I wonder, sometimes, if we really understand what sacrifice means anymore.
This year, on the Sunday before Remembrance Day, the gospel reading we’ll hear is the story of the widow who gives her last two coins to the treasury at the temple. Jesus observes this and points out to the disciples that, while the rich give only a portion of the abundance of their wealth, this widow (the poorest of the poor) gave everything she had. “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 12:43-44).
I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard this passage preached as a stewardship lesson. Many a financial campaign has tugged at the generosity of givers with the example of the widow who gave all that she had.
But I can’t. I think this is so not about stewardship. It’s about sacrifice.
And let’s be clear, too, that sacrifice and sharing are not the same thing. Not at all. Sharing is what the rich people in this story do, they give a portion of what they have. In fact, sharing some of what you have is pretty good stewardship, depending, of course, on how you prioritize the “some” of what you have. The traditional “tithe” is ten percent, of what you have or your income (net or gross, who can be sure?), but today, many people prefer to give in support of a thing (like a program or a cause) rather than simply to a church or temple treasury.
Either way, I don’t suppose for a minute that Jesus thought that the contributions of the wealthy were enough. It’s just that that’s not the point. This woman sacrifices.
She “put in everything she had.” Why? Clearly, “everything she had” wasn’t required or even expected when everyone else was only giving a part of what they had. So why give “all?”
I wonder if she thought her all, little though it may be, would be exactly what Jesus described, a spirit-filled, hope-filled “more” that might inspire others, not just to do the same, perhaps, but to value it more greatly as the sacrifice it is. Her two coins alone might not be able to do much, but to know them to be the sacrifice they were should surely inspire those who received them to do greater things with all that they were a part of, to build on those two coins and seize the opportunity to create a greater, more loving world. Right? Right?
Well, no. There’s no indication that anyone but Jesus and the disciples witnessed it. And certainly the temple authorities (who Jesus constantly challenges) wouldn’t care much would they?
But maybe that’s Jesus’ point. A sacrifice this great should be honoured with love and respect, but more importantly, with living into the potential it creates, the potential to grow and build a better world.
On Remembrance Day we will honour the sacrifice of many. Not just those who died on battlefields, but those who lost loved ones, friends and neighbours, and gave up life and living to support others in building a world. This world. Do we honour them in one moment on one day or in every moment of everyday that we live into the opportunity and potential they sacrificed for us to have?
See, I don’t think their sacrifice is for what was or is, but what will be, the possibility of a future that freedom, peace and love can create. And to truly honour their sacrifice, we need to live that.
There’s a great moment, among many, in the film Saving Private Ryan. It’s the story of a squad of soldiers sent to find the one surviving brother of four sons who went to fight in the second World War. Near the end of the film, with most of the squad killed in their quest to bring James Ryan home, the dying captain pulls Ryan close and says “earn this.” The scene dissolves into a much older Ryan visiting the cemetery where his saviours were buried, hoping he’d lived well enough to have earned their sacrifice.
That’s the thing about sacrifice. It’s more than the giving of everything. It’s the living out of the gift of what that everything provides. Are we earning this?