"Poor Widow, Rich Witness"

Jan.29, 2006 Mk.12:38013:2

Whose Is It, After All?

Whenever we start talking about giving or stewardship, the less-spiritual side of us (unless we're careful) usually comes at it from the wrong way 'round. We ask, "How much of MY money should I give / do I have to part with?" By contrast, the Spirit of Jesus starts from a very different viewpoint - that of total reliance upon God. J.Oswald Sanders observes, "The basic question is not how much of OUR money we should give to God, but how much of GOD'S money we should keep for ourselves."

Our fallen selves come at it from a selfish angle, focussed on MY needs, MY wants; we're born with an attitude of entitlement, that we deserve the best. We forget we have no legitimate claim on anything in the created order, as if we're 'owed' a living. There was once a Stoic philosopher named Epictetus; note, he wasn't a Christian, but he stated: "Never say about anything, 'I have lost it', but only 'I have given it back'. Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead? She has been given back. 'I have had my farm taken away.' Very well, this too has been given back. Yet it was a rascal who took it away. But what concern is it of yours by whose instrumentality the Giver called for its return? So long as He gives it to you, take care of it as of a thing that is not your own, as travellers treat their inn." (Encheiridion 11) Pretty astute fellow! Turning to the Bible, Ecclesiastes expresses a similar thought: "Naked a man comes from his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labour that he can carry in his hand." (Ec 5:15) Or as Paul puts it, "For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it." (1Ti 6:7)

Let's look at some pitfalls that can trap us when we try to estimate what's of real value, and what instead impresses Jesus the most.

Three Counterfeits

A news headline this week noted a bank was warning the public to watch out for counterfeit $5 bills (they just don't measure up - they're an eighth of an inch shorter). In our text from Mark, we encounter three kinds of counterfeit value that also just don't measure up - prestige, wealth, and power (or if you prefer - flash, cash, & smash!).

Prestige or status is personified in the teachers of the law or scribes, who were the public teachers of the people. Jesus tells the crowd to "watch out" for them - they "like to walk around in flowing robes..." Their long white linen robes reached almost to the ground, and were very conspicuous with their fringes and tassels. After all, if you're a full-time religious professional, might as well look the part, right? Jesus notes they like to "be greeted in the marketplaces"(12:38). They were experts at 'Keeping Up Appearances': commentator McKenna notes they "took full advantage of their dress by planned excursions through the streets and the marketplace just to see the rabble stand and hear them say, 'Good morning, Master.' The same robe gave them the first place of honour at the banquet table and special seats in the synagogue where they sat on a bench [in front of the ark that held the sacred scrolls] facing the congregation so that they could be seen by all the people." (I guess that was before they had choir lofts!)

The religious lawyers liked to stand out on account of their dress, their processions, their preferred seating placements. Yet they were despised by the common people because they abused their privilege. Jesus says "they devour widows' houses..." (12:40) Scribes served as consultants in estate planning for widows. Some took advantage of this to convince lonely and susceptible women that their money and property should either be given to the scribe for his holy work or to the Temple for its holy ministries. Either way, he won: in the latter case, he determined the share that could be taken as his 'consulting fee'. This could all too easily become a religious con game. Additionally, Jesus declares that "for a show [they] make lengthy prayers." But their hypocrisy and mixed motives for public religious displays became all too evident to passersby.

There are still such counterfeits today, bent on prestige and show. David McKenna writes, "I personally share Jesus' rage against a sentimental show of spirituality to get money and property from lonely women and widows. My mother, left alone by divorce and stricken with leukemia, watched faith-healers on television in futile hope. On one of my last visits to her, I found the literature and plastic charm of a faith-healer whom I knew to be a fraud. When I asked my mother about it, she told me that she had sent in a $10 contribution for the material. I bit my tongue because I could not take the slightest hope away from my mother, but I left in anger. My mother had great faith in God. Yet, she had succumbed to the wiles of a religious showman and given money for his support. I could only think about the millions of sick and lonely women and widows whose houses were being devoured by spiritual pretense."

Wealth is a second counterfeit Jesus is not impressed by. V41 says "Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts." In the court of the women were located 13 trumpet-shaped chests to receive peoples' offerings - 9 for money, 4 for other types including burnt offerings. These receptacles were shaped in such a way as to make a 'ping' as the coin deflected off it, so to dump in a bag of coins would 'sound the trumpet' so to speak. But Jesus wasn't applauding the heavyweight givers; perhaps he was using his spiritual X-ray vision to examine their hearts and motives. Later in v44 He comments, "they all gave out of their wealth..." - their excess, their abundance or overflow. They could afford their large donations without too much sweat or crimping their lifestyle. So, wealth itself didn't impress Jesus. It too is a counterfeit for what's of real worth.

