You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
(2 Corinthians 8:9)
You don’t think he’s going to do it, do you? I mean, he’s young, so maybe he doesn’t know any better than to talk so bluntly and openly about such a private matter as personal finances and offerings to the church. When a preacher opens up that can of worms, he’s just asking for trouble. So, what was Jesus thinking?! Here he is, during Holy Week, less than 72 hours from when he’ll be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and crucified. He’s in the temple courts, and what’s he talking about? Money. Jesus, couldn’t you find something more important to do with your last fleeting hours on earth? Should you really tackle such a sensitive subject when much weightier things must be on your mind? What is he thinking? Maybe you’re having similar thoughts about me right now. You heard the three Scripture lessons this morning: Jesus watches the worshipers give their offerings and praises the faith of a widow who gave all she had. Elijah teaches a poor widow that putting God first is a fruit of faith, even when you hardly have enough for one loaf of bread. Paul tells the Corinthians to excel in this grace of giving. So, our theme for worship is starting to make some sense: giving to the God who’s given you everything. But nobody really likes to hear about it. Let’s not get too personal; that’s a soft spot; maybe he’ll preach on the psalm and try to avoid the theme of the day. But, no rest there either! Even our psalm said, Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. It seems pretty clear that the Word of God has some things to say to us about money and our relationship with it.
The world around you will echo the refrain, “You see? All the church cares about is money! Look in your bulletin, honey, there’s even a time later in the service when they gather an offering. These people have no shame!” It’s sad to say that historically some of those criticisms are warranted. There are religious hucksters out there trying to drain bank accounts in the name of Jesus. There are preachers who care more about padding their pockets than proclaiming the gospel. It’s no wonder that so many in our time and culture view the clergy as little more than robbers wearing robes. But just because there are so many bad examples out there doesn’t mean we should try to avoid seeing what the Bible says about it in here. Why would the church talk about money? Because Jesus talks about it…quite a bit. Here’s a fun Sunday afternoon project for you - when you get home today, flip through the gospels and write down every one of Jesus’ parables. Now go back and count how many of those parables have to do with money – whether in application or illustration – and you might be surprised. At this point, some might acquiesce and think, “I guess the church has to talk about money, because you can hardly run any organization without it.” But to think that way is a drastic misunderstanding of why the Bible, in general, and Jesus, in particular, talk about money and giving. Financial stewardship is just another way we can manage well all that God has graciously given us – from our time and skills, to our money and possessions, to all that we are. We can serve and give, even our whole selves, and because of Christ, we lack nothing.
Mark’s gospel sets the scene for us, Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Person after person filed up and gave their offerings to support the work of the temple. That money went to pay for things like sacrifices, wood for the altar, incense for burning, maintenance, upkeep, and temple taxes. Many rich people threw in large amounts. And everyone would notice it when another wealthy patron would empty their purse. But nobody would notice the smallest of offerings – well, nobody except Jesus. A poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. By comparison, the widow’s offering wasn’t even worth mentioning. This poor widow only had two coins to rub together and both of them clanked their way into the offering box, coming to rest almost unnoticed atop the copious coinage contributed by the rich. And this is the offering Jesus praises – not an amount, but an attitude – an attitude that rejoices to give God my first, my best, my all because that’s exactly what he’s done for me. Giving is not a pastime for the rich, it’s the privilege of all, even the poor. The widow gave with a heart that trusted in every one of God’s promises for her. She gave everything and, because of Christ, lacked nothing.
And what a beautiful story it is! Should we leave it at that, or should we address the thing in this text that will make you and me remarkably uncomfortable? Did you catch it the first time I read it? Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. It’s no coincidence that Jesus picked a spot to sit where he could observe and watch closely how the people were giving. Jesus still watches how his people give their gifts, and you don’t like it, and neither do I. Why not? Because just as he did back then, so he does now. Jesus doesn’t look at the amount of time or money or skill that’s given, but at how it’s given. He cuts past the dollars and cents and hours and projects and looks straight to the heart of the giver. Am I giving God my first and my best, or is he getting the leftovers? Once I was walking with someone who just got change after buying something and he took the cash but, literally, threw the pennies on the ground. They were worth so little in his mind, that they really didn’t deserve to occupy precious space in his pocket. Am I ever tempted to let my thankful service to God just be an afterthought? Am I thoughtfully and prayerfully setting aside a portion of my income and a chunk of the time God’s given me for the work of the gospel, or am I jumping for a fiver when the offering plate comes my way? Jesus looks past the amount and straight to the heart. Am I a cheerful giver, rejoicing to return God’s blessings so that many more people can hear the gospel; or am I reluctant, thinking of all I could’ve done with my time, my skills, or my money?
