Be an Example
copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 8, 2009
The scripture lesson today is about a poor widow, her last two copper coins and the meaning of giving from the heart. As Jesus said, she gave everything she had.*1 It brings to my mind two stories from more contemporary times. One involves an elderly widow, the other a new widower, both involve women facing the uncertainties of life, though in dramatically different fashion.
The first was a woman named Hetty Green.2 Some of you may know the name, as she was notorious enough in her own day to be remembered by some folks in ours — not that she would have cared whether she were remembered or not. One of Mrs. Green’s biographers wrote that, at her death in 1916, she was simultaneously “the richest and most detested woman in America.”3 Mrs. Green’s fortune first began its accumulation in the seventeenth century, when one of her immigrant ancestors bought a black cow in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1624. As far as anyone knows, that was the family’s first commercial possession, which, by means of farming, ship building, Indian trading, whaling, slave trading, railroad acquisitions, real estate sales, and trade in stocks and bonds, grew, until, by 1908, Hetty Green commanded a family fortune in the neighborhood of $150,000,000. Not a bad neighborhood any time, but that is a sum that should be remembered alongside the fact that the national average individual income in those early twentieth century days was under $500 a year.*
Through the years, Mrs. Green had outlived her mother, father, a wealthy aunt, and her husband, and following the death of each her net worth was increased, but not more than by her own shrewd — more than a few would say ruthless — business dealings. But Mrs. Green’s story goes beyond business and right to the heart of what it means to be given totally to something in which you believe. Hetty Green believed in her inheritance and in her power to increase it. She believed it was the full and complete meaning of her existence. Her life was a fully lived example of her most deeply held belief.*
In her day, Hetty Green was known all over the country as the most notorious of misers. The lengths to which she would go to save even the tiniest sums of money are the stuff of legend — and tragedy. For years she lived with her two children in a dank, virtually unheated couple of rooms in a boarding house in a slum section of Hoboken, New Jersey. Her son was frequently seen in the neighborhood in his several-sizes-too-small clothes, underdressed for cold weather, with papers stuffed in his clothing to retain warmth. Both he and his sister frequently wore socks that were missing not only the toes but the feet. After Mrs. Green read the morning paper, her son was dispatched into the streets to sell it for whatever he could get. Her many attorneys and financial advisors — who often had to sue Mrs. Green to receive their fees — were summoned to the tiny parlor in her apartment to transact business. Because access to soap was apparently an infrequent luxury in her home, other boarding house guests requested seats at dinner across the room from their disagreeable — and apparently disagreeably aromatic — neighbor and her children. When she went out to shop, merchants cringed at the sight of her. As she approached in her ragged clothing, her hands on their foodstuffs could mean real financial loss. She once excused her filthy fingers saying that she had found some “perfectly good nails” in boards in a shed that day and had proceeded to pull them out by hand.*
Much of this could be written off as part of a pattern of eccentricity we are often willing to excuse among the very rich or the very gifted. But her eccentricities were born of her paranoid conviction that if she ever dropped her guard, trusted anyone other than herself with her best interests, they would do her in and snatch her fortune. Hetty Green believed in Hetty Green, and saw to it that she entrusted neither herself nor her fortune to anyone else’s stewardship.*
Even her children grew up knowing the full effects of her belief system in a personal way. Her son was crippled from a childhood accident, and through his early life he re-injured his bad leg several times. Mrs. Green heard from one of her few friends an old wives’ tale that wrapping an injury in tobacco leaves had a curative effect. This she tried without success. When it became apparent even to this pathologically distracted parent that medical care would be required for her son (which of course would cost money ... visits to a physician sometimes cost as much as $1 then), she dressed him and herself in their most ragged clothes, and over a period of time visited free clinics, hoping they would take her to be penniless and not charge for services. Some did, but most of the physicians recognized her and threw them both out. When her son finally received the care of a competent physician — purchased by the boy’s estranged father — the injury had festered for far too long; the physician’s only remaining alternative had become amputation above the knee. Had he seen the boy earlier — years earlier it seems — he declared that the leg could have been saved, even rehabilitated.