Third, power is a counterfeit. At the beginning of chapter 13(1) as they're leaving the temple, one of Jesus' disciples exclaims to Him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" This is Herod's temple he's talking about, acknowledged to be an architectural 'wonder of the world'. Its construction began in 20 BC and continued until AD 64 - some 84 years. Its size was mammoth. Some of the stones measured 37' x 12' x 18'. Now that's some hunk of rock! Smaller remnants today make up the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Such big stones weighed 100 tons. Wow - 100 pounds seems heavy to me! Who can imagine trying to move 100 tons? That takes power. Herod organized a substantial work crew of 10,000 slaves, and 1,000 wagons. The finished product became a world-class tourist attraction; foreign dignitaries came to admire the beauty of gold-topped shining white marble, and offer sacrifice.

But again, Jesus is not impressed. He wasn't wowed by political power. Perhaps partly because Herod built the temple not so much to honour God as to mollify the Jews, who resented his grabbing power with the assistance of the Roman conquerors. In many respects, his hands were tied - somewhat like forming a minority government! Jesus replies with a startling prediction, ""Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."" (Mk 13:2) That must have seemed impossible at the time. Yet in AD70 - just 7 years after the temple was completed - when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, the whole temple was levelled. The power of God's word proved superior to the power of political might. The devastation associated with the siege by Titus was atrocious: historian Josephus counts over one million inhabitants of the city who died by crucifixion, sword, or famine. Starving people resorted to becoming murderers, animals, and cannibals in order to survive. The power and glory of Herod's Jerusalem which so impressed that disciple evaporated completely.

If these things are counterfeit - prestige, wealth, and power - what's 'really real'? What truly lasts? What's more rock-sure than even a wonder of the world made of 100-ton stones? Jesus said a few verses later, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Mr 13:31) God's truth remains. If we want to discover what's really valuable in life, what truly endures, we need to listen to Him. Clothes, cash, human strength - they all come to naught. He alone can teach us what's truly valuable, worth holding on to.

More than Her Two Cents' Worth

It seems as though Jesus had maybe moved to the treasury area waiting for someone special to show up. After Jesus was born, aged Simeon had similarly moved to the temple courts under the Holy Spirit's guidance to await the appearance of the Messiah - so had 'bumped into' Jesus with Joseph and Mary (Lk 2:25ff). Is there a 'divine appointment' Jesus is watching for?

Aha - there she is! He sees her now, a single frail widow wrapped in dark dress. She waits till none of the impressive-looking rich folks are standing nearby the trumpet chests, then quickly and unobtrusively puts in something almost undetectable, and moves swiftly back in to mingle with the crowd. She's not one to make a scene, by any stretch. But Jesus saw her and points her out to the disciples. Though he'd been tired out by His debates with the religious leaders, suddenly He's energized again, excitedly calling His disciples to Him. "Did you see that? Did you catch what that lady did?"

One of the disciples with fairly good hearing must have heard the little 'ping, ping' that rang faintly when she dropped in her offering. "Master, she just put in two very small copper coins!" Mark notes that they're worth about a fourth of a penny; the word alludes to metal being "peeled" as to make a thin sliver.

Speaking of fourths - did you hear about the parishioner who one day after a sermon on tithing said apologetically at the door, "I just don't see how I can give as much as a tenth, pastor. Would it be all right if I just gave a fourth?" (!)

Fourths or tenths or other fractions aren't really on Jesus' mind, though. To Him, the widow's 'mites' represent far more. Pointing to the affluent with their now-empty offering-bags, He says, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything-- all she had to live on." (Mr 12:44) See why He's excited? SHE caught on - we're to offer our whole selves to God. She had a truly faithful, trusting, totally reliant attitude, leaving it entirely in God's hands whether or not she got her next meal. HER offering was very sacrificial in a way the others weren't. Perhaps Jesus saw her gift as mirroring His soon-to-be-offered sacrifice of Himself on the cross. She shared that same spirit of total abandon to God's purposes that He did.