Do you think the widow had any second thoughts? I’ve got TWO coins, maybe I should keep one. What’s this fraction of a penny going to do to put a dent in the temple budget? This money could mean another meal for me. I could use this money on…something…anything else. Whether or not I say it out loud, my sinful nature only thinks that way, and hates the idea of sacrificial giving. What sacrifices do I make in giving? My credit card statements and my weekly schedule don’t lie. Something seems out of balance when the work of the gospel gets less than Cox Communications. Something seems out of balance when the Word and work of God gets a fraction of the time that gets used up on my pursuits of leisure and entertainment. Something seems out of balance when hundreds or even thousands of dollars are poured into retirement accounts for my tomorrow when my neighbor has need for the gospel today. And the most tragic part about it? The stock market doesn’t make you a single promise – in fact, most of the year’s earnings were just wiped out in the downturn of October. The Dow Jones doesn’t promise you a thing. My pursuit of leisure and entertainment doesn’t promise you anything – but Jesus does. Do you see the struggle? None of these things – saving for the future, entertainment, leisure time – none of these are bad things. In fact, they’re good things. The trouble comes when my sinful heart wants to elevate those good things into “God things.” In this account from Mark’s gospel, we see two kinds of givers. So, I have to ask myself the question: When it comes to my managing of the gifts God has given to me, is my giving sacrificial or superficial? Remember, Jesus isn’t simply looking at an amount, he’s looking to the heart. And when he looks to this sinful heart right here, all I can cry out is, “Lord, have mercy.” And he does.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” What’s Jesus praising here? A 100% tithe? Would Jesus have each of us quit our jobs, abandon our families, and live and work full time at the church? Does he want each of us be waiting at the doors of our bank come Monday morning so we could drain our checking, savings, and 401k, and cut a check to Hope Lutheran Church? Well, no. But not because gifts of time and money are unimportant. God has put you in a place with people around you. Immediately, you’re sewn into the tapestry of hundreds of lives, and for some of them you’re the one who puts food on the table and clothes on the backs. To say that Jesus is praising this widow simply because her percentage of offering was 100% is to miss the point. What was Jesus praising? A heart of faith that trusted in this Savior God who spared no expense to make me his own; a heart of faith that trusted God’s promise to provide; a heart of faith that rejoiced to give back what God’s given me. This was so much more than giving to float a budget – this was worship! The lesson the widow teaches us about stewardship and giving has nothing to do with amounts and everything to do with hearts. Because, to be honest, even though Jesus doesn’t need your money, he wants more than 10% of your income. He wants more than 100% of all you have…he wants you. All of you. And he spent a whole lot more than dollars and cents to make you his own. Remember when Jesus was teaching this lesson about giving – during Holy Week – mere days before he would give up everything he had to live on, his life itself…for you. Do you see your value in Jesus’ eyes?
Sometimes our perception of self-worth before God gets skewed. We think that our worth depends on how much we have, how much we can give, how often we can volunteer, how many skills we have. But is that how Jesus sees it? Outside my house there sits a 2004 Buick LeSabre with a busted transmission, and it breaks my heart a little every time I see it. By the most generous of estimates, Kelly Blue Book would place its value in the triple digits. But if someone knocked on my door and offered to pay be $20,000 for that car, I would sell it in a heartbeat, and the Blue Book value would be meaningless. Why? Because a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. So what are you worth to God? You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. Peter said, It was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ. The perfect life and precious blood of Jesus cover every one of your sins and mine – even our sins of loving the gifts more than the Giver. If God was willing to bankrupt heaven to make you his own, then you know that you’re worth everything to him. Doesn’t that change the way I look at giving back what God has so graciously given to me – whether it’s time, talents, or treasures?
Managing God’s gifts to me no longer has “me” at the center. Jesus turns my focus outside of myself to the person next to me. Because of Jesus, I can fight against that self-centered accounting of my sinful nature that says, “Giving more time or money means there’ll necessarily be less for me!” I don’t have to hold on to my time, talents, and treasures with a tight fist but can have an open hand, because Jesus opened his hands – not to snag more wealth, but to grab hold of a couple of nails to pay for your sins and mine. I can support the work of the church with gladness – not to give to a budget or volunteer begrudgingly – but so more and more people can know the most profound truth of the gospel – through faith in Jesus Christ, you wouldn’t recognize yourself if you saw yourself through God’s eyes. In Christ, you are holy, perfect, his own dear child. There is no sin on your record, and there is only Jesus on your side – now that’s good news.
In the gospel, we met a widow who started with a little, and gave until she had nothing, but in the process she hadn’t lost a thing. How is that possible? Her Savior-God was her all in all. His promise was her confidence. He is the God who promises to provide, so that when we give even our whole selves, we don’t lack a thing, because in Christ, we have everything. In Christ, we can give everything and lack nothing.
And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.