May 28, 2017
Some of you know that years ago, when I served in a small church, I also worked at a bank. Now, I’d never had a finance or banking class – but it didn’t seem that hard. It was all about OPM, other people’s money. People who had money put it in the bank, then we loaned it out to people who didn’t have money. We charged interest for loans, and paid interest for deposits. Never the same, of course – we collected more than we paid – that’s how banks make money.
It seemed easy enough – but now accounting, that’s a completely different animal – much more difficult. I always heard that banking and accounting were opposite from each other. What bankers count as credits, accountants count as debits, and what bankers count as debits, accountants count as credits. Something to do with credere and debir, left and right, assets and liabilities. I never really understood it, maybe one day Randy Edwards can explain it to me.
I remembered that this week as I studied the text for today. You see, I discovered that Jesus’ way of accounting was completely opposite of the way we do accounting. I mean, while most of us couldn’t read a balance sheet to save our lives, we understand that more is better. Ten dollars is better than one dollar, right? A hundred dollars is better than ten, a thousand better than a hundred. Even our kids get that – offer them one M&M or a bag of M&Ms, and I suppose they’d pick the bag every time. It’s not that hard.
But then, Jesus showed up, and as He often did, He switched the price tags of life. The things we desperately hold onto, pride, being first and stuff, He says, let go. And the things we avoid at all cost, humility, being last, suffering, He says embrace. And this money thing – He actually says more can be less, and less can be more. Seems to me He was an accountant rather than a banker – He did it backwards. Don’t take my word for it, read the text with me, Mark 12:41-44.
That’s interesting. More is less, less is more. Think about it, when’s the last time you saw a building at a university or a hospital wing named after a donor who gave the least? We don’t do it that way. We all understand more is better. Give a lot to some cause, and you may get a personal call from the president. Go to a play, some show, receive the program, and typically listed are major donors. The rest receive little notice, seldom thanks. It is possible our accounting is backwards? Is it possible less can actually be more, and more, less?
I would suggest those programs eventually find their way to the recycling bin; university buildings and hospitals one day turn to rubble. But this nameless, poor widow and her gift have been recorded forever in the eternal Word of God. Dare I say, she is the major donor of all time.
Why? What was different about her gift? Now, we could certainly apply this text to everything we possess – our time, talents, and treasures, most appropriately. But, the text is concerned with coins – money. With the things we hold most dear. Maybe we can learn something about giving. Maybe it’s not about the amount of the gift – maybe it’s about the heart of the giver.
I know – maybe you’re visiting here today. Maybe you’re checking this church thing out. And you’re thinking, of course we’re going to talk about money – that’s what this Christianity thing is all about, right? To be fair, I would say two things. First, I’m teaching verse by verse through Mark, and this the next text. Second, Jesus talked about money a lot – some suggest, more than anything else – because, He knows what grips our hearts. Consider, for example, what a dollar might say if it could speak:
You hold me in your hand and call me yours. Yet, may I not as well call you mine?
See how easily I rule you? To gain me, you would all but die.
I am impersonal as rain, essential as water. Without me, men and institutions would die.
Yet, I do not hold the power of life for them; I am futile without the stamp of your desire.
I go nowhere unless you send me. For me, men mock, love, and scorn character.
My power is terrific.
Handle me carefully and wisely, lest you become my servant, rather than I yours.
Is it possible that money can serve us, rather than the other way around? Handle me carefully and wisely. I would suggest this widow did just that, by giving it away. What was it about her gift that captured Jesus’ attention? That prompted this astonishing acclaim?
Let’s outline the text as we make our way through – with the intent of self-examination. How do I handle money? How does it handle me? Does it have the stamp of my desire? Does it control me, or I, it? Is Jesus and His work more important to me than money? The outline goes like this:
- The Background to the story (41)
- Then we’ll meet the Donors (41-42)
- Then we’ll see which one Jesus commends (43-44)
I know as we begin, it’s like banking – it’s not that difficult to understand – but is it difficult to live? Do we live it? Let’s start with the background. It’s still the very long Tuesday of Passion Week, and Jesus is still at the Temple. He’s silenced those who sought to do verbal battle with Him – both by answering their questions, and asking them questions they could not answer. Remember, He’s just nailed the scribes for their hypocrisy – how they do everything for show. There’s a sense in which this story is an intentional contrast – their arrogant showmanship with this poor widow’s humble sacrifice.
Jesus makes His way to sit down opposite the treasury. That word could refer to two related things. First was a room that acted as a bank – it’s where the donations, gifts, offerings, temple taxes were stored. The guy who administrated the room – the bank president – was considered the second most important man behind the high priest. You see, he handled the money. But the word could also refer to the chests or collection boxes for the donations – given the context, that seems to be the word here.
