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FROM MARK 12:38-44

For at least this week and next, we’ll be temporarily breaking from Ecclesiastes to begin the year with reminders from God’s Word on stewardship and specifically financial giving.  Let’s turn to a well-known story found in two of the gospels. Beginning with Mark chapter 12:38 we read the words of Jesus. “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."

There are three main characters in these verses--the scribes who devour widows’ houses, the rich people who put in large sums of money and the widow who put in her two small copper coins. Let’s review who these people are.  First, 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 weren’t given a salary and so they frequently lived off others people’s hospitality. They would often 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—even religious leaders preyed upon them.  She was outwardly unimpressive but inwardly was a spiritual dynamo.  Mark wants us to see that vivid contrast.

When we meet this widow, we’re staring into the face of poverty.  What is considered the poverty level in America for a family of four is a total income of less than about $23,000.[1]  That’s also about where you qualify for a free government cell phone.  The point is that people living in what we call “poverty” in our country is not genuine poverty.  Compare that so- called poverty with the third of the world’s population that lives on less than two dollars a day—a little over $700 a year—not $23,000.[2]  What we call “poverty” can be over 30 times more than what a third of the global population makes.  We easily forget how wealthy our culture is compared to any other context in human history. In our culture, fairly new commodities like smart phones are quickly seen as necessities.  Many in our culture see monthly health club fees, monthly cable television fees and monthly credit card interest payments as non-options.   

Because of our culture’s wealth, it’s increasingly difficult for truths like the one in First Timothy 6:8 to have the impact the Holy Spirit intends.  There Paul says, “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. That is so far removed from our context that we can only see that truth as a purely hypothetical situation.  We can only speak theoretically about being content with only food in our stomach and a shirt on our back—very few here today have experienced that kind of life. The spiritual impact of someone who loves Jesus so much that they can be content with only those barest of necessities has been muted by layers and layers of our stuff.  The point here is not to make us feel guilty for living in America, but simply to underscore that we must think hard to understand how radically different is our context from the poor widow’s so we can get the full impact of this text. 

The prosperity we enjoy in America is nothing less than lavish according to any global and historical measure of comparison. We live within an economic anomaly much of the rest of the world simply cannot relate to. As parents, it’s a good idea to regularly remind our kids how different their lives are to most kids their age in the world. 

Let’s try to get at the impact of what this widow did using economic terms. Economists speak of “disposable income” and “discretionary income.” Disposable income is the total amount of income a person makes after 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 considered “needs.”  Eating out, going on vacation, renting movies, small appliances, jewelry, exercise equipment, all entertainment equipment, hobbies and the equipment they require, lake homes and iPods are purchased with discretionary income. 

To apply that to the widow in 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 literally not one cent for anything she doesn’t absolutely require to meet her basic survival needs. She had no funds to buy anything she just “wanted.”   She probably never in her life purchased anything simply because she wanted it.  Many of us do it every day—she probably never did it.

In Mark 12, she gives ALL of her disposable income to God.  Mark Lane, in his commentary on Mark observes, “The fact that the woman gave two coins was significant, for she could have easily kept one for herself.” [Lane, 443] Think about that for a moment. To give half of your miniscule disposable income to God, while keeping back enough to buy some stale bread for one meal--THAT 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 any other necessity of life.

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 given by the widow. Jesus is clearly unimpressed and uninspired by the large sums put in by the rich people. He says nothing about it—their gifts are unremarkable to Jesus. In the story, their large gifts are simply used by Jesus to highlight the widow’s superior generosity.  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 a lesson on what “more” means within God’s economy.  Jesus says of the widow, “she has put in MORE than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” In the case of this widow, her penny was much more than those rich people who put in large sums.  Those who made large contributions didn’t require any grace in their lives to do that because Mark tells us they gave “out of their abundance.”  They gave their discretionary income.  Jack Miller is right when he says the grace of God is only required when a person tries to do things that he/she could never do on their own. 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 and to him unremarkable phenomena of human generosity.

The widow’s giving showed grace—there’s no other explanation for it.  We could call what she did “grace-giving.”  I’ve said before that, along with many others, I do not believe the tithe law is in force today. That doesn’t in any way mean we shouldn’t tithe—give a tenth of our income to the Lord.  On the contrary, by grace through the gospel we can fulfill not only the letter of the tithe law, but also the spirit of the law. The widow models for us the spirit of the law which is—sacrificial generosity out of love for God from a pure heart.  That’s at the root of the command to tithe from God’s perspective.  God has never been as concerned with the amount or percentage of our offering nearly as much as he is with whether we love him enough to show genuine sacrifice in our giving.

