When you hear the word philanthropist, who comes to mind? What names do you associate with philanthropy? In other words, who are your philanthropy role models?
Perhaps you think of Ted Turner and his huge gift to the United Nations. Or perhaps names of wealthy families spring to mind, the names we read over the entry ways to museums, college and university buildings. Or, if you are a fan of public radio or television, perhaps the individual sponsors of certain programs spring to mind.
Most people, when they think of philanthropy think of rich people. And any of us who work with or for non- profit institutions cannot help but be grateful for the support wealthy people give to annual and endowed funds. Many churches, arts organizations, colleges and universities, social service programs of all kinds would not exist without the generous contributions of very rich individuals and families. Many of these philanthropists take their giving seriously. They understand that they have a responsibility to give back to their communities. In some ways, they are very good models of philanthropy.
But there is a problem for most of us if all our philanthropy role models are very rich people capable of donating millions. Very wealthy people constitute only one percent of our population in the united states (even though they control 60% of the wealth.) Most of us cannot hope to emulate the amounts donated.
When the rich are our only models for philanthropy it can be too easy for us to write off giving as something only wealthy people can or should do. "My little gift isn't going to make much of a difference, so why even bother?" Or, "Let the 'fat cats' contribute. That's their responsibility, a responsibility that goes along with being rich. Noblesse oblige. I'm not rich, I pay my taxes, so I don't owe anybody anything."
And there is another problem when wealthy people are our only models for philanthropy. We can forget that true philanthropy (loving humanity,) like any sort of true loving, involves risk. We can too easily measure the importance of gifts and gift-givers in terms of the monetary value of the gifts, rather than in terms of the personal cost or risk.
We have probably all heard a sermon illustration like this one:
There was a famous champion heavy-weight boxer. In one year he earned ten million dollars! One day he stopped into a store-front church and heard about tithing (giving 10%) to the Lord. He was convinced he should do this and immediately went about giving away one million dollars. One million dollars! Now it's easy for you to give away one dollar out of the ten you have in your pocket, but to give away one million! He is a true example to us all.
What is the flaw in this illustration? Is it truly easier for someone to give away one dollar out of the only ten she has than it is for the boxer to give away one million out of the ten million he has? Is the personal risk or cost greater for the family who gives away two thousand of the twenty thousand they have to survive on, than it is for the family who gives away twenty thousand of their two hundred thousand dollar income? No. It is not.
So the problem with having only wealthy people for our philanthropy role models is not only that it becomes too easily distort what it means to love with our material resources.
Who then ought to be our philanthropy role models? Well, if we look at today's lessons, the answer is obviously poor widows, or perhaps people like them, who take the risk to give their meager all, their very lives.
As we look to these poor widows, it is important not to romanticize them. Poverty, starvation, are not beautiful. It might help, in terms of visualizing the widow in the Elijah story, to call up the images of women starving in the African droughts. Pull up one of those gaunt faces on your mental video screen. Imagine now a thin arm reaching down to hold the hand of her little boy. His belly is distended, his eyes a bit rheumy, he whimpers with hunger. See the woman stooping to gather a few sticks of wood. They have a handful of meal and a bit of oil. They will eat it and wait to die, for there is nothing else and no one else to care for them.
As she slowly collects sticks, a foreigner comes up to her, an Israelite. First he interrupts her to ask for water. At least there is still drinking water. She moves to get the water when he asks also for a bit of bread. She confesses she has nothing baked, and very little left to bake anything with. He asks again that she share with him first and promises that his God will not let her supply of meal and oil run out until the drought is over. She agrees.
Now imagine the widow in the gospel story. There are many like her in our own community. Perhaps she has children to care for. Perhaps she is alone in the world. She is not starving, but life is hard. She is down to her last 60 or 65 cents (1\64th of a day's wage.)1 Perhaps she will find work or someone will help her tomorrow. Perhaps not. She goes to the town meeting. They are collecting funds for the community chest. She looks in her coin purse: two quarters, a dime and five pennies. She holds the little change in her hand as she goes with the crowd to make her donation. She drops everything she has in the container.
Suppose then that these two women are our role models for philanthropy, for loving humanity. Kind of disturbing, isn't it?
It is disturbing when there is no formula to get us off the hook. Tithe? The first widow must have given 30% of everything she had to Elijah. The second gave a 100%
It is disturbing to see the profoundly poor caring for each other and the community in a way that puts the better-off to shame. Like the LORD God described in today's Psalm, the widows give "food to those who hunger." Shouldn't there have been someone caring for them? Should not followers of that God give "justice to those who are oppressed?" Who "loves the righteous" and "cares for the stranger?" Who "sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked?" Only the oppressed and widowed and orphaned themselves? Disturbing.
It is disturbing to think that both of these women are literally risking their lives to give. The focus of their must be survival, their own and their children's. And yet, they are the imitators of Christ. They lay down their lives for their friends. Disturbing.
But perhaps that what good role models do. Rather than leave us complacent, they disturb us. Disturb us into loving more fully.
1. Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Proclamation 5: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year, Series B Pentecost 3, Augsburg 1994