We continue this morning with our focus on being committed to Christ. Over these two months, we are considering different aspects of discipleship and how each is important to our commitment as disciples of Christ. We have looked at our overall commitment to the Lord, being asked to take that next step in recommitting ourselves to Christ. Next, we were challenged to take a step in growing our reading and understanding of the Biblical text, to be more committed to the Word of God. We considered our commitment to responding to God’s love in service through the Harvest of Hope. The church is challenged in ensuring the gifts and abilities of all persons are utilized to allow this church to live into its mission by God to share God’s love in the world. And last week we read in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae about the challenge to be a witness of God’s love in the world. Each person is invited to take that next step in letting their life be a witness to God’s love in the community and the world around us.
Today’s focus of discipleship is on financial giving. In the Biblical texts, there are about 500 verses throughout our scripture that speak to the importance of prayer, which will be our focus in two weeks. There are another 500 verses that talk about the importance of having a personal faith in Christ. But there are over 2000 verses in our Biblical text that speak about financial giving. This topic is one given priority in our foundational Word, and thus should be an act of discipleship, like prayer, service, reading the Bible, and being a witness to God, that is given priority in our commitment to Christ as well.
In our Gospel texts, Christ often uses metaphorical and allegorical stories to teach about faithful discipleship and the Kingdom of God. The crowds following Christ often do not understand his parables, and even the disciples often ask for clarification once they are in a private setting. Our scripture this morning, found in the Gospel of Luke, is not a parable. Jesus is witnessing an unfolding story in the temple, and uses this real life event to offer this morning’s teaching. But perhaps our understanding of what he is teaching is just as complicated to discern as if he were telling a parable. So let’s spend a few minutes this morning digging in to this story to identify more clearly what Christ was teaching that day in the temple, and what that teaching means in our lives today.
This story takes place in our Biblical timeline the week between Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and his trial and crucifixion. Throughout that week, the leaders of the temple seek time and time again to find fault in Jesus’ teaching so they may have him arrested. Jesus, surely knowing of their plan to find fault in his teaching, keeps going back to the temple, and time and time again respond to each of their challenges with humility, intelligence, and grace.
If we back up into chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel, we find Jesus speaking directly against the scribes in the final verses leading into chapter 21. Jesus is offering instruction to his disciples in verses 45-47 saying, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Christ has been offering to his disciples instruction to not be like the scribes – the leaders of the Jewish synagogue, the religious leaders and teachers. These men were to be the most educated around the scriptural text. They were to know the Torah, the law, in and out. Yet, as he has done in many other places in his teaching, Jesus is offering criticism of how these leaders lived their lives. They wanted to be recognized, they wanted to receive the glory, and they cared not at whose expense their commendation came. But Jesus instructs that because of their showy and self-serving leadership, instead of commendation, they will receive the greater condemnation.
Jesus pits the scribes against the widow in these closing verses of chapter 20, saying they take the widows’ houses. These leaders in the church were taking advantage of what little the widows had left. Remember the cultural norm of the time. Women didn’t work outside the home, so with a husband no longer living, a widow would have been left only with what she had at the time of her husband’s passing. Widows had to rely on the community and family for support and livelihood. The temple leaders, knowing widows were without additional support, instead of caring for the widows as Jesus taught necessary, these scribes would instead abuse their leadership in the temple and over the faith community to take what little a widow had left.
It is in this mindset, of setting up the two sides – the widow with meager resources versus the scribe, who is known to take advantage of those with meager resources – that we move into chapter 21. Keep in mind, the original manuscripts of our Biblical text did not have chapter and verse distinctions – they flowed one phrase into the next. So in scriptural flow, the text says Jesus, having just finished speaking, “looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.”
Jesus then, still with his disciples, offers this teaching, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
In many of our biblical texts surrounding the issue of giving, whether it be of the first fruits of the harvest or of financial means we earn in honest work, the teaching is focused around a tithe, which is defined as 10% of a persons wealth. As Ron Rawlings highlighted last week in his testimony, he, like many others, struggled when he began to tithe to the church with what it means to give 10%. I’ve had it asked of me, and I know many people want to know when considering a tithe, from what total sum am I giving 10%? Is this 10% of my income before or after taxes? Or is this 10% of what I have at the start of the year – 10% of my total assets? Or is it 10% at the end of the year – is it given only on my gross profit? Giving 10%, offering a tithe, becomes this unclear number and sets up an argument, in which I’m sure the scribes would have loved to participate.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from considering a tithe in their giving to God of their resources. I know, while hard, it is financially possible as Jen and I tithe, but I find it interesting in this morning’s text that Jesus isn’t instructing the disciples to give a Biblical tithe. I find his teaching much more challenging than offering back to God 10% of whatever arbitrary number we have decided is the appropriate number.
