“When Less is More”



          This week, we continue our series on financial giving to the Lord.  As we said last week, part of the reason for the timing of this short series is because the publisher of the book “The Treasure Principle” has offered to give us a book for each family in the church as we preach on giving.  I believe copies are still available at the Welcome Center if you do not already have one.  Reading this book will be very good for your soul.  What the author, Randy Alcorn calls the “treasure principle” is simply, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.”  That truth points to the clear Biblical teaching that what we give to God and his kingdom in this life will be stored up in heaven for us.  That is an important truth and so last week, we worked to have a deeper appreciation for its power by spending some time thinking about heaven.  The purpose was to help us to see in the context of the glories of eternity, how foolish it is to store up fallen, temporary treasures here on earth.

          This week, we turn to a well known story found in two of the gospels.  Let’s begin with Mark chapter 12:38.  Mark tells us, “And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts,  40who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."  41And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums.  42And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.  43And he called his disciples to him and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  44For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

          Even though it may not be immediately evident why Jesus issues a warning against the scribes just before Mark records the story of the poor widow, there’s a strong connection between the two narratives.  There are three main characters in the two sections, the scribes, the rich people who put in large sums of money and the widow who put in her two small copper coins.  The scribes were teachers of the law.  They wore long white linen robes, expected people to rise in their presence and enjoyed as Jesus says, “the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts.”  But they were not given a salary and so frequently lived off others people’s hospitality.  They would commonly find widows and sponge off them until the widow had nothing left.  That’s what Jesus means when he says they “devour widow’s houses.”  The scribes looked impressive on the outside, but were wicked on the inside.  The widow conversely represented the most downtrodden and vulnerable group of people in the first century.  Mark wants us to see that contrast.

When we encounter this widow, we find ourselves staring into the face of poverty.  One of the great challenges in rightly applying this text is understanding her poverty.  In order for this story to have its intended bracing impact, it’s crucial that we come to grips with the reality of her poverty—not in our North American context, but in Biblical terms.  Today, many people living in “poverty” in our country possess many modern conveniences.  We occasionally see genuine poverty on television through the swollen bellies of infants in places like Rwanda, but that is so far removed from where we live, we can’t easily relate to it.  How do you speak meaningfully about the kind of poverty this widow experienced in a nation where many things that were virtually unknown ten years ago are today considered necessities? 

We easily forget how wealthy our culture is compared to any other context in human history.  I’m speaking of a culture where fairly new inventions like personal cell phones are by many people not even seen as options anymore.  Other relatively new commodities that are increasingly being thought of as non optional are MP3 players, DVD players, home theatre systems, laptop computers, high definition television, large screen TV’s, satellite guidance systems—GPS’, hand held computers, digital cameras, desktop and portable video gaming equipment, increasingly sophisticated recreational vehicles, monthly high speed internet fees, monthly health club fees, monthly cable television fees, monthly cell phone fees.  How do we understand this widow in that context? 

The standard of what is seen on a functional level as being “necessary” for this life continues to escalate and we in the church ride uncritically on that escalator along with the rest of the world.  Except for those people who have lost everything in a natural disaster, those things that were considered cutting edge 25 years ago are almost all owned by people who today in America are classified as living at or below the “poverty” line. Most of today’s seeming “necessities” are used primarily for entertainment and increasing our personal ease.  Few are used purely for the purpose of meeting our basic personal and professional needs—some, not many.

In our wealthy culture, it’s becoming harder and harder for the truth of First Timothy 6:8 to have the impact the Holy Spirit intends. “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” The truth in that text is purely, utterly hypothetical to most believers in America today.  In many cases, its power has been muted by layers and layers of our stuff.    We must understand our context as we approach this text.  The life we live in America is nothing less than bizarre according to any global and historical measure of comparison.  We exist within an economic anomaly that we have no promise from God will last indefinitely.  To me, it’s scary to think that many of our children have grown up not knowing anything but this unprecedented and historically strange economic context.  We don’t have a clue what this widow lived like.  How do you speak meaningfully—that is, in a way that allows us to grasp the power of this text, in a world so completely removed from hers?  

