n the last couple of days, some of you may have seen news reports of a recent study of children and altruism, published in the academic journal Current Biology.
Apparently, researchers were looking to find differences in empathy or sharing in different cultures around the world.
And they were interested not in generosity, but in altruism, which is to say, they were not looking at how children gave when the giving was easy, but rather at what they could learn about how children gave to others when there was some sort of cost to themselves.
The results were surprising.
The children were asked to play a game in which they were given a limited number of stickers. They were told they could keep as many as they wanted. But then they were asked how many they would be willing to give away to an anonymous child in their school with their same demographic background. A kind of basic set-up to get at their abstract willingness to share.
It turns out that, actually, children who grow up in religious households (and particularly Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ones) are not more inclined to give sacrificially. That was the result that everyone was expecting. Actually, they may be somewhat less inclined to give sacrificially.
In fact, it turns out that the older the children were, the less generous they became, suggesting to the researchers that (as Forbes magazine put it) “longer exposure to religion leads to less altruism.”
Do you ever read something in the newspaper and think to yourself, “This is the article that is going to launch ten thousand blog posts?”
I feel a little that way.
And I’m not going to take our sermon time this morning to offer you my own attempt at a full response.
But I was interested to learn that this phenomenon, which we religious folks find so surprising, is less surprising to psychologists. It turns out that their work points to one possible answer for why religious children are perhaps less generous.
They refer to a phenomenon called “moral licensing.” Moral licensing is about how sometimes when we do good things, we may actually give ourselves a little more internal permission to do questionable things. It is as if we have proven to ourselves that we are good people, that our hearts are in the right place, so…what’s a little fudging on other things here and there?
Ironically enough, for some of us, attending church, or taking time for prayer, or reading Scripture privately in the morning before work, may actually make us a little more open to bending the rules in our own situation.
It reminds me of a story I’ve heard that surely cannot be true, about a church that was trying to attract people with a more edgy kind of message. So one day the head of the Church Council was driving by the church and she saw the pastor putting a banner over the front door that said, “Welcome Sinners!”
Of course, she immediately zoomed into the parking lot and ran over and said, “You can’t say that! I mean, people will get the wrong idea about who we are, and who we think they are…this is a disaster!”
And the pastor immediately backed down and said, “O.k., I get it. No problem. I’ll change it right away.” He hops back on the ladder and starts taking down the banner.
The next Sunday, she drives up to church and there, over the front door, is a brand new banner, and it says, “Welcome Pharisees!”
I doubt that pastor lasted much longer.
But if this whole idea of moral licensing is correct, I think we need to acknowledge that working through our own temptation to be Pharisees is an important and ongoing part of our faith journey.
To put it another way, we may find the whole idea of moral licensing to be troubling, and maybe even astonishing.
But it seems clear that in his own time and place, Jesus saw such behavior all around him.
It did not seem to astonish him.
And I want to suggest that this morning’s story from Mark’s gospel about the widow’s mite, the widow who gives all that she has to the Temple, even though it is just two copper coins, is finally more about the danger of moral licensing than it is about the faithfulness of the widow.
We don’t tend to read it that way. For obvious reasons, we tend to read it in the context of stewardship.
We usually hear it as a call to giving—as a reminder that it is not the size of the gift but the size of the heart that gives it that matters—and I admit that I have preached that sermon. I’ve preached it more than once. It’s a good sermon.
The scene lends itself to that.
Because what we tend to forget is that in this scene, the widow is giving everything she has—everything including what she needs to live on—and while her faith is great, when push comes to shove, she’s putting her faith in an institution that doesn’t deserve it.
She’s putting her faith in an institution that caters to the scribes and has all but forgotten her.
She’s putting her faith in an institution that by the time Mark writes his gospel will already be physically destroyed, and the scribes who are there one-upping each other and strutting around won’t be there anymore. After unsuccessfully fighting against Rome, the Temple will be a smoldering ruin, and the scribes who ran it will have been almost entirely wiped out.
The point of the story is not that the woman is faithful. It’s that she’s taken her two copper coins and purchased herself a steerage ticket on the Titanic.
And if faith comes down to what the Temple does, then faith is sunk.
Jesus wants us to recognize that the faith that the Temple embodies is no longer a kind of life-giving connection to the purpose and presence of a living, loving God.
It’s become a spiritual DMV, offering the moral license lets people do what they want under a veneer of respectable religion.
Church, this is a tough passage.
We want to think of ourselves as the widow, of course.
But I think Jesus’s word to us this morning is that, actually, we need to see ourselves as the scribes.
Jesus is pushing us to see that it’s their challenge that may well be closest to our own.
Because it’s easy enough to tell people to put their faith in God. That’s not wrong, by any means.
But remember: People also put their faith in us.
As they are learning what it is to put their faith in God for the first time….or as they are learning how to find God again when life has thrown them a curve ball…they can’t always see God.
But they can see us. They can listen to us. They can learn from us. And so, we have a holy trust to keep.
And so if we say “have faith because God is good”…if we say “With God, all things are possible”…if we say “All things work together for those who love God,” we must remember that it isn’t simply that they believe these things because they’re true, although indeed, they are true.
Before they ever get to that, though, they believe these things to no small extent because we say that we believe them.
They do these things because we say, this is the way to find God.
And so they do them. They put in their two copper coins and hope to God that what we’ve promised them is true.
We have a holy trust to keep.
The people in our lives who are like that widow—the people we encounter who are the most vulnerable, the most adrift, the most confused, the most precarious among us—the people we encounter who need God the most—they may not have
the spiritual wherewithal to know that God loves them, to know that the Universe isn’t out to get them, or to imagine a different future.
Instead, what they have is a spoonful of hope, and then the power of our example.
What they have is the gift of God’s love, and the humility we are willing to share about our own journey toward a more faithful life, with all its ups and downs.
We have a holy trust to keep.
And the remarkable thing is that if we keep it, this trust is enough. It’s enough to get started. It’s enough to feel included. It’s enough to get you feeling human again when you don’t. It’s enough to show you that grace is real, and that grace can be just as amazing as the song says it’s supposed to be.
It’s also why we must never give in to the temptation of moral licensing, with the little permissions we give ourselves to do what we will because the external trappings of our faithfulness mean we’ve already crossed God off of our “to-do” list for the day.
For just as surely as there is always need for kindness, for honesty, for justice, for peacemaking, so indeed there is always time for kindness, for honesty, for justice, and for peacemaking.
If only we will see the need. If only we will make the time. If only we will keep the trust.
The story of the widow’s mite isn’t a story of the power of generosity. It’s a call to be a church that’s worthy of her hopes, and listens to her need.
The need is real. But the grace is amazing. And it saves a wretch like you and a wretch like me, not just once, but time and time again.
May we learn to keep its trust through all our days.