A few minutes ago, we did something we do every week: we passed the plate and people put money in the plate. Now I know that many people mail their gifts to the church as well, but the question is why? Please don’t misunderstand my question as meaning that I don’t think you should give but the question is still a valid one. Why do you give to the church? Is it an obligation or a duty; is it something you know you should do and so you do it? Why do you give?
Here’s a second question that builds off the first: How do you give your gifts? More specifically, does your motivation for giving impact the amount that you give? Allow me to give you an example. Like many of you I suspect, we receive letters asking for donations. We get letters from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and many others. Many years ago, we probably gave a bit but that was all. Then my dad died of heart disease. My mom got Alzheimer’s. I got cancer. We give more to those causes now because it has become personal for us. We want to help others with those gifts to fight the diseases that have impacted us the most. Who we give to, how much we give and how we give is shaped by personal experiences. And so with that in mind, how do you give to the church or to the kingdom of God? Is it because you should or because of your relationship with God and your personal experiences? Listen to this account from Mark 12:41-44 and let’s see what Jesus says about giving.
I. First we see an example of lavish giving in verse 41.
First, the placement of this little story is important to note. Mark uses it as a short postscript to Jesus’ previous confrontation with the scribes. We have been talking about the superficial righteousness of the scribes. The wholehearted devotion to God by this unnamed widow is in sharp contrast to the shallow and superficial scribes. Jesus is now in the Court of the Women in the Temple complex. Jesus is about to prophesy next that the entire temple will be destroyed. But for now, Jesus was seated on a bench watching the people bring their monetary contributions to the Temple treasury.
So imagine how this would work here in Faith Church. We pass the plates down the rows and everyone announces the amount. Someone might mumble, “Five bucks” and someone else might state clearly, “One hundred dollars.” Then one person clears his throat and says loudly, “One Thousand dollars!” What is the effect of doing that? It gives power and authority to that person and we would admire him or her more. It enhances the reputation of the person giving and it makes them feel important, powerful and good about themselves. They would go to their home feeling justified as to what a good and generous person they were.
Now the fact is that giving to the church is needed today, just as it was for the Temple. The temple needed funds to operate just as the church needs money to function. And generous and big givers are a vital part of the ministry of any church. But Jesus makes it clear that the amount given is not the point but rather the attitude in which the gift, whatever it is, is given.
So Jesus is watching the many rich people, perhaps with a bit of pride, putting their money into the containers and then he sees the poor widow and her coins. This woman’s poverty was evident by the size of her gift. She placed in the receptacle two of the smallest copper coins which circulated in Palestine during this time. Each coin was worth a scant fraction of a shekel or approximately 1/8 of a cent. The fact that the woman gave two coins is significant for she could easily have kept one for herself, but she did not keep any for herself.
Jesus saw in the widow an example which the disciples needed to understand. Jesus knew that the disciples had their thinking and values all wrong. They undoubtedly thought that those who had made the larger contributions had made the most significant contribution. One could do so much more with the sizable gifts that the rich gave than what the widow had brought. For example, if a person gives a million dollars to the refugee families at Tusculum, it makes a lot more of an impact than our couple of hundred a month. And so it is quite likely that the disciples thought, “What was the value of the almost worthless coins in comparison to such large or lavish gifts?
Jesus clarifies their thinking for them. He prefaces his statement with “Truly I tell you.” This is Jesus’ way of saying that this is how things really are. In doing so he reverses this thinking of conventional human piety. What his disciples didn’t get was that the widow’s gift represented her total commitment to God. In contrast with those who brought a gift from their abundance, the woman gave all that she had, even her whole living. The rabbinic literature contains a similar account that reflects this value. A priest rejected the offering of a handful of meal from a poor woman. That night in a dream he was commanded: “Do not despise her. It is as if she had offered her life.”
Jesus’ words stresses the difference between God’s perspective and our human one. 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us that “people look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God knows the attitude with which we give and how committed we are to him. Jesus makes it clear that the woman sacrificed what was necessary and that was herself completely. Jesus wanted them to know that the call to the gospel is a call to absolute surrender to God and a call to have total trust in him. It was this lesson on trust that the disciples needed to understand.
So what is our lesson on giving from this passage? Does it matter what you give? Of course it does. The ministry of this church needs gifts to be effective. Jesus is not saying that giving doesn’t matter. Quite the opposite, giving can and does make a difference in our communities.
Consider this quotation: “Wealth is not chiefly the product of the individual, but largely the joint product of the community.” Walk onto the campus of any business school in the country, and ask some MBA students to identify who said this quotation. Many of them will assume some communist wrote those words. It was not a communist at all, but a true champion of capitalism: Andrew Carnegie. His company, now U.S. Steel, was once the bluest of blue-chip corporations.
Now this is what is striking and why I mention Carnegie’s generosity. Carnegie resolutely rejected Christianity but still was generous in helping others. How do we, who are commended by our Lord to give generously out of gratitude to God, do in our generosity? Think about that for a moment.
So what are some things that can guide our Jesus commended generous giving? We must give sacrificially acknowledging that we are giving what belongs to God. What we have are gifts from God that aren’t really ours to keep but rather to use. So when we give we are really giving what belongs to God and that should shape our attitude. We need money to live on and so we must be wise but don’t forget that it belongs to God. And so that is the first important thing to remember.
But more than the financial aspect, we must remember that we, like the poor widow, must give ourselves even if it is not all our money. Our time belongs to God and we need to think of that as we look at how we spend the time God gives to us each and every day. Our very lives belong to God and we must consider if we are living our lives in a way that God loves and desires and in a way that honors our Lord.
Finally the real issue is one of trust; do we trust that God will provide for us? We need to give because God, in his amazing mercy, has been so generous and gracious to us. We give sacrificially because God sacrificed his one and only Son for us. Do we trust that the One who gave us everything in Jesus will not also give us what we need to live in our lives on earth now?