November 11, 2012 – Giving Out of Our Poverty
To listen to the recording, click here: Giving out of our poverty
A really good teacher is ready at all times and in all places to teach. Jesus was the best of teachers, and wherever he was he took the opportunity to use the things of this world to teach his disciples about the kingdom of heaven. When he sat on the hilltop in Galilee surrounded by thousands of people, he pointed to the birds that flew over their heads and the flowers that dotted the grass they were sitting on. “Look at the flowers of the field, and the birds of the air,” he told them. “They don’t spend their days working or worrying about how to make ends meet, but see how beautifully God provides for them. Does any king have robes more beautiful than these flowers? Does any wealthy merchant worry less about where his next meal is coming from than that flock of birds? Believe me, you are much more precious to God than many sparrows. Don’t waste your life fretting about these things, but set your minds and hearts on the things of the kingdom of God, and let God take care of your necessities.”
Jesus used the things that people knew, the things they could see, to help them understand the ways of the kingdom that they didn’t see yet. That’s why he used parables, stories about seeds and sheep and rich merchants and wedding banquets, the things of this world, letting people see these things in a new and unexpected light, so that people could begin to see that the kingdom that was coming was something completely new, completely different from the world they knew. In the story from Mark’s gospel today, Jesus and his disciples were at the Temple in Jerusalem. They were sitting near the place called the Court of the Women, called that because it was the only place women were allowed to come into the Temple, so that they could bring their offerings. There were thirteen offering boxes in the Court of the Women, probably called trumpet chests because they were shaped like trumpets, each one for particular offerings for the Temple, one for gold and one for incense, and one for the birds that were needed for sacrifice. And six of the trumpet chests were for freewill offerings. It was a public place, and people could, and did, watch as rich people brought their offerings to the Temple. And on the day we read about, in the midst of the scribes and other wealthy and important Jewish citizens, a poor widow walked up and tossed two tiny coins into one of the chests. Mark tells us that the two coins together were worth a penny; they were little copper coins called lepta, each one less than a centimeter in diameter.
It was a teaching moment, and Jesus called his disciples to come near him so that he could call their attention to it. “Did you see that poor old woman?” he asked them. “The offering that she just tossed into the chest, those coins that were so small you could barely see them; that offering was greater than the offerings of all these other people.”
There must have been so many moments for the disciples when they were completely taken by surprised. I can just imagine in this story, that they were probably watching the crowds of worshipers idly, observing the procession of impressive donations for the Temple coffers, the scribes with their elegant robes, the merchants with their heavy purses, and barely noticing the old woman as she tossed two small coins into one of the chests – and then all of a sudden Jesus made that very woman the center of their attention, throwing the spotlight on her and her tiny offering. It was another one of those complete reversals of perspective that Jesus kept showing them: in the kingdom of God the last is first, the greatest is the servant, small is big, poverty is great wealth, and God’s favor rests on the despised and the outcast. And as the scribes paraded their generous gifts in front of the watching crowds, Jesus pointed out that the scribes and all the other wealthy people were bringing their offerings out of their abundance, but the widow, who had no abundance, gave out of her poverty. And that made her tiny offering the greatest of all.
It didn’t seem to make any difference at all to Jesus that the widow’s little coins wouldn’t be significant in the operating budget of the Temple – less than a drop in the bucket. Those little lepta couldn’t provide for sacrifices or building materials or incense. But that didn’t seem to matter to Jesus at all. After all, does God really need us to provide for him? Would God really have had a hard time coming up with the funds for the building or for the furnishings or the sacrifices if people weren’t there to help him out? In Psalm 50, God tells his people that the sacrifices of Temple worship were never about satisfying his need; “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” God never required sacrifices to satisfy his own needs; what he wanted from his people all along was their hearts, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, humility and obedience. The value of our offerings, to God, is all about the heart. The widow’s tiny coins, everything she had to live on that day, were worth almost nothing by the world’s standards, but in the scales of God’s kingdom they far outweighed any number of pounds of gold and silver that were just pocket change for the scribes, something they wouldn’t really miss.
Seen in that light, the widow becomes a model that really challenges us. Do we give out of our abundance, or out of our poverty? How often do we really give sacrificially? If I had been that widow, I wonder if I would have held back one of the coins so that I would have at least something left for myself. But she didn’t, and that is why she caught Jesus’s eye. I think it’s a lesson that is meant to make us a little uncomfortable, that is meant to make us question our own hearts and motivations. I would be surprised if it didn’t make the disciples squirm just a little as they compared themselves to the widow. That’s a good thing: being challenged, being made uncomfortable with the way we think and act is one way the Holy Spirit helps us grow into the kingdom. We can bring our discomfort to God in the quiet of our prayers and thoughts, and we can ask him to help us be more like that poor widow whose offering was of such great value to him.