These boxes were located in the Court of Women in the Temple complex. The Court of Women was inside the court of the Gentiles. It wasn’t just for women – it was just as far as Jewish women could go. Inside that was the Court of Israel where only Jewish men could go, inside that, the Court of Priests– inside that, the most Holy place only the high priest could go.
Well, these chests for collecting the offerings, donations were trumpet or shofar-shaped boxes. There were thirteen of them – seven for specific things like the half-shekel tax, for bird offerings, wood offerings, incense, gold for the sacred vessels, and six of them were for free-will offerings. The giver would approach a priest to declare what the offering was for, and how much. The priest would examine the money and the giver would then be directed to the appropriate box to deposit the gift. Those around could hear the exchange.
Which brings us to the donors in the last part of verse 41 and 42. We read many rich people were putting in large sums. Putting in could be translated, throwing in large sums. You see, they didn’t have paper currency – they had coins, and those heavy coins, especially if there was a lot, would make lots of noise – the more the better, right? Because more is more, and less and less. No doubt as they announced their amount, they said it with much personal pride. People listening were amazed. Wow, that’s a lot of money. Give him a hand. Put his name on the side of the box.
All this reminds me of Jesus’ first sermon in the Gospel of Matthew – we call it the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 6, He talks about how religious people did things to be noticed, like praying and fasting and giving. All three of these virtues are important aspects of the Christian life – things God uses to grow us. But, if I’m just showing off, wearing long robes, then sure, I do these things, but for all the wrong reasons. For show – they become merit badges so people know how spiritual I am. Again, as followers of Christ, we want to be engaged in these activities – yes, we want to give, pray, and fast – but with the right motives. In Matthew 6, Jesus says:
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”
Now, let’s take a moment to look at the words Jesus is using, because He’s painting a great picture. When He says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them,” the words to be noticed come from the word theaomai, from which we get our word theater. Later, He is going to call such people hypocrites. Many of you are aware that this word, hupokrites, originally spoke of a Greek actor who wore a mask that portrayed in exaggerated fashion the role he was playing. If he was happy, the mask had a big smile; if he was sad, it had a big frown. Sometimes the masks were huge – full-body length which they carried. The point is, you didn’t know who was behind the mask. Just like actors today, if they play the part well, you’re completely drawn in – you don’t really know the real person behind the mask.
A picture is beginning to emerge – Jesus says, beware of practicing your righteousness before men, as an actor in a theater – just playing a part. You’re not really sad, you’re not really happy – and you’re not really spiritual – you’re just on a stage before people, playing a role, doing good deeds to make you look good, convincing an audience you’re something that you’re not. And you might convince them – and you’ll get the applause, you’ll get the attention, and you’ll have your reward. But you’ll never fool God and you’ll never get a reward from Him.
Jesus gives the first example of external performance in the virtue of giving. Vs. 2 says, “when you give to the poor, [that is, when you give alms] do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets.” Alms were given to meet the needs of the poor.
Again, many are uncomfortable with churches talking about money. No wonder. It is true some charities, to include churches and ministries, are just in it for the money. And, it is true some people give for what they can get out of it. They want some kind of recognition. So, drive by those hospitals or universities, and every wing or gym or auditorium is named after some benefactor. And, they have their reward – their name on the side of a building. Good for them.
Unfortunately, some ministries have followed suit. Give a certain amount, and you can be recognized – in the bronze, silver or gold circles. Give more, and you can be in the president’s club. When they publish annual reports or a brochure to entice giving, your name will be published for everyone to see. And you have your reward – your name on a report that will be filed away, never to be read again. Good for you.
Go into some churches and you’ll find the same thing – names all over everything. There’s a little plaque on the organ, there’s one on the piano and the pulpit. There’s one on each pew, and you’re never really certain if you’re allowed to sit there. And they have their reward – an engraved name on the bottom of a offering plate. Good for you. No reward from God.
Jesus says, when you give, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do. What does that mean? There have been all kinds of guesses – but the bottom line is, there doesn’t ever seem to have been a practice of blowing a trumpet before giving. It likely meant then what it means now – don’t sound your own horn to draw attention to yourself. If you do, you have your reward – you’ve been paid in full. That speaks of being receipted. You have given, you’ve been receipted – paid in full. You’ve received your reward, the recognition you desire. And you won’t get anything else. You got what you were after, the applause of men. Why should you expect anything from God?
Well, this is the way the rich were giving that day in the Temple. Enough of Matthew – back to Mark. Next came this poor widow – that’s exactly how it reads – poor widow. How did Jesus know she was poor? Certainly it could be because of His deity – He just knew. It could be because of the way she was dressed – shabby, old clothing. She wouldn’t be one you’d notice, except that she might look a little homeless. Most wouldn’t give her the time of day. Certainly she wouldn’t have much to give, right? She makes her way up to the priest and says, likely under her breath, I have two small copper coins, which together amount to a cent.
