“Summoning his disciples, he said to them ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had – all she had to live on.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever received a gift that was truly a generous one? There’s just something about that experience that feels good. You feel honored. You may be a little ashamed or embarrassed by the generosity, but your gratitude is enormous. You immediately rate the character of the giver as high. On the other hand, have you ever received a gift you knew was not in the least bit generous? The feelings then are almost the exact opposite. You may take whatever it is, but you’re really not very grateful for it at all. The other person just did it because he had to or somehow felt obligated to do it. That’s not a gift you’re ever going to be very happy receiving. Well, as much as you feel that way, God does even more. This odd little closing episode from Mark 12 gives us a really powerful picture of this truth. Let’s take a look.
Now, I call this an “odd little closing episode” not because the story itself is strange, but because its placement is. Jesus has been debating back and forth with the Jewish religious leaders and warning the people about their hypocrisy. Chapter 13 is all His warnings to the disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. We’ll talk more about that starting next week. And right in the middle of all of this is a story about Jesus sitting with the disciples watching people drop their temple offerings in the container. It’s a bit of a jarring interruption from the flow of the narrative. That being said, I think it is one Mark intentionally and wisely put in place right where it is.
This little story serves as a counterpoint to Jesus’ warnings about the religious duplicitousness of the scribes and Pharisees and chief priests and the rest. This woman encapsulates what it looks like to get right all of the things they were getting wrong. So, what actually happens here?
Sometime during His final week in Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples were just sitting along the side of the temple courtyard taking in the scene. He wasn’t doing any teaching. He wasn’t trying to provoke any conflicts. He was just there. Perhaps this happened in the sequence Mark presents it, but probably not. And I know that doesn’t fit with how we think historical narratives should flow today, but it was fully consistent with the expectations of the time when it was written. This event certainly happened during this week, but Mark puts it here for the purposes of making the point.
In any event, while they were sitting there just watching, they could see the offering box where worshipers would drop in their contributions. The box would have been one of several scattered about the Court of Women. This was not the outermost courtyard of the temple complex (that was the Court of Gentiles where anyone could enter), but it was as far as women could come. (By the way, part of the church’s great attraction in the first century was its openness to the full participation and involvement of women. The Court of Women inherently implied that women couldn’t get as close to God as men could. The church sent no such messages.) The boxes would have been fairly large and were often capped with metal funnels to make sure all the money made it into the box. These metal funnels would have amplified the sound of coins being dropped into the offering boxes. The corrupt temple culture celebrated and rewarded ostentatious displays of wealth. Rich people would come in and make a show of pouring large amounts of coinage into the offerings boxes. This was a drop in the bucket for them, but it made for a grand scene. Onlookers would likely pause in awe and wonder at the incredible generosity of these wealthy men. There were perhaps small celebrations, cheering, and applause at the sound.
Then, in the middle of all this commotion, a poor, old woman quietly made her way to the offering box. If anyone even noticed her, they would have looked on her with scorn. She probably shouldn’t even be in the temple. In her state, she had to be unclean. Hopefully she would just go when she finished her business rather than lingering and further corrupting this holy place. With a quick prayer, she reached up and dropped two little coins in the funnel. Together they barely even made a clink. There may have even been a bit of laughter or ridicule at the worthless size of her gift in comparison with what the people before and after her were giving. Those two mites wouldn’t accomplish anything of worth to God. Then she shuffled quietly away and disappeared to history.
She would have been completely overlooked and forgotten except for one thing: Jesus was watching. When she quietly walked up to the box, Jesus sat up. The disciples, always alert to the movements of their master, would have straightened up a bit as well. They were no doubt curious at what had attracted His attention. They looked and saw the woman, but ignored her as they searched for what it really was.
Then He spoke. “This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.” The disciples’ first thought had to be, “No, she hasn’t.” They had been listening to the loud clanking of the enormous offerings of the people who came before her. They couldn’t even hear what she had dropped in from where they were sitting. As a matter of factual accuracy, she hadn’t given nearly what the others had. It wasn’t even close. But Jesus wasn’t talking about the size of the gift. He was talking about the size of the sacrifice.
You see, God doesn’t evaluate the worth and size of our gifts the way we do. I heard about a pastor one time who was presented an extraordinarily large check from a member for the church budget. Like, six figures large. But this member was engaged in an ongoing affair with a woman who was not his wife. The man expected the pastor to get off his back about the affair in light of the size of this gift. The pastor tore up the check in front of him. We look at the number of digits a financial gift entails and judge it on that basis alone. More money accomplishes more ministry, so the bigger the gift, the better it is; the more significant it must be to God.
For God’s part, though, the size of the gift doesn’t matter nearly as much as the heart behind it. The simple reason for this is that God isn’t trying to get our stuff. He’s trying to get our hearts. God already owns all the stuff. Giving Him back a whole lot of what is already His doesn’t do anything for Him. It doesn’t do anything for us either. In fact, it doesn’t really accomplish anything at all. Oh sure, the money can be used to accomplish ministry somewhere and someone will benefit from it. But in terms of its immediate impact in moving you to God, there’s nothing. He doesn’t even pay attention to the sound of the coins falling into the box. Big gifts with no heart may look impressive to us, but they are meaningless to Him.
But when you give your heart, He’s all in. He sits up. He takes notice. He’s ready to roll with you to places you haven’t even imagined you might go. God wants your heart. When you give that, He throws a party. Now, giving your heart is a more delicate matter than giving money. Giving money is easy. Making a sacrifice is not. But it is in the sacrifice that the heart is found. Our hearts get all wrapped around the things we value most. When we are willing to part with them in order to see our hearts get wrapped more fully around the God who gave them to us in the first place, our gift counts. Then we are letting God into the places He longs to go.
The trick here is to find our place of scarcity and give from there. For this widow, it really was her money. She had next to nothing and she gave that to God. The great likelihood is that the money would be totally wasted by a class of priests who didn’t care about her or her money or the God to whom she knew she was giving them. But none of that mattered in that moment. That doesn’t mean we should not give thought to making sure our giving is wise. Throwing money away as an act of sacrifice is not by itself noble or righteous. But when our gift is sincere and sincerely given, what happens to it after it leaves our hand doesn’t need to be quite the same concern as it might otherwise need to be. But for you, your place of scarcity may not have anything to do with money. That doesn’t excuse you from giving your money because our heart has a tendency to get wrapped around that even when we don’t realize it and ministry takes money. Take some time, though, to find your place of scarcity. What are the things to which you hold tightly because you’re honestly not sure whether you’d make it without them? Those are the things around which your heart is wrapped the tightest. When you give from that place, you will find the gifts accomplishing a great deal more than ones coming from anywhere else. Whatever it takes to give your heart to God, that is the gift worth giving. Take a page from this poor widow’s playbook. It’ll cost you everything, but you’ll gain even more.