As an example, first century rabbinic law tell us the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, almost certainly gave well over 20% of their income, but based on what Jesus said about them, most of these generous people have been in hell for 2000 years.  Their generosity was not induced or compelled by God’s grace.  In the story of the widow, most of us meet ourselves in the rich people who gave out of their abundance. They didn’t need what they gave to live on and that’s where most of us are today. Because giving that requires God’s grace honors God the most because he gets the glory, what are some marks of grace-giving?  To help us, let’s look at a group of people who were very similar in some ways to this widow in Mark 12. That is, the Macedonian believers 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.  These are: a severe test of affliction, extreme poverty, an overflow of much generosity and great joy. Apart from the grace of God, you’ll never see those four grouped together.  The only thing that can possibly bring those together is the grace of God.  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 a clear manifestation of the grace of God.

Let’s look at some true marks of grace-giving from 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 see lived out in widow’s life. The first mark of God-honoring, grace-giving is—giving that requires faith in God to provide for our needs. One connection between the widow and these Macedonian believers is that none of these people had any discretionary income either. Like the widow, the money they gave to the Lord was money they would have used to buy things they needed, not wanted. If God didn’t provide for their personal needs as they gave, their giving to the saints at Jerusalem would doubtless have taken food off their own tables. That’s the only conclusion you can come to when Paul says they gave out of their “extreme poverty.” They gave away grocery money, money to replace their worn out sandals or to purchase feed for their animals and they trusted that God would provide. That’s inexplicable apart from the grace of God.

The question is—when was the last time our giving required us to trust in God to provide for us? The widow and these Macedonians gave out of their poverty.  Giving out of extreme poverty is light-years removed from, “I have to really trust God to give much at all with the interest on our credit card debt, our hefty mortgage, the expensive new car payment, the monthly cable fees and a dozen other things I don’t need, but can’t seem to live without.” That’s not poverty—that’s piling up so much of this world’s rotting and rusting treasure that there isn’t room in our bloated budgets to give away even a tenth of our income to the Lord.  That’s a heart that has been welded to this world by a love for stuff.

The reason many believers find themselves in that situation is because most believers don’t prayerfully determine what a Biblical standard of living should be for them by searching the Scriptures for wisdom.  In most cases, our standard of living just kind of happens to us. There’s no real intentionality about living at a certain level that is consistent with a life of grace.  Our jobs pay a certain amount. We notice how our professional peer group lives or how other family members live and through no real decision-making process, we become convinced that we should live somewhere in that ballpark.  Our standard of living—the way we live is rooted far more in our economic context than by any strongly held Biblical convictions. Consistent with that, without any real soul-searching or Bible study, we come to believe we require a house so many square feet large, so many cars, so many toys, so many activities for the kids, etc… There’s obviously a significant amount of discretionary spending on things we don’t need, but simply want for us or our family.  Most believers if asked—did you plan your budget specifically to reflect Biblical priorities on how to live, they will give you a blank stare.  They may have a tithe figured in, but after that—the budget is pretty much culturally driven.

As we live at that culturally driven standard of living, we discover the 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.  If we have less money, there seems to be fewer things to spend it on.  Real heartache can come when believers are living at one level of income—with the accompanying expenditures that level of income bring with it, but then (for instance) they lose their job and no longer have the money to live at that level.  In many cases, it takes a long time for them to wean themselves off their old level of expenses and adopt a new, more modest level of spending to match their new level of earning.  That can be a financial train wreck for some believers.  Credit card companies make a mint in interest off those people as they put expenses on a card to try to build a bridge between the amount of money they used to spend, with the money that is now available to them. 

Many of us don’t have a spiritual governor—like a governor on a motor that controls the rpm’s--that dictates how we manage our resources.  Spiritual governors are questions like—“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 exhibit to the world that my treasure is not in this world, but in heaven?”  Those are spiritual governors that—by God’s grace—will help adjust our standard of living and increase our standard of giving.  Without allowing those difficult heart questions to provide direction for our giving, we won’t be practicing grace-giving. Again, giving that honors God is often not measured in amounts or even percentages. Does it require faith in God for you to give it?  This certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t save back money for a rainy day or have retirement accounts. That’s just good stewardship.  It simply means living intentionally with the goal that the grace of God be clearly seen in how you give.

A second mark of grace-filled giving is giving marked by great joy. This is grace giving after all, 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. The abundance was in their hearts, not their wallets.  The widow, given Jesus’ commendation of her, doubtless gave from joy. Why else would you do such a thing unless you love God so deeply and trust him so much that you WANT to put in everything you have?

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. They’re intended in part to simply spotlight whether the grace of God is manifest in our giving. They’re not in the Bible to guilt us into giving away all we have.  They’re presented in part to compel us to re-examine our hearts to see if what we are doing with God’s money is a loving response to his grace.

