Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44, NRSV)
I grew up, my brother and I, going to church every Sunday with my parents. One of my vivid memories of those Sunday mornings was the time in the service when the offering plate would be passed. Much like in our church, after the sermon the organist would play as the ushers made their way down the aisles passing brass plates back and forth down the rows as people dropped in their checks or cash. Even as a kid I thought to myself that this this ritual would have seemed very strange to anybody who walked in and had never been in a church before. But it wasn’t strange to me. I’d seen it happen every Sunday my whole life.
The announcement by the pastor of our church that the offering was about to be taken always ignited a competition between my brother and me. My parents always brought an offering to give and each of us wanted to be the one to drop the offering into the plate as it passed by. You see, only 18 months apart, the two of us could fight about anything. I’m sure if my mother had required that one of us put the offering in the plate we would have fought to be the one who didn’t have to do it.
As I was remembering those old battles this week I had to ask myself, what was the big deal? What was so important about being the one to drop the money in the plate? Part of it, of course, was that if I got to do it that meant that my brother did not get to do it and, I have to admit, there was a sick, twisted pleasure for me in watching him watch me do what he wanted to do.
But there was more to it than that. I really did enjoy the Sundays when I was the one handling the offering. Maybe there was a part of me that wanted to get some credit for the gift. Even though it wasn’t my money in that envelope which was being given to God I was, in some small way, helping to deliver the goods. Or maybe there was a part of me that enjoyed the thought that others might be watching as I offered up the gift. Our family always sat in the same pew right near the aisle and the usher would be standing there waiting for the plate as it came down the row towards us so I knew he was watching as I put in the money. Maybe he was thinking, “Wow! That young man certainly is generous with his allowance.” In the end, I’m not entirely sure what my motivations were as I dropped that offering in the plate. To be honest, even today I’m not always sure.
How about you? When the plate comes by later this morning, or when we have a chance today to pledge a gift towards the work of the church next year, what will motivate you as you give? If you’re like me, sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what is motivating us. Is it guilt? Duty? Obligation? Habit? Maybe it’s Joy? Or gratitude? Or love? Maybe a mixture of all of the above? And if I’m not altogether certain what it is that motivates me, I definitely want to avoid trying to imagine what it is that motivates you. I can guess, but I’d be a fool to do so.
What about the person down the pew from me who makes a great deal of money and always writes out a large check every week to the church? What about the person that sits in front of me who never puts anything in the plate as it passes by? I can easily jump to all sorts of conclusions about motivations but I can never really know for sure. In the end, only God knows the heart of each person as they pass the plate down the row. But wouldn’t be a fascinating lesson for us all if Jesus were sitting here with us during the offering, watching each of us, and then commenting on what he saw. Can you imagine? How would that change things?
As we just read, that very thing happened one day. Jesus is sitting with his disciples in the temple courts watching as the people come to put their offerings into the temple treasury. First the rich people come in and, making sure that everybody could see what they were doing, put their substantial gifts into the plate. Then at the end of the line, after the treasury was probably full, along comes a poor widow. Even if nobody else was watching, Jesus notices that she puts in two copper coins. The coins she put in were called lepta, and they were the smallest coins in circulation at that time, worth only 1/8 cent a piece. In other words, the woman was putting in about the smallest gift one could possibly offer. Nobody on the Temple Finance Committee was going to be especially excited about this particular gift. In fact, nobody on the Temple Finance Committee was going to even notice this particular gift. Jesus, however, notices.
Before I go on with the story, let me point out that what happens here is not unusual. You see, in church these days we like to imagine that our giving is private. In fact, we go to great lengths to make sure that everybody here knows that only our pledge secretary sees what you give. And for good reason. I don’t think it would be productive for us to know what one another gives. I don’t want to know what others give because I know that the human heart, my human heart, would take such knowledge and turn it into envy, or self-righteousness, or shame, or worse. Still, just because others don’t know what we give, let’s never imagine that our giving is private because our giving, or our lack of giving as the case may be, is always done in the plain view of Christ, the only one whose opinion of our giving should matter to us in the first place.
How many of you, when you buy a gift for somebody else, maybe for a birthday, make sure to leave the price tag right on the gift where you’re sure the person will see it? Anybody do that? No, we don’t do that. We always make sure to rip the price tags off. And why is that? Well, for good reason, we don’t want other people to know how much the gift cost us.
