By Norris Burkes May 6, 2018
In the years I spent behind a pulpit, I made a conscious effort never to know anything about the contributions made by my parishioners.
However, in the early 1980s, I made one exception while pastoring a church in the rustic California town of Hopland.
It was there on the first Sunday morning of every month that a very curious thing regularly occurred. Before service began, someone would surreptitiously place an unmarked envelope containing two $20 bills in the offering plate.
The pattern struck me with an insatiable curiosity to uncover the identity of this mysterious benefactor. Why would this person work so hard to remain anonymous and forgo their tax deduction?
I focused a hawk eye on the altar table where the collection plates waited. Like most small churches our plates were more like “God’s tip jar,” littered with kids’ coins and sprouting a few dollar bills. However, there were no clues pointing to our donor.
One Sunday, I had a chance conversation with Mrs. Ruth, an elderly lady who taught our children’s Sunday school class. She mentioned the difficulty living with the inflation of our decade. She paid $200 a month for her 600-square-foot hotel room on the edge of town, and her rent was increasing.
“It’s hard to get by on my monthly $400 in Social Security,” she said.
The amount resonated with me because my part-time church salary was the same. However, the big difference was that my wife brought home an additional $1,000 from teaching in a private San Francisco school.
As I listened to Mrs. Ruth talk about her budget, I reconsidered the offering-plate mystery. It was likely that Ruth followed the Baptist teaching to give 10 percent of her income to the church. Many other evangelical churches as well as the Mormon church also practiced this tough teaching.
I thought about how Mrs. Ruth always arrived early to prepare her classroom. Motive and opportunity, I deduced. To quote Sherlock Holmes’ Shakespearian phrase, “The game was afoot.”
On the next Sunday, before anyone arrived, I checked to confirm that the offering plates were empty. When Mrs. Ruth came early for her class, I re-examined the offering plate and found the unmarked envelope.
I wasn’t a math whiz, but I did know that 10 percent of $400 is $40.
The woman, literally poor as a church mouse, was giving what she believed God required of her. Her sacrifice broke my heart and inspired me to be a more generous person.
To this day, I have never again examined the personal contributions of my parishioners. However, I did research the charitable contributions of the world’s richest people. Forbes Magazine recently reported that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has given $55 million to charity since 2000. Jeff Bezos of Amazon donated $68 million in the past 18 years.
Impressive, right? Jesus wouldn’t think so.
One day he was sitting with his disciples watching the rich contribute large sums to the temple. Out of nowhere, a widow appeared gripping two small coins called “mites,” the smallest of currency. Without fanfare, she slipped the coins into the collection box.
Jesus pounced on the moment to make a point to his disciples, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford — she gave her all” (Mark 12:41 ff).
Jesus probably still sees colossal contributions shamefully paltry sums next to the generosity of folks like Mrs. Ruth. Bezos will never miss the donations he made that comprised only 0.1 percent of his income. Zuckerberg shows a bit more charity, giving 2.9 percent of his revenue.
By Jesus’ standard, I claim the privilege to have known a woman far richer, far more influential on an eternal scale than Bezos or Zuckerberg. Recalling folks like her should inspire us all in our everyday giving, whether it’s to a church or to a charity.