Digging in Deeper: Mark 12:43-44

“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 had a perspective shift? Sometimes we get used to seeing things in one way, and never stop to think that there might be another way to look at them. Seeing things another way can bring a whole new world of understanding. Jesus and the disciples were observing a scene that everyone around them was accustomed to seeing in one way. He invited them to see things in a whole new light. Along the way, He gave us a new way to think about some things as well. Let’s talk about it.

A few years ago, one of the wealthiest men in the world – Warren Buffett – publicly pledged to give away 99% of his stock holdings of his company, Berkshire Hathaway. Not long after, Bill Gates, who could once claim to be the wealthiest man in the world, pledged to give away a huge portion of his fortune as well. In addition to that, they began a campaign of actively encouraging other super wealthy individuals to make a similar pledge to give away 50% of their vast estates to charitable causes.

These announcements were greeted with great oohs and aahs from the world. But the truth is that this amount of giving wasn’t going to hurt these men at all. In fact, they could all pledge to give these incredible sums of money and still be among the wealthiest people in the world. It wasn’t going to impede their lifestyles in any meaningful way. Their gifts didn’t represent much in the way of a meaningful sacrifice for them. And, although, there were some cynical observers who noted all this, most folks simply marveled at how much they were going to give.

Of course, as followers of Jesus, some of this giving is not what we can support at all. Given that many of these individuals are socially very liberal and claim no connection to the Christian faith, they are giving to support various causes we deeply oppose like abortion or various social causes we must reject. All giving is not the same in its impact or its intent. That being said, all of this giving isn’t doing nothing, and much of it is accomplishing good things. Yet because big gifts like this can accomplish what appears to be great good, we tend to think this type of giving matters more than anything else. This snapshot from Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, though, suggests that may not be the case.

During His final week before His crucifixion, Jesus and the disciples spent a lot of time in and around the temple complex in Jerusalem. He did a fair bit of teaching during the week as well as debating with the various Jewish religious leaders who were fairly desperate to trap Him in some verbal faux pas they could use to discredit Him. On a few occasions, though (and, given His incredibly high profile, I’m not sure how He managed to do this), the group simply sat and took in the scenery.

On one particular occasion, Jesus was sitting there watching people bringing their offerings into the temple. The temple collection boxes featured big, metal trumpet-shaped openings where worshipers could deposit their gifts and offerings. The coins they used (since there wasn’t such a thing as paper money) clanged down into the boxes noisily. It drew attention to the act of giving. Bigger gifts made more noise and attracted even more attention. People would celebrate as wealthy members of the community gave large offerings that would be used to enrich the priests who controlled the treasury…I mean further the purposes of God among His people.

As Jesus was taking all of this in, His sharp eyes picked up on something everyone else completely overlooked. After a group of ostentatiously wealthy patrons made their stops by the offering boxes, a clearly impoverished woman, bent with age, quietly shuffled up to the boxes, looked around for a moment as if to make sure no one was watching, and dropped in two small coins. After all the fanfare of the previous givers, her two coins hardly made a sound. Certainly no one celebrated when she put them in. Anyone who did happen to notice may have quietly (or not so quietly) scoffed to themselves at the insignificance of such a gift. Exactly how much good was going to be accomplished in the world because of her gift of what amounted to about half a cent?

The answer to that question is easy: none. Nothing. Not a single bit of good. That tiny amount of money would make absolutely no difference to anyone. It wasn’t enough to buy anything. Why did she even bother? I suspect God was actually offended by such a meaningless gesture. She would have been better off just keeping that for herself. She certainly needed it more than the temple did. The gifts of the guys who came before and would yet come after her would more than make up for the loss of her two mites.

Yet none of this reflected what Jesus thought when He saw it. The disciples were nearby, but mostly just milling about, minding their own business, when suddenly Jesus spoke. “Hey guys! Come here for a minute. You’ve got to see this. I’ve just seen one of the most incredible displays of faithfulness I’ve ever witnessed.” Surely some of the group assumed He was talking about one of the large gifts that had just been given. That was not, however, what Jesus had in mind. “Look at that little, old woman quietly shuffling away from the offering boxes. Did you see what she did? She just gave more than all the rest of those noisy givers before her contributed together.”

One of the group – perhaps Judas – may have openly chortled a bit at this declaration. After all, they weren’t stupid. They may not have been able to get an exact count on the size of the gifts, but they all knew that what Jesus said wasn’t the case. It couldn’t have been. If her gift was really larger than all the rest combined, it would have still been clanging its way into the box. Those other guys’ gifts were enormous. The thing is, though, that wasn’t what Jesus was looking at.

What Jesus was trying to do was to shift the disciples’ perspective. They had been accustomed to looking at giving to God through a single set of lenses. Those were the same lenses we often use today. Through these lenses, the size of the gift is what matters most. And, Jesus aside for the moment, this understanding makes sense. If you had to pick, you would rather have someone give you $1,000 than $1. My congregation is exploring whether or not and how we are going to make some upgrades to our facilities in the near future. If someone decides to give money directly to that effort, I would prefer them to give $100,000 instead of $1,000 if I have the choice. Bigger gifts can accomplish more good. A food pantry can feed more people with a $50,000 check than a $5 bill. Habitat for Humanity can build more houses with a million dollar mega gift than $100 donation. Bigger gifts are better gifts. We can see that. We can experience that. We know that.

But God doesn’t.

God has all the resources in the world. Literally. There is no limit to what He has at His disposal. If the God who spoke creation itself into existence had need of something (He doesn’t actually have needs, but just for the sake of argument), He could just make it. What we give to Him in terms of the amount is of truly no consequence to Him. Our giving, in that sense, isn’t really for Him at all. When Jesus fed the crowd of 5,000 men, He didn’t do it with some army-sized contribution of provisions. He took what would have barely fed a family lunch and multiplied it miraculously until it was far more than enough.

If the dollar amount of our giving doesn’t matter to God, though, then what does? How does He evaluate our giving? His evaluation uses an entirely different metric than ours does. He doesn’t consider the amount of the gift, but the amount of the sacrifice. Our giving to God is a reflection of our trust in Him. It is a reflection of whether we trust more in Him or in our stuff to provide for our daily needs. Someone who is very wealthy and who writes charitable checks with lots of zeros on them doesn’t have to exercise any trust in the Lord in order to do that. As Warren Buffett acknowledges (here in a statement that, while not terribly theologically rich, is at least refreshingly honest), after he gives away 99% of his stock holdings, he will still be an incredibly wealthy man. On the other hand, for someone who does not have nearly so many resources at their disposal a generous gift may very well mean their having to go without in other areas of their life for a time.

What so captured Jesus’ attention and praise in this scene was not the size of the woman’s gift. It was small indeed. Rather, He was captivated by the size of her sacrifice. As He put it: “…she out of her poverty has put in everything she had – all she had to live on.” This woman had to make a choice when she considered the offering she was going to bring to the temple that day. She could use it to buy bread to eat, or she could give it to the Lord, trusting that He was going to provide her the bread she needed. She gave the money to God from out of her deep trust in Him. And we are still telling her story 2,000 years later.

If you want to be good at being rich, this is a principle you need to understand now. The size of the gift you give matters not at all to God. The size of the sacrifice, however, matters the world to Him. A greater sacrifice is a reflection of a deeper trust. And, that trust is something you can begin to exercise and grow and develop now. When you consider your giving, work to reach the point that you are giving sacrificially. Don’t worry about the amount. Examine your finances and determine what for you would be a meaningful sacrifice. Start your discipline of sacrificial generosity there. Get into the habit of trusting more in the God who gives the stuff than the stuff itself. Then, should you find yourself one day managing a whole lot of it, you’ll be able to just keep right on trusting more in the God who has given it. And you’ll give accordingly. Big gifts definitely accomplish more good than small ones in the short term, but in the long run, small gifts that are nonetheless great sacrifices matter most.

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