As we continue our series, The Money Challenge, I invite you to open your Bible to Mark 12:41-44.
Though I’ve heard it happens in some churches, I’ve never seen it for myself. The congregation parades to the altar to bring their Sunday offering as the pastor stands over the basket. A child drops his dollar, another a handful of change. Still another has no offering to give, and knowing the need, the pastor reaches into the basket and gives that person a few dollars from the offering. The parade continues with the preacher’s eye on every giver. One of the best-dressed in the congregation drops his offering and begins to head back to his seat until the pastor reaches out, grabs his arm, points to the basket, and says, “You can do better than that.” So the man digs a little deeper and gives a little more.
What would you think if we started doing our offerings that way? If we took a vote, I’m guessing the motion would go down in flames. And here’s why: we don’t want people to know what we give. We think that private, unaccountable giving is some kind of personal right. Would it surprise you to know that our by-laws give me the permission to inspect your giving record any time I want? In his book, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, J. Clif Christopher argues that the pastor should know what church members give. Few things say more about a person’s spiritual condition than their giving, argues Christopher. Based on the gospels, Jesus would concur. But right or wrong, I’ve chosen not to know what people give. I don’t trust myself with that knowledge. I’m afraid I might be disappointed in some of you. And while I don’t think that would get in the way of our relationship, I wouldn’t want to chance it. Only three people in the church see your giving records: our Administrative Pastor, our Financial Secretary, and Jesus.
Yes, Jesus takes note of your offerings. In fact, that’s what he’s doing in our text today—he’s sitting opposite the temple treasury watching people give their offerings. Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).
Mark tucks this story into his narrative from the last week of Jesus’ life. His betrayal, arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion are days ahead, dead ahead. And Mark locates this story after Jesus skewered the arrogant, law-keeping, self-righteous scribes for, among other things, devouring widows’ houses.
After that scolding, Jesus takes a teaching break and takes a 50-yard-line seat to watch people give their offerings at the temple. We don’t do the offering that way in this church. We provide envelopes in which to enclose your offering. We pass a plate. Or you can give in a little box out in the foyer. Or you can give online. We’re discreet about these things. In Jerusalem it was quite the opposite. Mark’s mention of the temple treasury was probably a reference to one of thirteen shofar-chests. These were boxes shaped like a trumpet that stood around the very public, very accessible temple court of the women rather than around a more exclusive chamber. And into such boxes the people put their offerings. It was a spectacle of sight and sound. Not only could observers see the offerings people gave, they could hear them. The clanging of coins against the trumpets tended to identify an offering as large or small. Big clang—big offering. Little clink—little offering. I have a cartoon in my files where the ushers are discussing a new revolution in offering plates. Said one of the ushers: “It’s my latest invention. You put in anything more than a twenty and a bell goes off.” Well, when the people gave their offerings at the temple treasury, bells went off. Big clang—big offering. Little clink—little offering. It was anything but discreet.
And Jesus sat down to watch these goings on. There were several rich people that gave offerings that day. They threw in large amounts. Clang, clang, clang. Big money. And no doubt people were impressed. Why wouldn’t they be? There are plenty of God’s people who wish they could give big offerings to God’s work. Big offerings are a wonderful thing. People who can do it, should do it. And God bless them when they do. Jesus saw the rich give their offerings that day. Never once did He condemn them. Never once did He insinuate that their offerings were not worthy or acceptable. We have no record that Jesus ever confronted one of these rich givers to say, “You call that an offering?! Just look at you. Look at all you have. Can’t you do any better than that?” Nope. No record of such a confrontation. Mark did not record this story to criticize the offerings rich folks made that day. They have a lot, so they gave a lot. And so they should. That’s all fine and good, and no doubt their offerings were impressive. Big clang—big offering. Jesus noticed these offerings.
But Jesus made special note of the offering of another. It wasn’t a big clang that stirred Jesus that day; it was a little clink. As Jesus sat there watching people give, he noticed a poor widow out of the corner of his eye. In Jesus’ day, poor and widow fit together like eggs and grits. And we’re talking poor all right. Mark had two Greek words for poor available to him when he described this widow: poor as in “just barely scraping by”; and poor as in “ain’t got nothing.” Mark chose the word (πτωχή) that means “ain’t got nothing.” This is the same Greek word Jesus uses in describing the “poor” in spirit in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:3). This widow is poor. She was to the poverty line what Antarctica is to the equator—way below it. We’re talking poor. Poor as dirt. Destitute might be a better word. Is there any chance she is one of those widows whose house was devoured by the scribes Jesus condemned in vv. 38-40? And here she came shuffling up to the temple treasury, clutching her little coin purse. Some might have assumed she came to beg. And it would have been perfect timing. Rich people were giving their offerings. Giving alms to the poor was a spiritual discipline for good Jews. What better place to hit them up than when they’re in a giving mood already. So did she come to beg? Did she come to fill her purse with coins?