Jesus sets against one another these wealthy givers and this poor widow. For all we know, the wealthy givers were likely giving a tithe – that was the biblical expectation of the time, and we should not expect they were giving any less. The wealthy were seen to be leaders in the community of faith; for them to give less than 10% would have been a reason for the other leaders to condemn them. If they were to give less than a tithe, they would lose their leadership status in the community of faith. Their giving was not about a spiritual discipline; it was about self-aggrandizement and publicity.
Not unlike the scribes and religious leaders, the disciples were not immune to this desire to be praised by one another. We can glance back to Luke, chapter 9, and see that among disciples, “an argument arose … as to which one of them was the greatest.”[i] As the rich were coming and giving of their abundance, many were giving large gifts. The quantitative amounts of the gifts of the wealthy were used to set oneself above another who, based on wealth, gave a lesser amount.
In this text, Jesus makes a statement about what it means to be great. It’s as if he’s saying, “you’re interested in being the greatest? Here is your example.”[ii]
The widow comes up to the treasury box and puts in her two cents.
To ensure there is clarity regarding her offering, Jesus clarifies her giving. This woman has not just given two coins from her abundance, like the other givers, she has given her last two coins – all she has given all she had to live on.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t criticize the gifts of the wealthy. They have each given according to biblical teaching. But he does set apart and lift up the gift of the widow who did not give from abundance, but gave all she had left on which to live.
Fred Craddock, in his commentary on Luke, says that the gifts of the wealthy and the widow were not judged on the sentiment behind the giving. The standard for giving was the same, simply asking the question, “how much is left after the offering is made?”[iii] The widow’s gift is the greatest because she gave all she had. “The offering of everything, whatever the amount” Craddock further notes, “is the unexcelled gift.”[iv]
I can stand here today and tell you that your giving – your offering to the church is a necessity for the life and ministry of this church. Without your sacrificial offering, the ministry and mission of the church would not be possible.
It’s true, that without the support of the faith community, this church could not open its doors on Monday mornings to provide a welcome space for the homeless and low-income neighbors who come to join in community over a cup of coffee and a breakfast table. We wouldn’t have the heat in the coming winter months or the air-conditioning in the summer months to provide a safe haven, even for those two hours a week, for those many of you have grown to know and call your friends.
Without your gifts, we couldn’t gather in this sanctuary to celebrate the love of God on Sunday mornings. We couldn’t gather at Christmas Eve to remember God’s light in the incarnate child; we couldn’t remember in community the witness of God’s love on the cross on Good Friday. Your offering makes these worship opportunities possible.
With no giving, we could not provide a safe environment for our children. We wouldn’t be able to provide the love and companionship our preschool teachers offer our 50 preschool students and their families. We wouldn’t even be able to dream about the opportunity to provide summer programs and Sunday School to help teach our children about God’s love for them, or to give our children and youth an opportunity to respond to God’s love in the community around us.
First Night and the Harvest of Hope Open House – opening up the building and the congregational life to be involved and engaged in the community – addressing issues like education and homelessness – these ways of being involved in the life of our community are but a glimmer of hope in God’s vision for this church if we don’t respond to God’s love in offering financial gifts.
These ministry opportunities, and many more, are possible only because of your depth of commitment to Christ in giving to the church. But, I don’t think your giving is primarily about the benefit of this church and its ministry. “They story of the widow’s offering suggests that faithful giving (and faithful living) is not for the sake of the recipient but rather for the sake of the life of the giver.”[v]
Our giving is not a necessity because of the need of the church; our giving is about offering a joyful response to God’s love. As Christ has called the disciples who followed him, so he calls on us – faithful living – a commitment to Christ – is not measured quantitatively – it’s not measured by the size of our gifts to God. Faithful living is measured qualitatively – it’s measured by the sacrifice we offer as response to God’s love, given to us in the ultimate sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, that we may have life, lived in joyful faithfulness. I find today’s text challenging because it calls for us to move beyond a mindset of giving for giving’s sake, to a more intentional mindset of sacrificial giving, like that of the widow.