Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Widow's Offering

Mark 12:38-44

It has often been said, if you really want to know what a man cares about, what he values most above all else, look at what he spends his time and money on. Jesus said something very similar, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our treasure is not merely our wealth, or our material possessions. No, it’s much more than that. It is the thing that we dedicate our life to, that which we count as our highest good, the thing that we value above all else. In a way our treasure is our god, it is what we worship. Worship is much more than external religious observance, much more than a discrete religious act performed perhaps once a week. No, it has to do with the orientation of the heart, and what we treasure.

In the older sense of the word, “worship” means to ascribe worth to someone or something. Some of you may be familiar with the marriage rite of the 1662 Prayer Book, “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” A couple exchanges rings in a wedding ceremony as a sign of solemn commitment to one another. One of the reasons that the rings are gold is as an expression of the great worth of the other person, and the costliness of the commitment.

It is a question worthy of serious consideration. What is it which I say I cherish most above all else? Is my professed love reflected in my life or do the ways in which I spend my time and money tell another story? To put it starkly, “What is the God that I worship? Am I among those to whom Isaiah prophesied, ‘These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me!’”

In our Gospel today we read, “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.” This is a curious verse. What was Jesus up to? Was he just engaging in a bit of ‘people watching?’ Is he the nosy sort that always needs to know other people’s business? When we go to the bank, we know it is only polite to stand behind the line while the person ahead of us makes his or her transaction. Our personal finances are a private manner and not for the indiscriminate gaze.

Jesus, however, is the one to whom all hearts are open. He is the one to whom we all must one day give account. He has a vested interest in knowing where our treasure is. Was he looking merely to disparage? No. he was also looking in order to commend those whose giving was real and genuine. 

So what was it that our Lord saw on that day? We are told that many rich people came and gave large sums of money. These are those who receive commendation from the world in the form of testimonials, commemorative plaques, and having memorials named after them, but Jesus singles none of these out for special mention. Instead, he gives glory to a poor widow, whose contribution was very small, perhaps the least of all. She was able to give only two copper coins the worth of a penny and yet he says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

This short story teaches us that it is not the size of our contribution that matters most to God, but the act of worship, of thanksgiving, of consecration. The world looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart and sees the intention.

Perhaps on this New Consecration Sunday you are thinking, “The church doesn’t need my small contribution. This is a wealthy community and many have much more to give than I do. The church won’t fall without my meager tithe.”

First of all, let me say, every little bit helps. The Church really does depend on your gifts to do its work and to provide for those who serve here, including myself! That however is really beside the point. Even if the Church had an unlimited supply of wealth—which trust me we don’t—giving of your substance would still be a spiritual imperative. Giving is about more than keeping the lights on.

In the Old Covenant, God commanded the people to consecrate a tenth of all their substance, or a tithe, as belonging to the Lord. To consecrate something means to set it aside for holy use. In the agrarian society of the ancient Hebrews, wealth was measured by the produce of the land. In the Book of Leviticus God commands, "'A tithe [or a tenth] of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” Jesus affirms the commandment of Leviticus while asking much more. We must be prepared to give not only our wealth, but also our obedience,

 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
If you are wondering what and how much to give, that is the Biblical guideline. Why does God ask this? First, to offer up our treasure to the Lord, in this case a tenth of everything, is an act of worship. It is an acknowledgment of the surpassing greatness and worthiness of the Lord. It, as we have been saying, is a demonstration with our lives of who it is that we really treasure.

Secondly, our giving is an act of thanksgiving. Does God really need our wealth? Not really.  Everything that exists belongs to the world, because he made it, and there is nothing we could give to him that he did not first give to us. He has given us all we have. He has held back nothing from us, even handing over his only begotten son to suffering and death. Jesus poured out his life’s blood for us; what will we offer to him?

When we consecrate a portion of our wealth to him, we are making it a thanksgiving sacrifice to him. It is God’s great generosity to us in providing us a way to give back to him for all he has done for us. It is like a father who gives his daughter some money so that she can express her love for him in buying him a birthday present. God has provided you with everything you have. Will you offer a portion of that in gratitude to him? 

Finally, to give is an act of faith. What made the widow’s gift so much more commendable than that of the many rich people who gave? They gave out of their surplus, but she gave out of her poverty. We should offer to God not what we have left over after we have seen to all our other needs and desires, but our first fruits. We need to make God our first and greatest priority. Giving should be sacrificial; it should cost us something.

I think this is really the most difficult thing about making a pledge of our wealth to God. If you are like me, you worry about your financial security. Will there be enough? What if unforeseen expenses come up and I can’t pay them? We naturally want to have a little security, but many of us are living check to check.

God asks us to take a step of faith. “Set aside a portion for my service and my honor and I will provide,” he promises us. Do you trust God enough to help you to meet your commitment? To those anxious about their financial security the prophet Malachi has these remarkable words, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”

Likewise, our Lord himself said, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?”
Who or what is it that you really trust? Where do you really look for security? Who is it that provided for you everything you have ever had? Who is it that really deserves your worship?

“ And Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”

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