Listening to Jesus About Giving

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 12:43-44

And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Mark 12:41-44 rsv

This gospel according to Mark fairly pulses with action. Jesus seems to move swiftly from place to place. He teaches. He heals. He casts out demons. He does wonderful works. Then He hastens on. That makes it all the more striking when we come on a passage where Jesus is said to be sitting down, simply watching something. Listen:

And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

THE SCENE

Try to picture the scene in your mind. Jesus is in the temple precincts, sitting down in what is called The Court of the Women. There, against the wall, are thirteen large trumpet-shaped receptacles into which worshipers cast their offerings. Jesus watches what goes on there with keen interest. He sees the wealthy, finely robed, making their large contributions. A murmur of awe passes through the crowd as they see one princely gift after another. The common people, Israel’s middle class, also bring their gifts. Some of these are modest, some substantial. But the people keep watching for another rich person to approach. They stand at a respectful distance but strain forward intently as another grand offering is presented.

Jesus seems strangely unimpressed by all this until a woman, obviously very poor, makes her way toward the wall. She clenches in her hand two tiny copper coins, looks at them, and tosses them into the treasury. As she’s about to slip away, Jesus calls His disciples, points her out to them. He’s obviously animated now. “This woman,” He says, “has put in more than all the rest.”

A COMMON-SENSE VIEW OF GIVING

This arresting little account reminds us that there are different ways of measuring what people give to God’s work. First, there’s a conventional, common-sense way. You see that in the crowd there in the temple courts. They are awed by the splendid contributions of the rich, dazzled by the flash of gold and silver as great wealth passes into the temple treasury.

All of us can identify to some degree with that feeling. We read in our newspapers how a wealthy benefactor has given tens of millions of dollars to her favorite charity. A prominent entertainer pays the whole cost of an expensive humanitarian project. A sports personality gives a tithe of his huge signing bonus. “That’s really something!” we say.

And it is. Who can dispute the fact that such gifts make many good things possible? What buildings can be built, what projects launched, what equipment bought, with one of these multi-million dollar donations?

On the other hand, we tend to give scant attention to the gifts of the poor. The prospect of their giving awakens interest that is mild at best. No one will publicize what they have done. No one will praise them, cater to them, fawn over them, as is sometimes done for the rich. After all, the amount is so trifling. It’s only a tiny fraction of what a person of means could do. We’re inclined to see the gifts, for example, of elderly people, out of small social security pensions, as almost insignificant.

THE LORD’S PERSPECTIVE

But there’s another way of looking at these things, apparently, the Lord’s way. Jesus doesn’t deny, of course, that the wealthy have given large sums. He would have acknowledged that they contributed much. But what He especially wanted to say was that the poor widow gave more, more than any one of those rich donors, maybe more than all of them put together. What sense can we make of that?

The wealthy have contributed, Jesus observes, out of their abundance. They made their contribution out of a large surplus. After having given, they still had plenty left. Some of them would hardly miss the large sum they had just given away.

What the woman did was quite different. She gave, Jesus says, out of her want, out of her lack, out of her limitation. She was a woman living on the poverty line, or far below it. Those two little copper coins (let’s say they had the value of one of our pennies), were the sum total of her wealth. They were all she had. When she had given them away, there was nothing left. In the strictest sense of that word, she was then penniless.

Apparently, that’s what made her gift so large, so significant in the eyes of Jesus. It was given out of the depths of need.

All this must have been startling, almost incomprehensible to the disciples. Jesus had said on another occasion that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples then were exceedingly astonished and said to Him, “Then, who can be saved?” They had believed that the rich in Israel surely had the best of chances for entering the kingdom. They had leisure to attend all the temple services. They could buy the finest animals for sacrifice. And, obviously, they could bring magnificent gifts. If they were ruled out, who could possibly make it? Maybe they registered some of the same astonishment when they heard how Jesus measured gifts to God’s work. They couldn’t understand it.

Heaven’s register of great givers is apparently different from ours. Names are listed there, not in order of their monetary contributions. In heaven’s calculation, the size of your gift, the largeness of your generosity, is measured not by the sum you have given but by the amount you retain for yourself.

