A sermon delivered at University Church, Athens, Georgia, 1/24/16. To hear the complete audiofile, go to www.theuniversitychurch.org.
Luke 21:1 And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. 21:2 And He saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins. 21:3 And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them. 21:4 For they all out of their surplus put into the offering, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
INTRODUCTION: There are some topics in which the church needs to be instructed, but which it is awkward for the regular preacher to address. One of them is giving. (I pause for all the men to reach back and close that button over your hip pocket.) It is hard for the preacher to address this topic without appearing self-serving, since he makes his living from the offerings that his people bring. Well, I’m not the regular preacher, and I do awkward pretty well in any case, so I’m going to bite that particular bullet this morning and talk about the Widow’s Mite.
Here’s what I’m not going to do: I’m not going to tackle the controversy over whether or not tithing is obligatory for New-Testament believers. It’s not so much that I can’t answer that question as that I have never understood why it is a question. I cannot imagine enjoying the astounding privileges of living under the New Covenant and being less generous than believers were under the Old Covenant. So the first check I write after I get paid is a check for 10% of my net, rounded up, and made out to University Church. I then try to do something more than that for missions or other worthy Christian causes. There was a time when it took more faith to do that than it does now, and the discipline was good for me. I wish I could do more now. But I’m not telling you that as a legalistic standard. That’s just how I feel about it.
What I am going to try to do instead, with this Widow’s help, is try to answer a deeper and more fundamental question: How does Jesus count money? How does Jesus count money? I guarantee you it’s not the way Donald Trump does. But it is the question I wish you would ask yourself when you are asking the other questions that this topic inevitably raises. How much did you put in the offering box this month? Was it 10%? Of your gross? Of your net? Are you happy about it? How much did you keep? What did you give up in order to give what you did? Do you know what that amount is really worth? Now, I do not want to know the answers in your case. But I’m here to tell you that somebody does know—and I’m not talking about the church treasurer. This little vignette from the Gospels gives us some real insight into how we should be asking and answering such questions.
- JESUS NOTICES OUR GIVING (21:1-2)
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins. The first thing we notice is that Jesus notices our giving. He does it in particular terms. He singled this one woman out from the whole multitude of people passing by and putting their money in the box, and He paid particular attention to what He was seeing.
Now of course we all know that God knows everything, and none of us would deny that this includes our giving. But the doctrine of omniscience the way we usually think about it is too abstract and all-encompassing to really be helpful, true though it is. Knowing everything is not a challenge for God, but when I try to think about everything I can’t get my head around it. Trying to think of everything I might end up thinking of nothing. Especially my giving gets lost in the shuffle; there is plenty of everything to cover it up in my own awareness, and I easily forget that it is part of the “everything” that God knows.
But what we see in this story is Jesus paying attention. The individual detail does not get lost in the abstraction of everything for Him. He notices the general trends and the individual acts. He is aware of the appalling statistic that the more affluent Christians are the less they tend to give as a proportion of their whole income. He sees the fools giving their money to augment the already conspicuous wealth of shameless televangelists who manipulate their followers into supporting their opulent lifestyles when they should be meeting real needs in the advancement of the Kingdom. He sees what I give, and He sees the heart out of which I give it. “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them. For they all out of their surplus put into the offering, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
In other words, Jesus notices not only the surface, but also the substance. He notices not only the amount, but also the attitude. He notices not only the dollars, but also the desires. He notices not only the coins, but also the conditions of our hearts. He notices not only our practices, but also our priorities. Do we give in the light of these facts? Do we consciously, before God, make these decisions about our giving? Jesus noticed the rich people’s giving, He noticed the widow’s, and He notices ours.
2. JESUS VALUES OUR GIVING
What was the value of the widow’s gift? It is recorded that she gave “two small copper coins.” The coin in question was the leptos, what we call the “widow’s mite.” It was the cheapest coin available, a rough analogy to our penny. Here is a leptos [holds it up]. I would like to tell you that this is one of the actual lepta that the widow put into the offering box, but since I am trying to tell the truth this morning I’d better not say that. But it is just like hers, an actual coin from the New-Testament period. This one apparently fell out of someone’s purse into the Pool of Siloam, where I bought it from a worker at an archaeological dig who was finding bunches of them. You can see that it is about half the size of one of our pennies [holds it up], and that might give you an idea of its value.