Sometimes we rip those price tags off eagerly. Maybe, for example, you bought something for a friend, and you got it 80% off – a steal! – but you don’t really want your friend to know that you spent barely anything on their birthday present. I mean, what harm will it really do if, as far as they know, you paid full price?
At other times, however, we scratch those price tags off reluctantly. Truth be told, we’d sort of like the other person to know that we really spent a lot on this gift. It wasn’t cheap. It was a sacrifice. Maybe even a few of us have gone as far as to “accidentally” leave the price tag on. “Oh, I’m so embarrassed. Here let me have that. I forgot to take the price tag off.”
When we bring our gifts to God, the price tags on those gifts are permanently affixed. They don’t come off. There is never any anonymous private giving when it comes to God. He always knows how much the gift cost the giver. Why should I care what you think of my gift? I shouldn’t care. I should care, however, what Jesus thinks. So what does he think? What will he think today of the gift I come to offer as he stands beside me and watches me drop it into the plate?
In this story we are given a clue to how to answer that question as we listen to what Jesus says after watching the offering in the temple that day. Sensing a teachable moment, and perhaps sensing what they were thinking to themselves, Jesus calls his disciples together and says to them, “Listen to me. Here’s the truth about what you just saw. By dropping in those two coins, this poor widow gave by far the biggest offering of the day. The rest gave out of their abundance, gifts that they’ll never really miss. But she gave extravagantly what she could not afford. She gave everything she had.”
And this is exactly why I am not a good judge of people’s gifts. I’m just being honest when I tell you that if I discovered somehow that this morning one of you came up and made a pledge for next year of $100,000 and another of you came up and made a pledge for next year of $10, I’m going to go home much more excited about the $100,000 gift. And here is exactly why it’s a good thing that I don’t know what people give because apparently I’m not weighing the right things when it comes to giving.
What sort of scales does Jesus use here? Clearly, he’s not weighing amounts. Compared to what the others gave that day, the woman gave next to nothing. What could the temple do with two pennies? What could this church do with two pennies? Not much. Jesus is not weighing the amount of the gift.
So maybe Jesus is weighing percentages? There seems to be some truth to this based on what he says. The rich people gave large amounts but apparently still such a small percentage of what they possessed that it wasn’t really much of a sacrifice. The widow, on the other hand, apparently gave 100% of what she had. Because Jesus points this out I think we can say this is one of the things Jesus values in our giving. Sacrifice is important. When I give away my old clothes I never wear anymore to Goodwill it’s not really a gift. In a way, Goodwill is doing me a favor by taking them off my hands and giving me a tax deduction in return. In the same way, if what we give back to God doesn’t cause us to make any adjustment whatsoever to our comfortable lifestyles, we really ought to ask ourselves if what we offered could even qualify as a gift.
Still, I’m not convinced that it’s percentages that Jesus is mostly weighing here. My reason for this is what he says in the verses which precede the offering scene with the poor widow. In those verses, Jesus is teaching the crowds about the religious leaders, presumably the same rich people who make large gifts to the treasury at the time of the offering. His description of these people is graphic. These people loved to walk around in their fancy religious clothes and be noticed and greeted in the marketplace. They took the most important seats at church potlucks and worship services. They prayed long flowery prayers to impress the crowds with their piety. And on top of it all, their extravagant lives were made possible because they forced the poor in the community to give beyond their means to fund the lifestyles of their leaders.
Jesus tells us all we need to know about these people. As they paraded in front of the congregation that day to drop their offerings in the plate, they did so with hearts full of self-righteousness and pride. Though their gifts caused them no great sacrifice, they were perfectly happy for people to imagine that they did. Part of Jesus’ teaching here is aimed directly at them, condemning their greed and their pride. After all, if their hearts had been different then maybe poor widows like this one wouldn’t have to give all they had and be left with nothing!
In contrast, what is in the heart of this woman as she comes to make her offering? Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly, but it’s not hard to imagine. Why would a woman who has next to nothing offer what little she did have back to God? Either she’s insane, which would hardly then be a reason for Jesus to praise her. Or she’s somehow trying to manipulate God, another reason that would not elicit Jesus’ praise. Or – and this is closer to the truth, I think – this is a woman so filled with gratitude and faith that she comes offering everything she has to God knowing that even though she walks out of the temple for home that day with nothing, somehow her God will not fail her.
I’m standing at the playground in the park with a friend as we watch our young children run and play. At one point my friend’s daughter, barely four years old at the time, trips on an uneven crack in the sidewalk, falls and skins her knee. It’s one of those falls that makes a watching parent wince because you know it’s going to hurt. Immediately she is up and running in our direction, tears streaming down her face, blood running down her shin.