That brings us to the third and final mark of grace giving.  After Paul describes the Macedonian giving, he says in verse eight, “8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  Paul tells these Corinthians he is not commanding them to give.  Again, that would hardly be consistent with grace giving—that’s laying down the law.  His concern is to test the genuineness of their love for God by holding up as an example—the Macedonian believers whose love for God was seen clearly in their giving.  There’s genuine and there’s self-deceived, counterfeit grace-giving and as we know, the best way to spot a counterfeit is to become more exposed to the genuine.  Paul illustrates genuine love for God and others by holding up the Macedonians.  His hope was that as he did so, the Corinthians would be able to hold their love up next to it and see if it’s of the same kind.  In verse nine, he connects the genuineness of their love directly to the gospel.  FOR, you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.  Don’t miss the logic of Paul’s argument here. 

First, he uses the grace-giving of the Macedonians with its genuine grace-manifesting marks to test the genuineness of the Corinthian’s love.  Then he reminds them of the grace God had given to them in the gospel.  One of the church fathers says it this way, “Christ was made poor that we through His poverty might be rich. He took the form of a slave that we might regain liberty. He descended that we might be exalted. He was tempted that we might overcome. He was despised that He might fill us with glory. He died that we might be saved.[3] Today we might say, “I’m forgiven because he was forsaken.”  The Corinthians’ motivation to give is not ultimately the Macedonian believer’s example, but the grace they have received through Jesus Christ. 

Paul is reminding them of God’s grace in Christ to them with the intent that—as they see more clearly the incredible sacrifice Jesus made for them by becoming poor, their hearts will be filled with grateful love for him—and Biblical love never stands idly by clutching its change purse.  A genuine love for Christ, in response to his grace to us will motivate us to give sacrificially just as he gave himself sacrificially for us.  The love that will motivate us to grace-giving is directly proportionate to our understanding and appreciation of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ who became poor for us so we might become rich. The third mark of grace giving is—giving from hearts of love in grateful response to God’s grace to us in the gospel.  The implication is—once you understand and begin to internalize the sacrifice Christ made for you, your heart will fill with love for him that will show itself in sacrificial giving.  That will begin to make clear differences between your standard of living and your peers or family. 

Stinginess is motivated by a heart that says—“I worked hard to get my money—I’m not giving you anything.”  If however we really believe we’ve been given everything we have—most importantly, eternal treasure in heaven through Christ, we will WANT to sacrificially grace-give because we know that’s how we got what we have—through the grace of God in Christ.  Grace-giving says, “Everything I have is because the King of the universe became a pauper for me so that I might become a member of his royal family. So when I see others in need whether the church or individuals, I will with joy give out of the grace that I have been given—in response to God’s grace to me.”

The implication is sobering—if we’re not willing to be sacrificially generous to God with our money, that means we really haven’t come to grips with what God has done for us in Christ.  We don’t really appreciate the great, undeserved sacrifice Jesus made for us.  If we did, we would gladly, joyfully give in response to what we’ve received.  The gospel—Christ becoming poor so we might become rich—is what turns the key in our hearts to be generous with our money.  Even Charles Dickens knew this principle.  When Ebenezer Scrooge woke up on Christmas Day after his three visions, he’d been transformed from a miser to a generous man and the reason is because he’d been given what to him was the most precious thing in the world and he knew he didn’t deserve it—a second chance—a chance to begin anew.  The grace he’d been shown opened up his pocketbook.  

Beloved, we’ve been given the most precious gift in the world—eternal life with God because Jesus gave up everything for us and we didn’t deserve it in the least.  The bottom line is—if we don’t give generously and with great joy, it’s because our hearts haven’t been touched by the gospel.  We keep so much of our money for ourselves because deep down in our hearts we don’t really believe that everything we have has been given to us by God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  If we did, that would open up our hearts in love for Jesus which would open up our wallets and purses to God and others. David Garland says it this way, “The self-emptying of Christ for Christians should lead them to empty their pocketbooks for others[4]

Where are you this morning?  When you give money, is it sacrificial—as Christ gave to you?  Or does all your giving come from discretionary income—what you have that’s left over after you buy what you want?  Is it given with great joy—as a recipient of the greatest Treasure of all?  Is it such that at times you’ll have to trust God to supply your needs in order to give it?  This is grace-giving. This is giving that pleases God.  This is what the widow did when she gave her last penny.  May God give us the grace to search our hearts, rediscover God’s grace to us through Christ and as a result give in a way that honors him for our joy and his glory.

[1] http://www.familiesusa.org/resources/tools-for-advocates/guides/federal-poverty-guidelines.html

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17512040

[3] Garland, D. E. (1999). Vol. 29: 2 Corinthians. The New American Commentary (378). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[4] Garland, D. E. (1999). Vol. 29: 2 Corinthians. The New American Commentary (378). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.


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