On the contrary … she came to empty it. Can you imagine the scene? There amid the hubbub, she made her way to one of the trumpets. She stood there. She took her little coin purse, held it up to her ear and shook it. Then she pulled apart the pucker and peeped inside. Not much there. Just a couple of lepta, little copper coins worth about a fourth of a penny. Did she think about it for a moment? Did she put one coin in the trumpet, hesitate, then throw in the other? Or was her giving reckless? Maybe she turned her little purse upside down and danced to the music of the two little clinks against the trumpet. We don’t know how it all played out as she made her offering.
But whatever she did captured the heart of Jesus. Like a person who notices a beautiful sunset and says to her friend, “Wow! Look at that!” so Jesus did with this poor widow. He called his disciples together, pointed to the widow, and in effect said, “Wow! Look at her! That’s the biggest gift I’ve seen all day. That poor widow gave more than all the others.”
And I can see the disciples glancing at one another thinking, “Yeah, right. I know the Master doesn’t care much about money, but surely he can tell the difference between a big offering and a little one—between a big clang and a little clink. The pressure must be getting to him.”
No, Jesus saw the offering just fine. He heard the sound it made when she threw it in the trumpet. The pressure wasn’t getting to him. But this poor widow’s offering got to him. It got him right in the heart. And here’s why: the others gave out of their wealth—there was plenty more where that came from; but the widow, “out of her poverty, has put in everything she had—all she had to live on.” The wealthy givers that day could stop off on the way home from the temple and enjoy a meal at a fine restaurant. The poor widow had to hope she had enough in her cupboard to get by until she scraped up a few more coins. Hers was a gift of extraordinary generosity and sacrifice. That’s her story.
There is more than one way to get at this story. We’re going to look at it from this angle …
What marks an offering that makes Jesus smile? In part, this story is a celebration of the poor widow’s sacrificial gift. Jesus draws attention to both her and her gift. He holds her up to his followers as an example for all who would give sacrificially. And when we compare, as Jesus does, her gift to the large gifts of the wealthy, she teaches us some things about giving.
Giving is not just about count; it’s about cost. That’s hard for us to understand in our culture. We evaluate giving on the count. You know how it works. Give enough money and you get better seats at the ballgame or you get to park a little closer to the gate or you get your name in a program or on a plaque. We measure by the count. Jesus pays more attention to the cost. Has your giving cost you anything? A new car or some new furniture? A vacation you were going to take? Have you ever sold anything to give a better gift—maybe a boat or some property? Have you ever given out of savings or out of funds you were stashing away for retirement? You know, money you give in reckless abandon, trusting in the promises and providence of God? Giving is not just about count; it’s about cost.
John Piper sums up this kind of giving:
Not more in quantity, but more in sacrifice. The reason is that sacrifice is a better measure of where your heart is. If you are rich and give much, you have so much left over that your heart may easily rest in the remainder. But if you sacrifice for Jesus and have little left, then the heart has less to rest in. The heart is more likely to be resting in the hope of heaven. It is more likely to be depending on Jesus than on money.
Giving is not just about count, it’s about cost. The poor widow teaches us that.
And she teaches us something else: giving is not just about what’s given, it’s about what’s kept. The rich folks gave lots of money at the temple that day, and that’s great. They had it; they should give it. But they probably didn’t miss a cent of it. They had plenty more to live on. Jesus’ admiration of the widow’s gift shows us that giving is also about what’s kept. The widow gave it all. Hers was a risky gift, a faith gift. She was trusting that God would provide for her needs. Her gift was a rich and valuable gift because of what she kept—nothing. Had she given but one of her two coins, it would have been a sacrificial gift, and I suspect Jesus would have been impressed at that. But for some reason, she gave them both. She gave everything.
That’s hard for us to understand. I once did a children’s sermon where I brought a bag of candy and gave the children candy. I so enjoyed giving my candy to them that I asked Wallace if he had any candy to share. He said he had one piece of candy. “Would you share it?” I asked. “Sure,” said Wallace. After we dished out the candy I asked them, “Who gave the most candy to you today—Wallace or me?” Every one of them said that I did. And every one of them was wrong. I gave away more pieces, but I still had a bag full left over. Wallace gave his one and only piece and had nothing left at all. “Wallace gave the most,” I said, “because giving is not just about what’s given, it’s about what’s kept.”
None of us are going to give everything we have. But we can still honor this truth if we dedicate to the Lord whatever we have left. You keep a house, don’t you? Then dedicate that house to serve the Lord through hospitality. You keep a car, don’t you? Then dedicate your car to the Lord and use it in his work as a ministry tool. Everything we have is from the Lord—what we give and what we keep. To give like the widow, we need to dedicate everything we have to the Lord for his use, because giving is not just about what’s given; it’s about what’s kept. The widow instructs us in that truth.
