Tuppence a Bag


Early each day, to the steps of St. Paul’s
the little old bird woman comes
In her own special way to the people she calls:
"Come, buy my bags full of crumbs."

Richard and Robert Sherman, "Feed the Birds," Mary Poppins

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." (Mark 12:42-44) 

I was about four years old when I went to the movies for the first time. My
mother took me to see Mary Poppins. For some reason we were late, and I have a
vivid memory or arriving just as the prospective nannies were being blown down
Cherry Tree Lane by a change in the wind. It’s a story about conflicting
values, and even as a very little girl, I understood which side was the “good”
and which was the “bad,” in the context of the story of the Banks family and the
nanny who floated down off a cloud to take the household in hand.

I loved the Old Bird Woman sitting outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, selling her bags of crumbs for tuppence. I was too young to see the crisis about to come when young Michael Banks gathered his tuppence to take with him on the day he accompanied his father to the bank. The dark-suited men who tried to take a little boy’s money and explained:

You see, Michael, you’ll be part of
Railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile
Fleets of ocean greyhounds
Majestic, self-amortizing canals
Plantations of ripening tea

All from tuppence, prudently
Fruitfully, frugally invested
In the, to be specific,
In the Dawes, Tomes
Mousely, Grubbs
Fidelity Fiduciary Bank!

Michael does not want to give his money to the terrifying old men. He
wrestles the bank president for his money, then runs away with his sister,
Jane. It is left to a chimney sweep to mediate the discrepancy between
Michael’s values and his father’s, and to bring the children safely home.

What difference would tuppence have made to the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely,
Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank? And what difference did two small coins make to the Temple Treasury?

Absolutely none.

Let’s look at it another way. If your widowed grandmother gave her last two hundred dollars to the 700
Club, would you praise her or think of it is a reason to get power of attorney?

The widow in Mark’s gospel is poor precisely because she is a widow. Women
in that culture were not allowed to hold property and a widow who did not have
a son or a brother to protect her and hold any property for her was out of
luck. She had no choice but to throw herself on the mercy of the religious

Since this story always seems to come up around stewardship time, we tend to
hear it in a particular way. Her gift of everything, though a small amount of
actual money, means more than the larger gifts of the scribes, who make a lot
of noise about how faithful they are. I do think it’s true that money given for
the right reasons will be beneficial for everyone. But we need to listen
closely to where Jesus is and what he says, and what comes just before and
after the widow’s story in order to grasp his meaning.

Since we don’t have a chimney sweep to put it in plain terms, I’ll do my
best. Let’s hear the words of scripture

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 market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places
of honour 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.’

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

(Mark 12:38-13:2, NRSV)

By sitting opposite the Treasury, Jesus places himself in opposition to the
forces that would take the last coins a widow has, “devouring widow’s houses,”
as he said earlier in the passage. He is pointing out that the widow has given
up the illusion that she has control over her life and has placed herself in
God’s hands. But the hands that represent themselves as God’s, the priests and
the scribes, are more concerned with appearances and wealth than they are with
the needs of the destitute.

Jesus’ message for us here is that the proud and controlling forces of the Temple will be thrown down. In part, it’s a prediction of the Temple’s literal fate. Forty years later, the Temple lay in ruins, destroyed by the Romans. But he means more than just a physical
destruction. Jesus wants the disciples to understand that he has come to turn the world upside down, to change our human priorities, to show us that glory can be found in the most unexpected places, and that victory is not winning but dying, dying to the desire to build an empire or win control, dying to the urges that make people and businesses and countries and churches successful in the eyes of the world.

Just as old Mr. Dawes really thought the bank was the best
place for Michael’s tuppence, I suspect the scribes thought they were doing
things the right way, being faithful to God as they understood faithfulness.
They didn’t want to hear what Jesus was saying, because it challenged
everything they understood to be true. Even the people who surrounded him and
dearly wanted to understand him had trouble doing it! I’m not sure we’ve gotten
the message yet. To really understand Jesus, we need to care enough to try. We
need to care enough to make an effort. We need to be prepared to let go of what
we assume to be true based on our experience.

All it takes is tuppence. All it takes is a mite. All it takes is every last thing we have. God help us to give it.

11 thoughts on “Tuppence a Bag”

  1. Just read Cheese’s and then came to yours. I am amazed at how you both brought out such different wonderful things from the same place.

  2. The full sermon folded in an adaptation of the material in my post about the election and included the “saints and apostles” verse of the Feed the Birds.
    Mary Beth, I’d love to have you there, too!

  3. I enjoyed reading your sermon as well. We must be almost exactly the same age because MY first movie was also Mary Poppins. Ahh, the good old days – when going to a movie was a pretty big deal!

  4. One of these days an old man’s going to be sitting in the back pew of your church just to hear these wonderful messages in your voice. The visitor’s card will let you know QP was there and blessed.

  5. I love being in the same denomination and coming to your sermon post after hearing another on the same lectionary. Nothing like it for reminding one that sermons are delivered by humans, and that no two of us see exactly the same thing, even in the same words (or should that be especially in the same words?)
    Pastor Karen focused not on the Gospel passage’s widow’s relationship to the scribes, but tied her to the widows (especially the elder one) in the Old Testament passage.

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