neighborhood; as citizens or sojourners in this city, state, and nation; as human beings on this planet. What blocks a just circulation of our money? Whose truth does our less than gracious leadership fail to notice, plugging up time and place for those without privilege to be fully themselves in the image of God? Why do we arrest the stream of relationship across human differences, choking off the wellness of all?
And I wonder this morning what margins of grace available in God’s abundance might unblock these currencies and allow them to circulate freely? To begin to answer that question, I return to Eric Law’s book Holy Currencies, and a story he tells there; a story of both generosity and justice (pp. 14-15).
As a child, Law remembers his family always having guests for dinner, as many as twelve to fifteen people joyfully sharing food and stories. At the time, he thought his immigrant Chinese family quite wealthy, only to discover later they were actually poor. Some days, his mother told him, she had only three dollars to feed all those people. Her ability to buy seasonal ingredients and bargain shrewdly with vendors was a miracle. More miraculous was how everyone around the dinner table was filled and yet there were leftovers.
Toward the end of dinner, there was always something left on a plate in the middle of the table, Law recounts. Everyone would be staring at it, especially if it was part of a special main dish. But no one moved to take it. Then someone would say, “Why don’t you take it Grandma? You are the oldest.” Law’s grandmother would respond, “No, I’ve been eating this stuff all my life. Give it to the little one. He’s the youngest and needs it to grow up big and strong.” Now all eyes were on Eric. Knowing the ritual, he would say, “No, not me. I am completely full because I have the smallest stomach. Give it to my older brother. He has a test at school tomorrow. He needs it so he can do well.” “No thanks,” the brother would decline. “Give it to my sister. She has a piano lesson tomorrow….” And the cycle of blessing would continue flowing around the table; each person would find an excuse not to take the leftover piece of food. As we offered it to each other, Law says, we also affirmed each other’s worthiness in the family. The piece of food would sit in the middle of the table, destined to be leftover, to be transformed into a new delicious dish the next day.
At this our eucharistic banquet, around the altar here at St. Paul’s, all have places of honor reserved for them. Around this our dinner table, we have signs of abundance and symbols of appreciation for the worth of every human being. Come and enter the flow of God’s holy currencies.