Let’s try to do it economic terms.  Economists like to speak of things like “disposable income” and “discretionary income.” Disposable income is the total amount of income a person makes after direct taxes.  This doesn’t include our assets—the things we own, just our after tax income.  Discretionary income is what we have left after fixed expenses like rent/mortgage, food, car payments, insurance and other things generally considered to be necessities.  Discretionary income is money we have that can be either saved, or spent on things we want but aren’t generally considered “needs.”  For most people the vast majority of the things I listed earlier (and many other things) are purchased with discretionary income.  In most cases, these are things we want, not need.  To import that paradigm into Mark 12, the widow has zero discretionary income.  She has zero money for anything discretionary—nor has most of the population in world history.  She has zero money for anything she doesn’t absolutely require to meet her basic survival needs.  There were no funds to buy anything she just “wanted.” 

All of her extremely limited disposable income she gave to God.  Mark Lane, in his commentary on Mark rightly observes, “The fact that the woman gave two coins was significant, for she could have easily kept one for herself.”[Lane, 443]  Think for a moment.  To give away half of your miniscule disposable income, while keeping enough to buy some stale bread for one meal would have been dramatic.  This woman put it ALL in. Jesus says She has no money to live on after her giving—no money for food or to purchase any other necessity of life.  That’s a bit of background on this widow and how better to understand where she was.

The third and final group in the story is the many rich people who Jesus watched “put in large sums.”  Another of the contrasts we must see in the story is the difference between how Jesus responds to the large sums put in by the rich people and the comparatively paltry amount put in by the widow.  Jesus is clearly unimpressed and uninspired by the large sums put in by the rich people.  He says nothing about it—these gifts are unremarkable to Jesus—he makes no remark.  In the story, their large gifts, which Jesus compares unfavorably to the widow’s gift, are simply foils that Jesus uses to highlight the widow’s gift.  When he saw the widow’s gift, “he called his disciples to him.”  This act of extraordinary sacrifice gets his attention and he uses it to teach his disciples a lesson on what “more” means in God’s economy.  Jesus says, “she has put in MORE than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  In the case of this widow, less was much more than those rich people who put in large sums.  On the continuum of people in this story the generous rich people fit somewhere between the scribes and the widow.  They look good on the outside but their generosity doesn’t register with Jesus.  It does not require the presence of grace in their lives because Mark tells us they gave “out of their abundance.”     

As we’ll see confirm later, it’s the radiant grace of God operating in the widow’s life that doubtless gets Jesus’ attention.  He came into this world in part to establish the kingdom of God on earth.  That is—to create by his blood a colony of forgiven, holy people whose lives cannot be explained except by the ongoing presence of the grace of God.  That is what Jesus died to inaugurate.  Jack Miller is right when he says the grace of God in this enabling sense is only required when a person tries to do things that he/she could never do on their own.  Then, grace comes in.  Jesus sees the unmistakable evidence of the grace of God in this widow and he points out to his disciples the difference between the inexplicable, miraculous grace of God and the wholly explainable phenomena of human generosity. 

The point for us is simply:  Within a wealthy context like ours, grace giving that honors God is often measured not in the amount or percentage of resources we give out, but in what we keep for ourselves.  I have said before that, along with many others, I do not believe the tithe law is in force today.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tithe, it simply means that through grace we can fulfill not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law.  The widow models for us the spirit of the law—sacrificial generosity out of love for God from a pure heart. God has never been as concerned with the amount or percentage of our offering nearly as much as he is with the state of our hearts.  The first century rabbinic laws tell us that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, most of who are now roasting in hell, almost certainly gave well over 20% of their income.  As helpful as the treasure principle is in helping us to see that we can use our financial wealth for eternal good, the ultimate issue is not whether our money is invested in heaven or on earth—that’s secondary.  The main question is whether we are using all of what God has given us to glorify him.  That’s the bottom line for everything.  Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  The widow clearly honored God but there’s no indication in the text that the rich people who gave out of their abundance did.