Instinctively, both of us drop to our knees as she comes close. Both of us as dads have lots of experience with skinned knees, and daughter’s tears, and promises of ice cream that can so quickly distract from the pain. In other words, we are both qualified to help this little girl at that particular moment. In fact, I’ve even just completed a first aid course which makes me a bit more qualified than my friend. And yet, maybe because she isn’t aware of my extra training, this little girl completely ignores me and runs without hesitation into the arms of my friend, her daddy. Why? It’s simple. There is a history there, a history of this man caring for his daughter time and time again, looking out for her for as long as she can remember, a history which has built up an instinctive trust in her that he will not fail her this time.
Now, I know that I’ve crawled out here on the thin ice of speculation, but I still think it’s fair for us to imagine that this poor widow threw herself completely into the arms of God that day in the temple because there must have been some history there. Why else would you trust God so completely to give to him everything you had, not knowing exactly how you were going to get through the next day?
I pray that I can become like this woman. I pray that I have a faith in Jesus which is based on a long history of how he has already shown himself to be so faithful and trustworthy and that such faith will lead me to hold loosely to everything I possess. I pray that when I come to make an offering to Christ, an offering of my money or an offering of my very life, that my heart in that moment will be full of gratitude. Not guilt, not obligation, not pride, but gratitude. I pray that if my gifts to God are somehow beyond generous, beyond what makes worldly economic sense, that my faith and gratitude would help me make them nonetheless, and make them with joy.
You should know that I do not believe that Jesus requires all those who follow him to give away everything they have. In fact, in the whole Bible there is only one example of somebody being asked to empty their bank accounts. At one point Jesus does ask a certain rich, young ruler to give it all away, but only because Jesus knew this young man’s money had such an idolatrous strangle-hold on him that the only way he could ever be free of its grip was to make a total break and give it all away.
It is unlikely that if you follow Jesus he will ask you to give everything away. However, as you follow Jesus he will most certainly ask you to entrust everything to him, even the things which he allows you to hold onto for a time. In a way, the offering that we give each week is meant to be a sign, a representation of all we have. If our offering plates were big enough, it would be a helpful reminder if each week we each took turns crawling right into the plate and re-affirming that our whole lives, all our time, all our treasure, all our talents, belong to Christ. This is why our offering in worship is always about so much more than just our money. Money is a good place to start in our giving, but it’s never a good place to end.
As you come forward in a few moments to offer a gift to God to be used towards God’s work here at Faith this next year, may that be your prayer. Pray with me that this portion of our lives which we offer back today will represent the whole of our lives. Pray that out of faith and gratitude you, like the poor widow that day in the temple, will put into God’s hands everything, all you have to live on. After all, you and I are the children of a Father in heaven who can be trusted. We have a history, a history with a God who, in Jesus Christ, has withheld nothing from us, not even the life of his Son. In Christ we have life, life that is abundant and eternal. In Christ we have peace between us and God and between us one to another. In Christ we have joy and hope that cannot be quenched by any circumstances of this life, not even death. In Christ we have a permanent place in the family of God, beloved sons and daughter who are the delight of the Father.
As we come this morning to bring our gifts let’s be aware that Jesus is here in our midst, watching us and weighing not the amount of the gift but the heart of the giver. We do not have to come with guilt or shame. We best not come with pride. Duty and obligation are not the best of motivations. No, let us come with joy and faith and gratitude, freely willing to offer everything we have, our very lives, knowing that as we do our gifts, regardless of their size, will bring great pleasure to the One who has already given everything to us.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read the story again in Mark 12:38-44. What do you notice here?
We’re not told why this woman gave what she did. What reasons can you imagine?
How could it possibly happen that rich people in the temple that day could stand by and let a poor widow give her last two cents to the offering? Does this sort of thing ever happen today?
After you read this story of the poor widow’s offering, how do you feel? What does that tell you?
Why do you give when you do give to God by making offerings in church? Are you able to identify the motivation(s) of your heart?
Would your giving be different if Jesus was, in fact, sitting there physically next to you in the pew watching what you put into the plate?
Is your tendency to give out of your surplus or to give out of sacrifice? Why?
In II Corinthians 9:7 Paul writes, “Each one should give what he or she has decided form the heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Why does God love a cheerful giver? What other sorts of givers are there?