And she instructs us in another: giving is not just about the amount, it’s about the spirit in which it’s given. Jesus watched the temple giving that day. He didn’t criticize the spirit of the rich, but he did highlight the spirit of the widow. He could tell her gift was a willing one. There’s no record that she had second thoughts; no record that she dumped her little coin purse into the trumpet, gasped as if thinking, “What have I done?” and then reached down into the box to retrieve a coin or two. When I was a kid I saw John Davidson do that during the offering. He put a buck in the plate and dug out 75 cents in change before he passed it on. Nothing like that in our story. The widow’s spirit was quite different. I can see her walking away from the temple treasury, spinning in a couple of happy circles then jumping up and clicking her heels. (Well, if she wasn’t too old and rickety.) Either way, she gave with joy. Had she given grudgingly Jesus wouldn’t have made such a big deal about her gift that day because, as Paul teaches us, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
What spirit marks your giving? Do you give grudgingly? Do you give strictly from a sense of duty? Some give looking for a return on their investment, treating giving like a stock market game. What spirit marks your giving?
Some years ago, Robert DeVincenzo was a top professional golfer from Argentina. Once, after winning a tournament, he stood before the cameras and happily accepted the first place money in the form of a big check. After the presentation ceremony, he left the clubhouse and walked toward his car in the parking lot. A young woman approached him and congratulated him on his victory. Tears streaming down her face, she told him that she was desperate for help: “My little boy is sick and the doctors say he will die if he doesn’t receive some special and expensive treatment. And Mr. DeVincenzo, I am just a poor woman. What am I to do?” DeVincenzo was so moved by her painful story that he took the check he had just won and endorsed it over to her. He handed her the check he said, “This is not big enough to pay for the treatment, but I hope this will give your son some good days.”
The following week, he returned to the same country club for a luncheon. An official of the golf association took him aside and said, “I think you should know that a friend of yours saw you give away your prize money in the parking lot last week. Robert, I’ve got some bad news for you. The woman you gave it to is a con artist. She’s used that ‘dying child’ routine many times before.”
“You mean there is no dying boy?”
“What a relief!” said DeVincenzo. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all week.”
That’s the spirit of giving that makes Jesus smile. No rancor. No bitterness. No crying over lost money. No bout of “how could I have been so stupid?” DeVincenzo was just glad there was no dying boy. Cheerful giving. The same spirit with which the widow gave her offering.
We can learn a lot from this poor widow about giving.
But there’s something else at work in this story and in Jesus’ visceral response to the widow’s gift. Her gift is the very kind of giving Jesus would do on the cross in just a few short days. When it was time to make an offering of himself, Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll give myself up for the crown of thorns and a flogging, but I draw the line at crucifixion.” Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll give my body for a beating within an inch of my life, but I’m not dying here—not for these ignorant and rebellious people.” No! Jesus gave it all. He spent Himself fully for you and me in obedience to his Father. Jesus kept nothing back. This woman did with her meager funds what Jesus did with his very life. Jesus gave his all, and out of his gift we who put our trust in him get life abundant and eternal. When Jesus was finished giving his life for our salvation there was nothing left in his pockets. He spent it all, he gave it all for us. Paul captured that as well as in anybody when in 2 Corinthians 8:9 he wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
So the woman doesn’t just give a sacrificial gift to the temple, she points us to Jesus whose sacrificial gift of his life can save our souls and inspire some sacrificial giving of our own. Every offering matters. Obedient giving honors God and brings him pleasure. But extravagant, sacrificial giving—widow-like giving, Jesus-like giving—is an offering that makes Jesus smile.
George was overwhelmed. Times had been hard for him. Sickness kept him out of work for a season. He was barely paying his bills. His high-mileage car sputtered and coughed like it had tuberculosis. He never knew from one day to the next if it would even start. So imagine his surprise when his brother pulled up in front of his apartment with a new car. George stood there gawking at it as his brother got out of the car and handed George the keys. “It’s yours,” his brother said. “I wanted to do this for you. And you better take it because it gives me more joy to give it than it gives you to get it.” George was speechless. His brother was not a rich man.
But George wasn’t speechless a few days later when he came out to get in his new car and some kid from the apartment complex was admiring it. “Is this your car?” asked the boy.
“Yeah, it is,” said George. “My brother gave it to me.”
“Huh? He just gave it to you … you mean for free? It didn’t cost you nothing?”
“Wow! I wish ….” The boy stopped in mid-sentence, but George knew what he was going to say: “I wish I had a brother like that.”
Then, to George’s surprise, the boy finished his sentence: “I wish I could be a brother like that.”
A brother like that—an extravagant, sacrificial giver with a smile on his face. The poor widow was a sister like that. Jesus is a brother like that. Now you go be that brother and sister too.
Preached: January 21, 2018
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II