In this story, most of us meet ourselves in the rich people who gave out of their abundance.  What they gave, they did not need to live on and that is where most of us are today.  Because grace giving is what honors God the most, what are some marks of grace giving from this story and the rest of the New Testament?  To help us, let’s look at a group of people we mentioned last week who were very similar in some ways to this widow in Mark 12.  That is, the Macedonians Paul mentions in Second Corinthians chapter eight.

Paul writes of these believers, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia,  2for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will,  4begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints”  This is a familiar text.  Four different and typically unrelated dynamics converge here in these people that point unmistakably to the grace of God in their giving.  A severe test of affliction, extreme poverty, an overflow of much generosity and great joy.  Apart from the grace of God, you will never see those four grouped together.  Apart from the grace of God, affliction and poverty are reasons NOT to give at all, much less give with sacrificial and generous hearts that are filled with great joy.  The combination of those unlikely elements existing together is for Paul a manifestation of the grace of God. 

Let’s look at some true marks of grace giving according to this text and the story of the widow.  This is not an exhaustive list by any means.  These are the ones Paul highlights and which we saw lived out in the life of the widow.  The first mark of God honoring grace giving is—giving that requires faith in God to provide for our needs.  Notice the connection between the widow and these people.  These people also had no discretionary income.  The money they gave to the Lord was, like the widow’s, money they would have used to buy things they needed, not wanted.  They gave out of their disposable income, not discretionary income.  If God didn’t provide for their personal needs as they gave, their giving to the saints at Jerusalem would doubtless have threatened to take food off their own table.  That is the only conclusion you can come to when Paul says they gave out of their “extreme poverty.”  These people didn’t have the luxury of diverting money that they would have spent on their new gadget or toy or hobby.  They gave away grocery money and trusted that God would provide.  That’s inexplicable apart from the grace of God.

Grace is simply not required to give out of abundance.  Warren Buffet gave 75% of his holdings to the Gates Foundation last year and not one ounce of grace was required.  I’m guessing no one in this room has given away 75% of their holdings.  But Warren Buffet was worth $44 billion dollars, which means he kept back about 11 billion dollars for himself.  I don’t want to demean his obvious generosity, but I think most of us could “squeak” by on 11 billion.  We have a hard time relating to Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, who gives over a billion dollars a year away. The question is—does our giving require us to trust in God to provide for us?   The widow and these Macedonians gave out of their poverty.  It’s one thing for them to give in faith when they are in extreme poverty.  It’s quite another for a person in our culture to say, “I can’t even afford to tithe with the interest on my credit card debt, my hefty mortgage,  the expensive new car payment, the monthly cable fees and a dozen other things I don’t need, but certainly do enjoy.”  That’s not poverty—that’s piling up so much of this world’s treasure that there isn’t room in the budget to give away a tenth of our income.

Here’s a pattern of stewardship I have seen replicated in my own life and dozens of other believers that does not equate to grace giving.  We find ourselves enjoying a certain standard of living.  Most believers don’t prayerfully determine what a Biblical standard of living should be for us by searching the Scriptures for wisdom—it just kind of happens to us.  Pay raises come—perhaps an additional income is added at some point and the standard of living typically increases until we retire.  We observe how our professional peer group lives and we become convinced that we should live at something close to the same standard they do.  Consistent with that, we come to believe we require a house so large, so many cars, so many toys, so many activities for the kids, etc… In most cases within that process, there is a significant amount of discretionary spending on things we don’t need, but simply want.  In the midst of that process, we also begin to discover the surprising truthfulness of Ecclesiastes 5:11, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?”   The general pattern is—as we get more money, the things to spend it on also increase.  While much of that is happening, many believers don’t have as our spiritual governor for the use of our resources hard questions like—“How does my standard of living and giving manifest the grace of God?  What is there about the way I live and give that would not be possible apart from the grace of God working through my faith?  How does the way I live and give show to the world that my treasure is not in this world, but in heaven?” 