That’s not exactly right. The two small copper coins you may know as the widow’s mite. These were the smallest of the minted coins at the time – they were called lepta which literally means, tiny thing. One of them was about 1/128th of a denarius – a denarius was one day’s pay for the common laborer. She had two of them, which together equaled a quadron – that’s a Latin word – which fits the idea Mark was writing to the church at Rome. The quadron was the smallest Roman coin, and it took two lepta to make one. Here’s the point, she gave two copper coins – which together amounted to about 1/64th of a day’s wage. Let’s just say you’re making minimum wage, about 60 bucks a day. 1/64th – that’s about a dollar. A little more than a cent, but not much. Maybe enough to buy something from the dollar menu. That’s the idea.
You see, she’s poor. When she says to the priest, I have a couple copper coins, tiny things – lepta, I’m quite confident the priest was unimpressed. So were those standing by. But what did Jesus think? That brings us to our third point – Jesus commendation of this rather meager gift.
He calls the disciples to Him. He grabs their attention with His, truly I say to you. This is important, listen up. This poor widow – He likely had to point her out since she could easily be overlooked – this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury. Wait, what? She just threw in a buck, Jesus. How can less be more? What kind of accounting are you using? Is this new math? Do you need new batteries for your calculator? Is your abacus broken? How is it more than the large sums the rich people are putting in?
Because, the rich gave from their surplus, their abundance. They gave from their discretionary income. They gave out of their abundance – sure, it was a lot, but they had a lot to give. They wouldn’t even miss it. They tipped God. And felt good about it. You see, there was nothing sacrificial about their giving.
A couple weeks ago, I was in Erbil – the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. It was Friday – which is the Muslim holy day, and so Christian churches often meet for worship on that day. So, I went to church – an international evangelical church. I was deeply encouraged to look around and see people from many different nations, worshiping the true and the living God together. They were warm and welcoming. The worship was deep and meaningful. The sermon was great – they’re doing a Bible survey so people could understand the Bible’s storyline. It was great.
It came time for the offering. I had some cash I carried for the trip, but I hadn’t really needed it. It was near the end – the last weekend before I came home. So I pulled a ten out of my wallet – it was sitting right next to the twenties. That day, I kept the twenties, and tipped God with the ten. Ten bucks. That’s what the church and worship meant to me that day. That’s what God meant to me that day. And I am deeply grieved.
You see, I came home and studied this text. This poor widow gave from her poverty. I gave from my excess – what I didn’t need. She didn’t have it to give, but she gave it all. I had it to give, and kept it. She put in all she owned. She skipped the morsel of bread she may have been able to buy for the day – but she sacrificed, and gave all she had to live on. That is how she gave more. You see, God doesn’t necessarily look at the amount, He looks at the heart. And the one who gives till it hurts, sacrificing what he or she has for the sake of the kingdom – the one who sacrificially gives it all, that’s what counts. Oh, people like this widow may never have their names on the side of a building or printed in a program – but God notices. That’s what matters. That’s when less is more. It’s called laying up treasures in heaven.
There’s so much to say about this. I’m reminded of the offering Paul collected for the poor church in Judea. He was writing to the church in Corinth to remind them to give. And he encouraged them from the example of the churches in Macedonia. We read in II Corinthians 8:
1 Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia,
2 that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.
3 For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord,
4 begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints…
The poor believers in Macedonia begged Paul for the privilege of participating in giving from their own poverty. Their example, too, made it to the eternal Word of God. That’s better than a program. Paul goes on to talk about giving in II Corinthians 9:
6 Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
7 Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed…
10 Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness;
11 you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God.
All through Scripture, we find God loves the cheerful, humble and sacrificial giver. You say, I don’t have that much to give. He knows. You give sacrificially, because you love Christ and His kingdom, and He will take what little you give and bless it. You see, it’s the attitude of the giver, not the amount of the gift.
One author said it this way, “For Jesus, the value of the gift is not the amount given, but the cost to the giver…In the temple, others gave what they could spare, but the poor widow spared nothing.” It doesn’t matter what you have to give, it matters that you give, with a heart fully surrendered to Him.
And do it with the right motive. Not to get more, but to further God’s kingdom. Not to get attention – if you do, you’ll get attention, but that’s all you’ll get. There’s an old saying, “When you give and remember, God forgets. When you give and forget, God remembers.” The most satisfying giving, and the giving that God blesses, is that which is done and forgotten. The issue is the attitude of the giver, not the amount of the gift.