Let’s try to translate that into practical terms for our lives. Suppose I want to give more to God’s kingdom this year than last. It won’t be a matter simply of noting my check book stubs so that I can be sure to contribute more dollars this year than the last. If I’m going to be a better giver, it will involve offering up a higher percentage of what I receive, of course. But more importantly, in the eyes of Jesus, what I have left will be less than what I had left over at the end of last year.

We may estimate the growth of our giving over the years by its gradual increase, by the greater number of causes we now support and so on. Or we may do it in this strange, radical way by measuring the increasing limitation of our resources whereby we are more and more cast upon God.

When we had a fund drive in our local church some time ago, the organization helping us popularized the motto for our campaign, “Not equal gifts but equal sacrifice.” I ask myself as I think about that, “Where does the element of sacrifice come in, in what I give?” Are there things I cannot do, cannot buy now because of it? Are there places that I cannot go? How am I limited? How am I inconvenienced? How am I put at risk in any way? How am I stirred to pray for daily provisions through what I give?

Now we’re touching on the heart of this. Let’s not misunderstand. Let’s not imagine that God is some heavenly skinflint who wants to keep His children poor, who delights when they are deprived. Nor does He despise the large gifts of the wealthy as though they had no significance, as though they did no good. It is surely better that rich persons share their means than keep it all to themselves.

But what God looks for in giving is what it says about our relationship to Him. I know a man who has struggled along on a salary which seems to us painfully small. But unfailingly, He gives away a tithe of what he receives. When someone asked him about that, how on such a limited income he could afford to give away a tenth, he answered with a touch of whimsy, “When you’re making what I make, you can’t afford not to tithe.” He was saying that all his hope was in the blessing of God. All his security was in the Lord. And the most important thing for him was to honor God.

The peril of wealth for all of us is that we so quickly tend to trust in our riches, to find in them our security for the future. That was the tragic error of the man Jesus spoke about in Scripture, whom we call the rich fool. Listen:

“The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, `I will do this; I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he [says Jesus] who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

It apparently never occurred to this man to share his growing wealth. Instead, he would store it up for his own future use – more than he could ever need. And instead of setting his hope in the living God who gives us all things richly to enjoy, he depended on all that accumulated wealth to give him a safe and happy future. He was a fool because in the midst of all that, he forgot God. It escaped his mind that everything he called “mine” had really come as a gift from God’s fatherly hand.

When we give out of need, give beyond ordinary prudence, it’s a way of saying that God is the highest good for us, that His interests come first, and that He’s the One finally who sustains our lives and in whom we place our hope.

When we give out of abundance, we may give very little of ourselves. To us, it’s a trifle. We hardly miss it. But when we give as this widow did, it’s like our whole life. And that’s what God looks for, that we should give our hearts, give ourselves. Remember those famous lines from James Russell Lowell, “The gift without the giver is bare, who gives himself with his alms feeds three: himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.”

SOME WHO CAUGHT THE VISION

Apparently, some of the early Christians who heard the good news of Christ and believed it came to give in this remarkable way. Listen to what the apostle Paul says about some of them: “We want you to know, brethren, about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part” (2 Cor. 8:1-2). Notice that combination: extreme poverty, abounding joy, and generous giving. It goes on: “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will [out of their want, in the area of a risk, as it were], begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (vv. 3-4). In other words, they’re pleading to be allowed to give. “And this [Paul concludes], not as we expected, but first they gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (v. 5).

That’s it. They first gave themselves to the Lord. Giving that is great in God’s sight arises out of a wholehearted self offering to Him, a glad and grateful commitment.

Why is it, we wonder, that people would give in that way, that poor people would extend themselves to give beyond their ability? It’s because they have caught a glimpse of God’s generous heart. Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (v. 9). There it is: the Lord starts out being unimaginably rich and out of a heart of great love willingly becomes poor to enrich others. People who give in that style are people who indeed know this grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And I invite you in His name today to trust in that gracious Savior who gave Himself so utterly for you and me, who became poor so that we could be rich. And then, in glad response to His grace, let’s learn to be self-spending givers.

Prayer: Lord, we realize when we hear Your word, that we’ve scarcely begun to give. Teach us what it means to respond to Your love with a kind of giving this poor widow expressed. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.