Riches From Rags

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Apparently Bill Gates, the man behind Microsoft, has just donated $750 million to world healthcare research, which is most commendable. It is a large amount. But then he can afford it! That donation is less than 10% of what he is said to be worth financially.

Here in Mark 12 the rich also gave large amounts. Jesus does not deny that. He saw them put large amounts into the temple treasury (v.41). But they could have given much more. "They all", like Bill Gates, "gave out of their wealth", says Jesus. In contrast Jesus also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. It was a very small amount. But Jesus said that she "put more into the treasury than all the others", and gave more than Bill Gates, "because she, out of her poverty, put in all she had to live on". (v.44)

Now it's natural to assume that large gifts are of more value to God than small ones - after all more can be done with them. And God's work does need large gifts. Perhaps some of us assume that. Maybe some of us, out of our wealth, are giving large amounts and feel that we're doing well. Perhaps others of us can only give small amounts and feel that our bit doesn't really matter and maybe others of us are tempted not to give at all because we don't think our two copper coins will make a difference or be valued by God.

I know I was tempted to think like that when I was a student here in Newcastle. But as we see here with the poor widow it's not the amount that we give that's important to God but the proportion that we give. 1 Corinthians 16:2 states that we "should set aside a sum of money in keeping with our income". As it says at the bottom of your sermon notes, Jesus measures giving, not by what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves. What proportion do we give to God's work? How much do we keep for ourselves? Jesus still sees what is given and knows how much is left behind or left over.

Well let's now look at the passage in more detail under those two phrases: Jesus sees what is given and Jesus knows how much is left behind.

First, JESUS SEES WHAT IS GIVEN

Look at vv.41-42:

"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. But a poor widow came and put in two very small coins, worth only a fraction of a penny".

In the court of the women in the Temple was a section called the temple treasury, where there were thirteen trumpet shaped collection boxes, each with an inscription saying to what use these gifts would be put. People would come and put their offering into one or more of the boxes. Here Jesus watched the crowd putting their money into the boxes. He saw many rich people throw in large amounts. Some probably gave generously.

But Jesus also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Now widows in Jesus' day often found life very difficult as there were limited opportunities for them to earn money and a poor widow would therefore have been one of the poorest people in first century Judea. Her gift of two small copper coins was of two lepta. These were the smallest coins in both size and value. They were worth about 1/100th of a denarius, or five minutes labour at the minimum wage! Her gift was also the minimum offering allowed.

So on the surface her gift was very minimal indeed. Yet Jesus goes on to say in v.43 that she put more into the treasury than all the others and the original text says that she put more into the treasury than all the others put together.

We'll come back to why in a moment. But first, what else do we notice from these verses? Well we notice that Jesus saw the poor widow and what she gave even though she and her gift may have gone unnoticed or been under appreciated by others. Certainly there was no great outward show as there was with the proud and hypocritical scribes in the previous verses. It is right that our giving is unseen (cf Matthew 6:1-4). But Jesus sees. The sacrificially given small amount is more valuable in his sight than the easier though larger contribution.

The great Reformer John Calvin noted from these verses that those who have little worldly wealth are encouraged by Jesus to give cheerfully out of their slender means and that those gifts will be valuable. While those who have greater wealth are reminded that it is not enough to merely contribute an easy larger sum which is of less value in the sight of God. And we should also recognise from these verses that Christ looks at what a person is and not at what they have.

So now back to why Jesus said that this poor widow put more into the treasury than all the others put together. Which brings us to my second heading:

Secondly, JESUS KNOWS HOW MUCH IS LEFT BEHIND

Jesus measures giving, not by what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves. Jesus knows what is left over. Jesus knows what is not given. Look at vv. 43-44:

"Calling his disciples to him. Jesus said, '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'."

