A friend of mine in Autralia once told me the story of a church minister he knew called Rob. And one day Rob found a wallet someone had dropped. And it had $3,000 in it – that's about, £1,500 – and some contact details. So he handed it in to the police, to return it. And next day, Rob got a phone call from the owner of the wallet, to thank him. And the guy said, 'Did you know how much was in it?' And Rob said, 'Yes, $3,000. I hope none of it's missing.' And the guy said, 'No it's all there. I just wasn't expecting it to be given back.' And Rob said, 'Well, as a Christian I wouldn't dream of doing anything else.' And there was a pause and then the guy asked for Rob's address so he could send him something. And a few days later, this bottle of wine and a thank you card arrived. And the wine went in the cupboard – where it stayed until his wife's women's Bible study drank it at their end of year dinner. And next day, the empty bottle was sitting there when a friend called round who worked in the wine trade. And he said, 'Where on earth did you get this?' He said, This is Gray's Hermitage. This is the most expensive wine in Australia. Do you realise this would have cost $300?' To which Rob's wife said, 'Well that explains it. It did slip down very nicely.'
And I love that story for all the different attitudes to money it reveals. So you've got: the guy expecting that anyone finding $3,000 would just keep it. Then you've got Rob saying he wouldn't dream of doing that. Then you've got the guy's generosity with the wine – and yet showing he's so rich that $300 is small change to him. And finally you've got Rob's wife not knowing a Gray's Hermitage from something from Lidl. All very revealing. Because money – what we'll do to get it and what we then do with it – is very revealing.
And that's what our last instalment in this series on Luke's Gospel is about: how money reveals the state of our hearts before God.
So would you turn in the Bible to Luke 20 and 21 – where Luke tells us about the final 'showdown' between Jesus and the Jewish leaders who ultimately got him crucified. Because the Jewish leaders have already passed judgment on Jesus – they say he's not God's Son and our rightful King, and they want him put to death for claiming to be. So Jesus passes judgement on them – and says (words to this effect), 'You look like people who know God, but you don't. It's just a religious veneer over an unchanged heart.'
So look down to chapter 20, verse 45, and we'll pick up where we left off two weeks ago:
"And in the hearing of all the people [Jesus] said to his disciples, 'Beware of the scribes [who were one group within the Jewish leaders], who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the market-places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.'
[Then this week's bit:] Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, 'Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'"
And the link between last week's bit and this week's is the word 'widow', and the issue of money – what we'll do to get it, what we then do with it, and how that reveals the state of our hearts before God.
So we're going to look a bit more at the scribes in last week's bit, and then at the widow in this week's. Which is like looking in the mirror, and asking, 'Do I see myself and my attitude to money in any of this?'
So here's my headline question for the first half:
1. Is Money a God We'll Do Anything For? (Luke 20.47)
Because for these scribes the answer was, 'Yes'. Look back to chapter 20, verse 47. Jesus says:
"Beware of the scribes... [verse 47] who devour widows' houses"
Which, for me at least, immediately brings to mind this picture of a scribe on a bulldozer, ploughing into this poor woman's home. But it can't mean that. So what does it mean? Well the answer is: we're not sure.
Like Jonathan said two weeks ago, some people think the scribes were pressuring poor widows into giving them money which the widows couldn't afford. You can imagine them saying, 'Think how important it is to give plenty to God's work, Mrs Smith. Think how God will bless you for it. Think how displeased he'd be if you kept much of it for yourself.' It's easy for ministers and ministries to manipulate people when it comes to the need for money.
But the scribes were also the lawyers of the day, and would often look after a widow's estate and finances. And they were known for helping themselves to hefty fees which the widows couldn't afford.
Either way, Jesus says: they were so hungry for money, they'd do anything to get it, regardless of who it hurt, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. And that's the point of that word 'devour' in verse 47. It literally means 'eat up greedily' – like a Labrador gobbling its Pedigree Chum the moment the bowl hits the floor. It's a hunger for money that'll do anything for money.
