One of my children came home from school not long ago, and told me their teacher said there was really no point to any of our recycling, or efforts to reduce our consumption of energy, to shrink our carbon footprint. His argument was the difference we can make as individuals is miniscule, especially when measured against the immensity of the problem. So we needn’t bother trying.
The teacher is of course entitled to their opinion. I also think it is sad and irresponsible of him to waste the opportunity he is given, as a teacher, to influence thinking, and behaviour. I also believe he is wrong.
Our gospel story today is a great one. The story of the widow’s mite. The woman of limited means, who gives as much, or more than she can really spare, is held up in contrast with the wealthy, who may give more in terms of the amount, but much less, if there donation is considered as a percentage of their net worth.
The woman gave all that she could. The others in the story gave much more in amount, but much less than they could afford.
The phrase, “my 2 cents worth” has its origins in this story. Often when a person would use that phrase, it is in the manner of false, or feigned humility, to disarm a person’s fears before you speak, as if to say, ”don’t worry about what I say, it won’t have much bearing or significance, it’s just my little 2 cents worth.”
But the story itself is not really about that. It does not put the woman down for giving so little. It honours that she gave of herself, and that she gave sacrificially, and took a risk in doing it. Her gift was valued over the others, because what she gave was precious to her.
It is a good gospel story to hear on this Sunday before November 11, a day when we are encouraged to remember the sacrifices, the risks, the willingness to give something precious, of many people who have served in times of conflict.
The story offers a reminder of the dignity and meaning of giving all that you can. The story also points to what intentions need to be behind the giving.
The kind of giving that we are honouring this week was likely done out of very human, complicated motives. We rarely, I notice, do things for just one clear and pure reason. The story offers a warning to examine our motives. The sacrifice does not have quite the same spiritual meaning or power if it is made out of pride, or the desire to self-promote, or to make another person look bad.
Why we do things, the real intent behind our actions deserves examination and reflection, first and second, and third thought, especially when a country is considering the decision to send people into harm’s way, to be involved in armed conflict.
If we enter a war out of pride, or greed, or in pursuit of revenge, these are less than noble reasons. We need to have really clear, and appropriate reasons to put lives at risk.
The widow only had a few coins, so each was precious. She had to think carefully about what to do with the rare and precious things.
The people who wield decision making power, and who exercise the authority to send people to war, are dealing with the precious commodity of human lives.
What fights are really worth entering? What is really worth risking lives over?
What is worth not just risking lives, but potentially taking the lives of people who find themselves on the other side of a conflict?
Religious thinkers have, for millennia, struggled in their thinking about how, and when it is a legitimate choice to engage in war.
In the Western World, much of the discussion of whether or not there can be a just war, is rooted in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian who lived in Italy in the thirteenth century. He laid out three basic principles, which have been expanded upon, and added to over the centuries since. They are Proper Authority, Just Cause, and Right Intention.
Proper Authority Just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
This contains the implication that if a government decides to enter a war, but the people disagree, then the government is no longer legitimate, as it does not reflect the will of its people. As someone born in 1961, who grew into a thinking person during the American involvement in Viet Nam, a lot of my thinking about the legitimacy of war has been influenced by seeing a country tear itself apart on generational, class, and racial lines, over the justness of that war.
Just Cause War must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power, or to punish, or for revenge.
The proponents of going to war have to be clear about the “why”. The invasion of Iraq was based on the premise, later argued to be false, that the government of Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. That rationalization may have prevented actual dialogue and debate on other motivating factors.
Right Intention Peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
Asking the Just War questions is an exercise of the freedom that has been defended by our military. It also is a necessary and important part of how we honour their sacrifices, to make sure that we do not ask that those sacrifices be made for anything less than just and honourable reasons.
The widow’s mite story reminds us that it is good and faithful to give sacrificially, when it is done for the right reasons.
As people of faith, we are called to be like the widow in the story, and give as we are able, not out of pride, but because we know it is the right thing to do. The widow in the story is held up as an example of the way we should live.
The widow in the story is the reason why I think the teacher who told their class that they should not bother doing the right things to respect the environment, has it all wrong. He sees each little effort as not enough, when compared to the greater problem.
But he misses the bigger picture, that we can see from our perspective as people of faith. We do what is right, because it is right to do. Not because we expect a result, or a pat on the back, but because living the right way matters for itself.
We make a difference in the world by offering our two cents worth. God is able to take your two cents, and yours, and yours, and yours, and mine, and something more comes of it. We become living examples to each other, of the kind of living, that is worth living. Amen