What we often unconsciously do is determine the upper and lower margins of our standard of living.  Those are often determined not so much by our love for God, but by what conforms to whatever peer group we identify with economically.  With rare exceptions, we will live at a level that allows us to do these things and buy those things and live here and drive that and divert ourselves this way and that.  If we make enough money, those margins may allow us to give a lot of money to the Lord—perhaps far exceeding a tithe.  But that area within the margins that many times includes a lot of discretionary spending…is mostly sacred, untouchable.  We may not say that—but we seldom invade that area to give to God.  That scenario is the definition of giving out of our abundance. That’s not what the widow or the Macedonians model for us in their clear expressions of God’s grace.  Along the way, we have allowed our own wants and desires to silence those tough, God-centered questions about how the kingdom of God is reflected in how we live and how we give. Giving that honors God is not about amounts or even percentages if you make enough money.  Does it require faith in God for you to give it?  

A second mark of the grace of God is the sacrifices made within grace giving are real, not hypothetical.   Let me explain how I am using those terms “real” and “hypothetical” because they are not very precise, but they are the best I could think of.  The sacrifices the widow and the Macedonians had an instant economic impact on them.  It cost them something in real terms, not hypothetical ones.  What I am mean is this—we may sometimes (I have done this anyway) reassure ourselves of the reality of the sacrifices we have made in our giving to God by thinking about some of the things we could have purchased with the money we instead gave to the Lord.  If I hadn’t given that money to God, I could have bought a new boat.  I could have bought a new sewing machine, or car, or taken a Caribbean Cruise, but instead I gave it to the Lord.  Those are not Macedonian, grace-manifesting sacrifices in the sense that they would probably have been coming from discretionary income.  Chances are--they would have been taken out of the money we didn’t need to live on.  The sacrifices modeled by the widow and the Macedonians was not hypothetical in that sense.  The widow couldn’t say, “I could have bought a new pair of sandals with that money” not only because two copper coins wouldn’t buy a pair of sandals, but because that money was all she had to live on.  She emptied her grocery fund. 

       A third mark of grace-filled giving is we give with much joy.  This is grace, not law.  This kind of giving is not done grudgingly, but cheerfully.  Paul says the Corinthians gave out of “their abundance of joy.”  Not from their abundance of money like the rich people in the widow’s story, but from their abundance of joy.  Grace giving that requires faith and brings real, not hypothetical sacrifice does not honor God unless it is given from hearts filled with joy.  The widow, given Jesus’ commendation of her, doubtless gave from joy as well.  Why else would you do such a thing unless you love God so much and trust him so much that you are willing to put in everything you have—even if it is a meaninglessly paltry amount? 

       So, what do we do with all this?  Does this mean that we should give all our disposable income away in order to honor God?  Clearly not in most cases.  These stories are descriptive, not prescriptive.  Aren’t these examples of grace giving simply an application to our pocket books of the truth of Luke 14?  There Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple….So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.   Aren’t the widow and the Macedonians examples of people who have renounced everything and so are therefore liberated by the grace of God to live in inexplicable ways?  They are not given in the Bible to make us feel an overpowering guilt to give away all we have, but are instead presented to compel us to re-examine our hearts to see if what we are doing with God’s money is a response of God’s grace and therefore honoring God.  Or does it more closely resemble the rich people who gave out of their abundance? 

If the goal is to honor God with our finances, that’s a very important question.  The amount is not important—God doesn’t need our money.  The question goes back to this—on the basis of these truths, is our treasure with God or with the things of this world?  If our treasure is in Christ, then we will increasingly want to show his glory by trusting to provide within the context of our sacrificial giving.  If our treasure is in Christ, we will not even hypothesize about the other things we could have done with his money and we will give it away with great joy.  That’s grace and in our materialistic and wealthy world, there are few ways that the church of Christ can make a stronger impression on the world than if we were to live like this.  May God give us the grace to know the truth about our hearts and to repent of our idolatrous love for the things of this world so that our treasure may be fully in heaven.


Page last modified on 8/12/2007

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