This does not compare with the state of widows today in a well-off Canadian welfare state. Back in those days, in an impoverished agricultural patriarchal society, widows were often destitute, very dependent upon simple charity. Yet, to put it bluntly, God mattered more to her than her gut. She valued her faith more than food. Like Jesus, she knew that giving is to be measured: not by its count, but its cost; not by its amount, but its portion; not by what is given, but what is kept; not by money, but by spirit. She didn't give out of her 'excess' - her 'left-overs' - but out of her essentials. She loved God enough to 'do without' in even the most fundamental areas of survival. She put in all her 'bios', her live or living; that's how she managed to put more in than all the others.

We see that same confidence in the missionaries - Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, and others - who gave their lives 50 years ago so one remote primitive tribe might hear the Good News that would not only introduce them to Jesus but reduce their homicide rate by 90%. We see this sacrificial spirit in the wives and children who took up the torch and carried on the work after the men were slaughtered. We see it in Steve Saint, who wrestled with God after his only daughter Stephanie died suddenly of a massive brain haemorrhage, yet came to the point of accepting it was part of God's plan, in one sense giving him a glimpse of the pain in God's heart that moved the Father to send His only Son that separated children in the human race might become sons and daughters in eternity, along with Jesus the Firstborn.

Don't let yourself be fooled by this life's counterfeits. Like the massive stones in the temple, they don't last. Jesus is searching for, is impressed by faith and dedication and commitment like that of the poor widow. She's such a beautiful picture of Jesus' total devotion to us and the Father's plan. He "made Himself nothing", emptying Himself, taking the form of a servant, so we might be saved (Php 2:7). Through His poverty, we were made rich (2Cor 8:9). At Church Council this past week, reviewing characteristics of the early church, it really stood out that "All the believers were one in heart and mind.No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had." (Ac 4:32) Again, they were willing to make sacrifices out of love for God and His people.

Grow a Church on 19 Cents

In a little town on the rocky coast of northern Chile, Lyle Eggleston served as a missionary for many years. In time, the congregation grew to about 80 adults, but Eggleston was concerned that the Christians in that area didn't seem able to support their own national pastor. The people were very poor, and the church's offerings amounted to no more than $6 a month.

One day, Eggleston brought the problem to the Lord during a definite time of prayer. A few weeks later he stopped to visit a middle-aged couple, new converts who had begun the habit of reading their Bibles every day. Manuel asked, "What does the word 'tithing' mean? We ran into that in our reading, and we don't understand it." Eggleston didn't really want to answer the question, for he knew that Manuel and his wife were unemployed and on the verge of destitution. They were somehow managing to feed themselves and their 25 hens on the income from the eggs laid each day. Nevertheless they insisted he explain the concept of tithing to them, so he turned to 1Cor 16 and 2Cor 8-9 where Paul urged believers to lay aside each week a portion of their income to the Lord.

The following Sunday Manuel handed Lyle an envelope and, smiling, said, "That's our tithe!" Inside were a few bills amounting to about 19 cents.

The next Sunday afternoon, the couple flagged down Lyle as he rode his bicycle past their house. They had some exciting news. The Tuesday morning after they had given their tithe, there wasn't a bite for breakfast, nor any money. Their first impulse was to take the few pesos that had accumulated in their "tithe box", but on second thought they said, "No, that's God's money.We will go without breakfast this morning." There was nothing to do but tend the hens. Much to their surprise, there were eggs in the nests that had usually at that hour been empty. Later in the day, a little man came along with a pushcart wanting fertilizer. They cleaned out their hen house, and the manure brought a good price. After buying groceries, there was enough money left over for the wife to purchase a pair of shoes, so she rode the bus 12 km around the bay into a larger town. There she bumped into a nephew she hadn't seen in 5 years, and who, to her utter surprise, owned a shoe store. After she had found just the pair she wanted, he wrapped them for her and handed her the package with these words, "Oh no, Aunt, I can't take your money.These shoes are a gift from me."

The following week, Manuel got a job on a project that would last for two years, and soon the little couple was tithing on a much larger salary. Word got around the church, and others began experimenting with giving. Soon the church's income began to rise dramatically, and they were able to pay their own rent and utility bills, support a national pastor who was working with natives, and in a short time, they were able to call and finance a pastor of their own.

Lyle Eggleston and his wife were able to move to a new location and start a new work as the little church grew in numbers, size, property, and faith. Lyle later put it this way: "We had offered up a bit of prayer and 19 cents, and God did the rest." Seems worth a try, doesn't it? Let's imitate the rich witness of a poor widow that impressed the Lord; and while we're at it, let's pray!