What was its value to society? Practically nothing. If you had eight of them you could buy a stale loaf of bread at the Jerusalem thrift store. What was its value to the Temple? Less than nothing. Too many people were putting one of them in the box just to say they had given, and it was costing more to pay the moneychanger to count them than they were worth. So a law was passed by the Sanhedrin that you could not put in just one leptos. Two lepta was then the smallest contribution that was legally allowable. But what was its value to the widow? Jesus says that she put in “all she had to live on.” The Greek phrase is panta ton bion (panta ton bion), literally “all her life.” It probably means not her het worth but all she had to live on, not her life savings but all she could scrape together for one day. (Think of the Lord’s Prayer, which has us pray for our daily bread.) In other words, this widow was faced with a very simple decision: Today, I can give or I can eat. She could not do both. Obviously she could not make that decision to give every day, or she would die, and would then be giving nothing at all. But there were days she made it. Such was her love of God that she viewed her two lepta in those terms.
Oh, how zealous and committed we feel if we give up steak for hamburger or hamburger for peanut butter in order to be able to give to the Lord’s work! The story is told of a millionaire who was giving his testimony. “I gave my last dollar, all that I had, and that is why the Lord has blessed me and made me a millionaire!” Then an old gentleman in the back of the sanctuary piped up, “Brother, I dare you to do it again!” Why do we somehow know that wasn’t going to happen? I’m not giving you any such dare this morning, but I do want you to think about the universal truth that we always give what we value less for what we value more. I give not out of guilt or legalism but because I value the accomplishment of the Lord’s work more than I value keeping all of my money. If you want to know what you really value, what you care about, take a look at your budget and see what you are giving and for what. It might much amaze you.
But this leads us to the most important point of all. What were those two lepta worth to the Lord? They were worth more than all the extravagant gifts of the wealthy. Get the picture, as Larry Munson used to say. The priests say we need a new Xerox machine for the Temple. What does it cost? 2,000 shekels. No problem. Benjamin Bank Balance whips out his check book, signs his name, tears out the check, and hands it to the priest. “Here, take care of it!” We need to expand the Temple’s radio network to add some new stations. What is that going to cost? 600,000 shekels. No problem. Daniel Deposit Slip whips out his check book, signs his name, tears out the check, and hands it to the priest. “Here, take care of it!” We need to put a new educational wing on the Temple. What is that going to cost? Two million shekels. No problem. Malachi Moneybags whips out his check book, signs his name, tears out the check, and hands it to the priest. “Here, take care of it!”
And now this little half-starved anonymous widow puts in two cents, and you’re saying she gave the most? You better believe it! And you will believe it if you understand how Jesus counts money. The rich gave from their surplus, verse four says. They really didn’t suffer for it. We don’t have to feel sorry for them. The widow literally gave out of her lack. Hers was an expression of her love for God that said, “He is more to me than my living.” And that is what was worth the most to Jesus Christ our Lord.
Do you get the point? This is not a clever and more spiritual-sounding way of manipulating you out of your money. If you understand how Jesus counts money, you understand that God does not need your money. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He is able to take care of His work without you. The Apostle Paul was so confident in this truth that he told the Corinthians, “Let each one of you do as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). In other words, if you’re giving out of guilt or obligation, if you are giving grudgingly, you might as well keep it. God does not need your money. But He wants your heart. And then He wants you to use the money He has given you as that kind of heart would dictate: with generosity, with discernment, with good stewardship, with love, and with joy.
CONCLUSION: God does not need your money. And that means that University Church does not need it either. Well, in a way it kind of does, but I hope you get the point. It doesn’t really need your money. What it really needs is for you to love God so deeply that it shows up in your budget. I don’t know what you give, or what you should give. I know your situation is surely more complicated than the widow’s. And so I could give you a formula, but it would not really solve the problem of wrestling with these decisions. I just want you to make them in the light of knowing how Jesus counts money. The widow, Jesus said, put in more than all of them. Love God, love the God who would send us a Savior who thinks like this, and then within the bounds of responsibility, good stewardship, and Christian liberty, go thou and do likewise.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers training local pastors in East Africa for Church Planting International. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006); Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (Chalice, 2007); The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008); Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012). Material on literature, theology, the inklings, and apologetics can be found at his website, http://doulomen.tripod.com. He blogs at www.lanternhollowpress.com and http://thefivepilgrims.com.
To order Dr. Williams’s books from Lantern Hollow Press ($14.99 + shipping), go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.