In March, 1916, at age 80, Hetty Green declared in a newspaper story, “I’ll live to be a hundred. You can bet on that!” Three months later she was dead. It was one of the few bets she ever lost, though there is no record that she put any money on it. Few mourned, not that it would have bothered her. A Boston newspaper, the Transcript, printed the headline: “SHE, TOO, LEFT HERS BEHIND.”*
Actually, when Hetty Green died, she left behind three things she loved most: her money, and two children whose lives she had ruined. She gave no money to worthy charities, endowed no libraries, established no scholarships, built no churches, supported no universities or hospitals or foundations, received no accolades, was remembered beyond her own generation only by the taxing authorities of New York, New Jersey, and Vermont, each of which claimed, for obvious reasons, that Mrs. Green had been a resident of their state at the time of her death.
We believe life is a gift to be treasured and used in the interests of the One who gives life. We believe that to live fully, we must live in service to the One who first loved us. Though we may not always live it, we believe that giving of ourselves selflessly is among the highest virtues. Hetty Green believed she knew otherwise, believed life was in no way a gift but more like an actuarial table, a ledger sheet, and she spent her days accordingly, the way a miser parts with pennies: one unavoidable expense at a time, one grudging moment after another.*
That is the first story, and it is a sorry one, the moral of which is obvious enough that you certainly don’t need me to draw it for you.
The second story is from the 1960’s. It is a briefer but no less powerful story, about the wife of a pastor.4 The minister had just retired from his position as the Executive for the Presbyterian Synod of New Jersey the day before he became a widower. While his wife, Dora, sat in a rocking chair on their porch, a man ran by and grabbed her purse. As he did so, Dora was thrown off balance and fell, breaking her neck. There had been $2.75 in her purse. But, as with the story of the widow’s two pennies, amounts are irrelevant in more circumstances than we might think. Hetty Green had long since lost any sense of scale, any sense of proportion when it came to spending her fortune, whether it was for a 5¢ bottle to hold medicine or a million dollars to buy a failing business. Dora also set aside proportion and scale in her commitment in her dying act. It is a sorry thing, an absurd thing to lose your life over $2.75. But Dora’s faith was judged by a different measure than dollars and cents. Her determination was to make even her death resound with the meaning of the Creator’s intention for her life.*
As her husband, her pastor, and the chief of police gathered around her, her dying words to them were, “I knew the man, his family is hungry. Each of you promise to let the pastor have the church session take care of this man and his family, and see that the children get Presbyterian scholarships and go to college.” She was adamant, and lingered on the porch until all three agreed to her wish. Then, apparently satisfied, she died.*
In the lesson from the gospel, Jesus reflected on two contrasting models of religious behavior:
On the one hand were the scribes, who were proud, greedy, made a show of their calling because of the fancy outfits, the recognition, and the glory. And on the other hand a widow who was humble, anonymous, and generous.
Jesus, looking on the widow who placed her last copper coins in the treasury, praised not so much the act of giving as the act of trusting in a reality beyond herself. Hetty Green trusted no one but Hetty Green. In her dying, Dora trusted the Author of her existence to grant meaning not only to her life but to the existence of another person, a desperate one who had done her an unwitting violence, one whose life had been filled with hopelessness. Even her death was shaped by the faith which had shaped her life. In her passing moment she was determined to give hope where there had been no hope. I would suggest that each of these women gave their all to something. But there the similarity ends. The final acts of each of them draw from the very different sources in which each found her purpose in living.*
In scripture, the truly great ones aren’t those who accumulate wealth, who exercise great power and control. Rather, the mark of greatness seems always to boil down to responsiveness, to an awareness of the needs of others and a willingness to move toward that need with whatever means God has given. Greatness is an investment of self in the lives of others.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those...[they] have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had...” She gave her ultimate trust to something beyond the work of her own hands, beyond the events that she could control, beyond even the world that she could see and understand. She threw herself on the mercy of the court, trusted her maker completely, and in doing so, received the praise of a Savior who soon would show what it meant to give one’s all for the sake of others.*
His gift of life can be trusted completely, and I pray that we will be more and more able to step across the threshold of that trust into the waiting arms of the God who loves us with a love so strong that it has conquered death.*
1 At each asterisk, two coins are dropped into a glass jar.
3 Arthur H. Lewis, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree, (Harcourt, Brace, and World: 1963), p. 8.
4 Source: Bob Hauser on Presbynet, November 5, 1991, and Minutes of the General Assembly, Part III, 1/1/60 - 12/31/60.
Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved