Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 27)

Text: Mark 12:43-44
Jesus said, "I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others.  For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had—she gave all she had to live on."

Giving all

The story is told about an old man who came to the back door of a house some university kids were renting. The old man's eyes were glassy and his furrowed face glistened with silver stubble. He clutched a basket holding a few unappealing vegetables. He bid the students a good morning and offered his produce for sale. They were uneasy. They made a quick purchase out of pity for the old man and also out of fear for what else he might ask or do.

To their annoyance, he returned the next week, introducing himself as Mr. Roth, the man who lived in the shack down the road. As their fears subsided, they got close enough to realize it wasn't alcohol but cataracts that made his eyes look like marble. On subsequent visits, he would shuffle in, wearing two mismatched right shoes, and pull out a harmonica. With glazed eyes set on the future glory of heaven, he'd puff out old gospel tunes between conversations about vegetables and religion.

On one visit, he exclaimed, "The Lord is so good! I came out of my shack this morning and found a bag full of shoes and clothing on my porch."

"That's wonderful, Mr. Roth!" the students said, "We're happy for you."

"You know what's even more wonderful?" he asked. "Just yesterday I met some people that could use them."

There are some remarkable stories about generous people and today’s gospel reading is one of them. Jesus is in Jerusalem. The events of Palm Sunday have just occurred. The cross is only a matter of a few days away. He visits the temple and observes the rich people dropping their large amounts of money into the offering boxes. In a time when there was no paper money or credit cards, you can imagine the clatter as those rich people emptied their bags of coins into the containers for the temple offering. In fact, I can imagine that they deliberately made as much noise as possible so that everyone would be impressed at how much they were giving. At the beginning of the Gospel reading this morning Jesus has harsh words for those who try to make a good impression but are really fakes.

In amongst all of this, there was a widow. She was the poorest of the poor. It would have been easy to overlook her in amongst that crowd of prominent people who were parading their generosity.

Everyone else might have considered this woman insignificant but not Jesus. He sees this widow throw into the offering box the two smallest copper coins in circulation at the time. We are told her offering was worth about a cent. A cent! We don’t even have cent coins these days – they have so little value! A pitiful amount compared to what others around her were giving.

Those 2 coins wouldn’t have helped the Temple Treasury much. If she’d put nothing in no one would have been hurt by the absence of her contribution. At least she surely had the right to keep at least one coin for herself and give the other to the Temple. No one expects you to be so stupid that you leave yourself with nothing! A Christian has to be a good steward; has to use common sense. If you give away everything then you deserve to be poor. This woman gives - not just a part, not just a big part, but she gives all. And that’s the point of this little scenario - Jesus expects us to be givers, and he expects us to give all.

Jesus makes this observation, ‘She, poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on’ (Mark 12:44). You might say that she is quite reckless, even extravagant, in her giving. When she files passed the offering box, she slips in everything she has, every penny of it. Her love of God is excessive, extravagant, lavish, generous. Jesus says her small coins represent more love and more understanding of God than all of the thousands of coins given by the rich.

He sees the underlying motive behind her action. He sees what makes this somewhat insignificant person, someone far more important than all the others who were giving bags of money. He says: "I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others."

You see, Jesus has been teaching his disciples as well as the Scribes and the Pharisees about the two great commandments:
Love the Lord you God with ALL your heart, with ALL your soul, and with ALL your mind and with ALL your strength,
and love your neighbour as yourself.
And very soon Jesus is going to show them what this really means when he gives his life for the world.

When it comes to being a giving-person, no matter how hard we try and twist the Bible’s teachings, no matter how cleverly we might argue, we have to face the fact that God demands nothing less than all. In the same way he demands our love, so also he demands our giving, because love and giving belong together.
Two great commandments:
Give yourself totally to God - heart, soul, mind and strength
and give yourself totally to your neighbour - heart, soul, mind and strength.

You see, what God expects of us is nothing less than our whole selves. We can’t be givers, not really, until we’re prepared to say, "Lord, I’m yours. Every part of me is yours. My life, what I am, what I do, what I receive – all of it belongs to you."