And as far as that goes, the story of the widow’s mite makes a great sermon for a stewardship campaign, but I think that Jesus’s lesson goes beyond telling us to dig deep into our pockets at offering time. It is a good and helpful thing to question ourselves with regard to our handling of money and wealth, because it is a trap that human beings are always in danger of falling into, to become too attached to the world’s goods, to put our trust in God and our savings account, or God and our retirement plan, or God and our paycheck. It is a temptation for us to begin to think that God approves of us according to how much we put in the plate on Sunday. It is a temptation to measure our offerings against the offerings of others, to be impressed by numbers and cash values. But what Jesus has to teach the disciples, and us, in this story is not just about how we deal with worldly wealth; I think it’s even more about the way God receives the gifts we offer him. There is a wonderful quote by a man named Francis de Sales that talks about this story of the widow’s mite. Francis wrote: “Now as amongst the treasures of the temple, the poor widow’s mite was much esteemed, so the least little good works, even though performed somewhat coldly and not according to the whole extent of the charity which is in us, are agreeable to God, and esteemed by him; in such sort that though of themselves they cannot cause any increase in the existing love…yet divine Providence, counting on them and, out of his goodness, valuing them, forthwith rewards them with increase of charity for the present, and assigns to them a greater heavenly glory for the future.”
The story of the widow’s mite teaches us that the value of our offering comes from God, and from God alone, and that his love and goodness assigns a value to our offerings that goes far beyond their worth. But first we have to recognize our own poverty. The widow tossed in her coins out of her worldly poverty, but how many things do we offer every day from our own spiritual poverty? When we offer kindness, or forgiveness, or compassion to one another, don’t we always give from the poverty of our own hearts? We try to be kind, but we fall short in our kindness, we are so full of self, and so fearful, that we mostly fail to achieve the kindness we ought to give. And yet, however small the offering of our hands and hearts, our heavenly Father accepts it as a kindness to himself. Even a cup of cold water, God tells us, given to the least of our brothers or sisters, he accepts that as a kindness to himself. That is not because our kindness is so very great, or that our hearts are so very good. Not at all, we give from the poverty of our selfish hearts, but our God, in the generosity of his love, accepts the lepta, the tiny mites, of our kindness and compassion, and he assigns to them what Frances called “a greater heavenly glory for our future”.
It is the same when we offer forgiveness. When we try to forgive someone who has hurt us or offended us, so often we are only able to forgive out of the poverty of our heart; we are still full of resentment, still wounded, still fearful. But even as we hold out the first tiny offering of forgiveness – no bigger than a centimeter’s worth! – God accepts it as a precious gift, and he uses it to begin a work of healing in us. Maybe we can only offer God the least glimmer of forgiveness. Maybe the best we can offer is our desire to let go of our hatred; or our desire to desire it: it is a poor offering, but it is all we have to live on for the day, it is all we can come up with in the poverty of our hearts. And God receives our poor offering and transforms it into treasure for us. He makes of it the beginnings of healing and restoration in our hearts and minds and relationships.
When Jesus taught people about the kingdom, he was teaching them a new way to see. In the eyes of the kingdom the two tiny coins in the widow’s hand were great treasure; but the ostentatious offerings in the hands of the scribes were worthless. In the eyes of the kingdom, the wealthy are those whose hearts are open and empty to receive what God has to offer them, because it is only when we realize our poverty and our emptiness that we can be filled with true riches, wealth that will never rot or rust or get lost, riches that no one can ever break in and steal, that will last forever. Jesus’s lesson for the disciples was this, that God values even our smallest offerings if we give out of our poverty, if we offer the works of our hands and our hearts without shame and without holding back, offering all that we have to offer today, whatever that might be, however foolish and inadequate it might seem to us. The bottom line is that God doesn’t ask us to perform great virtuous deeds or write big fat checks to charity – what he asks of us is nothing more or less than everything we have, as little as that might be. Without God the greatest human virtue is worthless, and the greatest worldly wealth is rubbish. But in the hands of God the tiniest coins we offer become the greatest treasure and our feeblest efforts become the seeds of glory.