Another friend of mine called Matthew went through uni and then started work for a merchant bank in London. And he soon discovered all sorts of corruption there. And one of his bosses called himself a Christian, and went to church. So Matthew spoke to him and said he'd made up his mind to leave. And he said to this guy, 'Why have you stayed here, knowing everything that's going on? Shouldn't you get out as well?' And the guy said, 'Well, I'd like to. But we've got a huge mortgage on the house, my wife expects a certain kind of holiday, our kids are in independent schools – and we're just too invested in the London lifestyle to risk it all.'
Which showed that money had become his god. Because whatever you ultimately look to, to make you feel happy and secure – that is your god and you'll do anything for it.
So do we see ourselves in the mirror here? Does money in any way play the part of god in our lives? Are we tempted in that direction, and if so, how? We may not be in the thick of corruption in a merchant bank. But are we prepared to get money wrongly in a way that shows it's playing god in our lives? Prepared to fiddle expenses or taxes or credits claims or whatever? Or prepared to go along with some kind of financial dishonesty in our wider family because it benefits us? Or something else? Is there anything we're doing that shows we're really treating money as god – so important, we'll do anything for it.
But it may not be doing anything dodgy or dishonest. I know one family where the Dad had seen his own parents go bankrupt, and he was determined that what he then went through would never happen to his children. So he worked crazy hours round the clock, barely seeing his family, until in his mid-fifties he suddenly died of a heart attack. And I still remember one of his daughters saying, 'We always had more than enough money. What we always really wanted was more of Dad – but we could never get him to see that.' Because he thought money would ultimately make them happy and secure. So he did anything for them to have it – even though it cost their family life and ultimately, probably, his life.
So, is money a god we'll do anything for? Do we see ourselves in that part of the mirror?
Those are the scribes. So let's now look at this widow in chapter 21, and here's my headline question for the second half:
2. Is the Lord the God We'll Do Anything For?
Because for this widow the answer was, 'Yes.' Look down to chapter 21, verse 1 again:
"Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box"
And if you'd been watching, they'd have looked very generous. And you probably wouldn't even have noticed this widow. Because all eyes were on the rolls of £50 notes that the rich were chucking in.
But Jesus notices her. Because Jesus notices everything and everyone, and what we do and why. And he still notices everything and everyone, and what we do and why – now he's back in heaven, looking down on history as our Judge.
So Jesus... saw the rich putting their gifts in, [Verse 2:]
"and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. [In today's money, maybe 50p.] And he said, 'Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'"
So he's not necessarily saying that the rich were being stingey. He's just saying that they'd given out of plenty, and still had plenty left after they'd given. Whereas this widow had put in more than all of them – in the sense that it cost her far more, and that the Lord valued it far more because he valued what it revealed of her heart – which was a remarkable trust in him and love for him.
So just think about her trust in the Lord. Because if you'd been there, the obvious question you'd have wanted to ask her is, 'But what are you going to live on today, now you've given all you had to live on today? What about your needs?' And I guess she'd have said, 'I trust the Lord to meet them. I trust him to provide for me and be my ultimate security.'
So maybe she'd been given those two coins earlier that day by someone who realised she had nothing in the cupboard. And she thinks to herself, 'Well, if the Lord could do that earlier today, he can do it again later.' In fact, she exemplifies what Jesus taught earlier in Luke, where he said:
"... 'Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on... Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap... and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you...! Consider the lilies... they neither toil nor spin, yet... even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. ... how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!" (Luke 12.22-28)
And that sums up our two options. Either we trust the Lord to provide for us and be our ultimate security. Or we trust lesser things – like money, and the jobs we earn it with; in which case, like Jesus said, we're goig to be anxious and worried about any threat to our money or our jobs or the economy. And we'll forget that it's only the Lord who secures jobs and savings and pensions – and that our hard working and wise investing and careful voting can't secure them.
So what this widow did with her money revealed her trust in the Lord – just as what we do with ours will reveal our trust or lack of it.
But then it also revealed her love for the Lord. Because if you'd been there, the other obvious question you'd have wanted to ask is, 'But why did you give it all? Why did you give both coins? Surely, in your circumstances, one would have been enough to show your commitment to God – after all, that's 50% giving; that's more than anyone does. And wouldn't it have been more sensible to be more measured and keep one?' And I guess she'd have said, 'I gave them both because I wanted to show him I love him.'