The poor widow's offering was not only a valuable gift in the sight of God but also the greater gift. The two small copper coins were riches from rags. So Jesus is saying here that the monetary value of a gift is not everything. What matters to him is not the amount that we give but the amount that we keep for ourselves. And using that measure the poor widow's giving outdistanced all the others put together. The rich gave out of their abundance and therefore had much left over. Theirs was but a contribution, whereas the poor widow gave all she had to live on. This is real giving - for real giving is sacrificial giving.

Sometimes little gifts cost a great deal more than big gifts - their value is in the sacrifice they represent. Interestingly, research has shown that when people's income increases their proportion of charitable contributions tends to drop. Jesus knows how much we have left over after we've filled in our giving response form. Jesus knows what we have not given. As I mentioned earlier: "Jesus measures giving, not by what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves".

I don't know about you but I've found this little passage quite uncomfortable reading. Last week we heard about Sir John Laing, the Christian owner of the famous construction firm, who lived on much the same amount as his income grew but increased what he gave to Christian work and what he saved. At the end of his life he only had £371 left to his name. The man who handled millions had given them all away. John Wesley, the famous eighteenth century preacher, similarly lived off the same small amount as his income increased and gave the rest away to God's work.

What do we really need to live on? How much do we really need to save for the future? How much do we really need to keep for ourselves? Do we deny ourselves like the poor widow? How much can we actually give back to God? We are to be wise stewards of what God has entrusted to us. So if we have any income at all - from Saturday jobs or allowances if we're in CYFA or from parents as students or from pensions as senior citizens or from our jobs - why not sit down this week and prayerfully work out how much we can give. It may be a few pounds or it may be thousands of pounds. If the poor widow could give surely we can too?

Tithing is a good guiding principle - but it doesn't stop there. The poor widow gave sacrificially. And let's do it willingly, generously, sacrificially and cheerfully remembering God's indescribable gift - Jesus Christ who though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich. 2 Corinthians 8:12 says "if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have". What matters is the willingness, which is the motive of true generosity, no matter how small the amount that can be afforded, just like the poor widow. Small amount or large it is vital we all give as we are able if God's work here and overseas with our mission partners is to go forward in this new millennium. We all have a part to play.

Now it's important to say that we can't buy or earn our way into heaven. No. Only through faith in Christ can we enter. But: "Freely we have received. Let us freely give". (Matthew 10:8) But many of us find sacrificial giving hard living in such a materialistic world. When the adverts for the January sales, that now seem to go on the whole year, bombard you with the mobile phone and the latest spec computer that you really need. As Wesley once said the last part of a person to be converted is often his wallet.

So what can we learn from the poor widow? Well she trusted God. Her gift, though tiny, meant a real surrender of herself to God and trust in him, and therefore an honouring of God as God, as the one to whom we belong wholly and who is able to care for us. Do we believe with Paul that as we give that "God will meet all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus"? (Philippians 4:19) Or do we think that if we give we won't have enough left over? Have we, like the poverty stricken Macedonians referred to in 2 Corinthians, given ourselves first to the Lord?

JC Ryle, the famous evangelical Bishop of Liverpool in the nineteenth century, writes, commenting on these verses from Mark, that hardly any Christians "know anything of being rich towards God (Luke 12:21)…Let us pray that God would stir up a spirit of liberality. Let us give liberally and gladly to gospel work while we can. For if Christians don't no-one else will. And let us give as those who remember that the eyes of Christ are upon us, He still sees exactly what each gives, and knows exactly how much is left behind. And let us remember that our use of the money God has given us will have to be accounted for on the last day. The Judge of all is the same person who noticed the widow's mite. Above all, let us give as the disciples of a crucified Saviour, who gave himself for us on the cross. Freely we have received. Let us freely give".

To conclude. In contrast to the scribes' love of power and wealth, their pride and hypocrisy which Jesus exposes in the previous verses of Mark 12, vv.38-40, stands this woman, this poor widow, who has sacrificed out of her life to honour God. Therefore Jesus says, "Beware of the scribes, but follow this widow".

"When God measures the life of service, he doesn't just count, he weighs." (Bock)

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