The painting is by James Tissot, and is called “The Widow’s Mite” French, ca. 1886-94
Jesus sits opposite the treasury, where people deposit their temple donations.
A rich man tosses money in offhandedly. The widow, carrying one of her children, walks away, her worried face telling us that she has given all she had. As Jesus explains why hers is the greater gift, the disciples on either side of him and across the walkway are puzzled by his words, studying the woman and struggling to understand why she should be singled out for praise, when her gift is so small.
Today’s reading from Mark is NOT the one about the widow’s mite. So why this Tissot?
Because today is the feast of Julia Chester Emery, who founded the United Thank Offering in the Episcopal Church. It raised (and still raises) money through the cardboard mite boxes she invented: every woman in the parish got one, and put a coin in it every time she remembered something for which she was thankful. Once a year there was (and still is) an “ingathering” of these boxes, and the money sent to the national board, which received proposals for projects to fund. UTO has raised millions of dollars for projects throughout the world — new buildings, schools, hospital equipment, vehicles for transportation of missionaries in remote areas and many, many other things.
At a time when all formal decision-making in the church was in the hands of male leaders, the UTO was a remarkable assertion of ordinary women’s leadership. Impressed as we are by visible, ostentatious power — with lots of $00000s — and by the welcome advances in women’s direct leadership, the mite box reminds us that all good works begin with the individual, that nothing can be done if individual human hearts are not touched, and that many individuals — however humble they may think they are — have great power for good when they combine.
The mite box on the top of the pile is the one I remember from when I was a girl. My mother and my grandmother each had one, and I remember the annual ingathering in our little church even now. That I still remember it is another lesson learned: our children are watching us, and they remember what we do. Thanks, ladies, all long since departed! You have made us what we are!
The reminder that the actual Blue Box offers us is to remember the many blessings our gracious God has given us each day.
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