One husband in our church family – who shall remain nameless – told me that early on in married life, his wife commented on the way that he wasn't buying flowers for her like he used to. And presuming badly on her sense of humour, he quoted that old saying, 'Welll, you don't keep running for the bus once you've caught it, do you?' And the ensuing sense of humour failure – not to say meltdown – meant that regular and lavish buying of flowers was immediately reinstated.
Love that's real and healthy wants to show its love doesn't it? And this woman did. Because we need to know that the gifts being given here were voluntary. They weren't the temple tax – which you had to pay, willing or not. They were freewill gifts - either to support the ministry of the temple; or to say 'Thank you' to the Lord for something good that had happened – maybe for a big answer to prayer. So they were ways of showing love to the Lord. And this woman showed it in spades.
And the false move for me to make now would be to say, 'So we must all be like her. We must all love God more – not least, with the money he's given us.' And that's a false move because loving God doesn't come from gritting our teeth and saying to ourselves, 'I must love God more.' Instead, the Bible says elsewhere,
"We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4.19)
In other words, our love for him is a response to his love for us. Which means the only way it'll grow – or maybe for some of us here this morning, the only way it'll start in the first place – is by taking in how he's loved us.
And just days after this moment in Luke 21, Jesus, out of love for us, was dying on a cross for our forgiveness, giving all he had for us, unreservedly. Nothing sensible or measured about that. And taking that in is where love for him starts and re-starts and grows. It's like the hymn says that we're going to sing to end with:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
But I won't get to the point of singing that and meaning it by gritting my teeth and saying, 'I must love God more, must be more like this widow.' I'll only get to that point, like it says at the start of that hymn,
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the prince of glory died
So if you can't yet say you love God, or you don't feel much in love towards him right now, or you feel he's asking too much of you right now, then read about the cross in the Bible, find things written about the cross, or to listen to online about the cross, think about the cross, talk about the cross with other Christians, and pray for the Lord to help you take in what he did for you there – whether you've never understood it at all, or whether you have but it's gone completely stale on you. Ask him to get you to the point where you can genuinely say,
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
And even when you're at that point, it doesn't automatically answer all the money questions like, 'How much do I spend?', 'How much do I save (if I can)?', and, 'How much do I give away to support the spread of the gospel, the building up of the church and the relief of need in Jesus' name?' But it does mean you come at all that not asking reluctantly, 'How much must I give?' But asking willingly, 'How much can I give?'
So Luke shows us these scribes – for whom money's a god they'll do anything for – and this widow – for whom the Lord is the God she'll do anything for – and, in passing, these rich people, who may or may not have been godly with their money – we don't know. And he says, 'Where do you see yourself in this mirror?'
Maybe you see yourself in the scribes. Perhaps because you've not yet given Jesus his God-place in your life, and you know that money is playing that role instead. Or perhaps because as a Christian your trust and love has wandered back to money, and needs directing to Jesus again.
Or maybe you see yourself in the widow – because you also are in financial need (even debt), and you don't have enough to make ends meet. And if you're a Christian, you may be thinking, 'So I can't really do anything for the Lord with my money.'
Well, this part of God's word would say: focus on what you can do, not what you can't. And remember that, because Jesus knows your whole story, he sees the real value of whatever you can do – just like he did with this widow. So maybe all you can do as a hard-up student is to help another student housemate by paying just a small bit more of a bill than them. But Jesus looks down and says, 'That's fantastic.' Or maybe for someone here, all you can give to what the Lord is doing here is 50p or £1 a week in the collection box – what the widow's gift was roughly worth. But because Jesus knows your whole story, he might turn to the angels in heaven and say, 'Did you see that? That's the most significant thing that happened at JPC today.'
But others of us will identify with the rich people. We don't know how rich they were – just that they had comfortably more than enough – which is basically many of us here. And the message for us – the caution for us – is that it's easy to think we're being godly and generous with money, when in fact we may be less so than we think. Because it's not the amounts we give that tell the real story – many of us can give three and four figure sums without noticing it's gone. It's the proportion we give of what comes to us which reveals our hearts, along with the willingness to give to the point where we really do notice it.
But, as I've said, that won't come by gritting our teeth and saying, 'I must do more.' It'll come as we take in how Jesus gave himself for us to the point of death, and say:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all