You know what happens when we don’t recognise that our whole life belongs to the One who made us, then saved us, and then gave us the Holy Spirit – giving becomes a chore. We resent giving our money, time, talents, our energy supporting the church’s work. We don’t see that our total self belongs to God and that these things are a part of giving all to God.

If you want to think about it in terms of money, some people say that we should follow the Old Testament principle of tithing. That means a tenth of all that I have received I give to God. That’s fair enough, but when you think of it, how dare we look at what we have received and say, "Here, God, one tenth is for you. Nine tenths is mine, but the rest is yours!" God doesn’t demand one tenth – he demands all. What we give belongs to God and what is left in our pockets belongs to him too.

I think that all of us recognise that God has been extravagantly generous toward each of us in one way or another. If we took the time to write down everything that God has given us and continues to give us on a daily basis, we would have no trouble filling quite a number of pages.

On the other hand, how many pages would we fill if we listed what we are giving to others, to life, to God? I’m not just talking about money or what we put on the offering plate – it includes that, but not just that. It also means in day to day things - in the problem areas which confront us each day, in our relationships, in the work-place, in our family – what difference would it make if we were more generous in our giving than we are?

Let’s take a couple of examples. Take a marriage. Each complains about the other. He doesn’t help with the kids. She’s always out. He’s too busy to spend time with me. She doesn’t take an interest in what I do. Each one criticises the other for not giving enough but neither asks the question "What am I giving?"

Or take the person who says, "No one is interested in me. The people at church stand around and talk in groups but no one notices me". It’s easy to focus on how others fail to give and never ask the question, "What am I giving?"

Or take the church member who says, "This church is really dull. It does nothing for me. I don’t get anything out of it". Sometimes those criticisms may be justified, but before passing judgement too quickly do we ever ask, "What am I giving? What am I putting in?"

We also need to be aware that we often give with the expectation that we would receive as much or even more back. That kind of thing hardly falls under the heading of ‘giving’ but rather ‘bartering’ – ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that’.

A part of our sinful nature is that we prefer to be ‘getters’ and ‘receivers’ than ‘givers’. And it is a part of our sinful nature to blame others when we don’t ‘get’ and that others aren’t ‘givers’ to the extent that we think they ought to be and give little thought about what kind of ‘givers’ we are.

What are we going to do about this?

Firstly let’s remember that our God is a giving God. The selfless and generous giving of the widow in the temple is a prelude to the self-giving of Jesus. He lays down his life, extravagantly, sacrificially, generously. Jesus gives everything as a ransom for all people. The story of the insignificant widow offering so much is part of Mark’s explanation of who Jesus is. The widow gave so extravagantly because of her love for God. Jesus gave his life so generously because of his love for us.

Secondly, the story of the widow in the temple is a call to complete dedication and commitment to God in an extravagant and selfless manner. That’s where the challenge is for us - to be extravagant with our love, to be excessive in our kindness, to be extreme in our trust, to be generous in offering to God of our time and money.

Not for one minute will I pretend that this kind of sacrifice is an easy thing. Too often our giving to the Lord is very much a token thing. We don't have the faith or the love to take the risk, to take God at his Word, to trust his promises, to give ourselves totally to Christ and the Christian life, to step up, step out of our comfort zone and offer ourselves to change what is happening in our church or in our community. It is much easier to expect others to give to us than for us to be givers to others. Too often all we are prepared to give is our criticism and we do that quite freely.

If you struggle with this whole idea of becoming like the widow in our text, you are not alone. For this Christ died. He hung on the cross to free us from our ‘me-first’ attitude, our pride, our greed, our selfishness, our don’t-careless-attitude and through his generosity made us his own and gave us a fresh start.
He wants us to ask him to make us what he wants us to be.
He wants to fill our lives with the same kind of extravagant generosity through the power of the Holy Spirit that he has shown to us through Jesus.

Let the gift of God's total and complete love for you fill you and overflow into every aspect of your life and begin to be what God intended you to be – like Christ, a giver.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
12th November, 2006

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