You've probably heard of Bill Gates. Straight after University young Gates started a little software company called Microsoft, which grew quite a bit… and he now has a net worth of $89 billion! If he spends $1million a day, it'll take him 245 years to spend his fortune! I bet some of you are now sitting there thinking 'How would I spend $1 million a day?' But anyway, Bill and Melinda Gates have instead become the world's most generous givers. He and his wife have given $41 billion to charity - including giving more than $8 billion to improve global health. Although despite that, he's still one of the world's richest men! Now, it's right that we applaud his desire to do good with his wealth. He's inspired many other billionaires. But let me ask you a question - How would you like to give more than Bill and Melinda Gates? You see, the shock of today's passage is that we meet a woman who, in God's eyes, gave even more than Bill and Melinda Gates! How could that be possible?!
Well we'll find out as we look through this short but punchy story and it will help us to answer the question 'what is the sort of generosity that pleases God'? How can we please him with our money whether we've got plenty of money (and we're comfortable) or we are in need (and we're struggling to pay for the next meal). I'm conscious that we have folks across the whole financial spectrum here at St Joseph's, and I hope you'll see that this passage speaks to both ends of the scale and everyone in between. So let's dive in and take a look at Mark 12.41. Jesus is still in the temple area in Jerusalem, his disciples are nearby, and we read this:
"…he [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box."
We're not sure exactly what the setup was, but it's clear that from where Jesus was sitting, he could see what was being put in. There are some references in Jewish writings to there being 13 trumpet-shaped containers in the temple for different types of gifts. And Jesus is sitting, watching the people – just like we might enjoy sitting in a train station, sipping our cappuccino and watching the world go by… Let's read on:
"Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny."
And instantly Jesus spots a chance to teach his disciples what true generosity and real faith looks like. This woman is just a poor widow - but she has a lot more to her than meets the eye. You can imagine Jesus spotting her and quickly beckoning over the disciples. And they all lean in eagerly to hear what he's got to say. It's there in verse 43:
"Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For 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."
What?! Out of all those who've contributed to the offering boxes – even the Bill Gates' of that day, even those who arrived with horses loaded full of coins, pouring money into the offering box – out of all of them, this widow has contributed the most. Really? Are you serious Jesus? And the obvious question is:
1. How did she Give the Most?
How was it more? Well Jesus points us to three reasons. Let's have a look. The first one is:
a) Because it was costly
Widows had few ways to support themselves and were often taken advantage of as we've already seen. They usually had very little money. And yet this woman put in everything she had, all she had to live on. She kept nothing back. You see, God looks not just at the amount given but at how much we have – that is, our ability to give. He's interested in us being willing to make a sacrifice for him. And the real measure of true sacrifice is not what we give, but what we keep, isn't it? The real measure of true sacrifice is not what we give but what we keep. That's a challenging thought for all of us. But the amazing thing about this woman, is that she wanted to make that sacrifice. That's the second reason she gave more:
b) Because she wanted to
You see, the law in the Old Testament instructed that some of the people's giving should go directly to widows and people with no land or income. And yet this woman, chose to give even when it wasn't expected of her. She didn't have to! And yet do you notice how many coins she had? Two! So she could so easily have said 'half for me, half for God'. That seems fair doesn't it! We certainly wouldn't have thought she was being stingy if that's what the story had said! But no, this woman wanted to give both. Why?
c) Because she trusted God with everything
This woman had virtually nothing, and instead of clinging on to what she did have, she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had, all she had to live on. On one level we look at her giving and we think 'that's nuts!' Giving everything? Surely that's irresponsible? And maybe it was in a sense – the Bible does encourage us to be wise with how we use our money and to plan. But here's what it so clearly reveals. It reveals where her heart is, doesn't it? What it shows is that she trusted God with everything.
And if we're to understand the punch of Jesus' message here, we need to step back and see the contrast with the Jewish religious leaders. You see, over the course of this chapter in Mark, and right before this passage, we read about the Jewish religious teachers of the day who claimed to trust God and yet in their hearts they were doing nothing of the sort! Where the Jewish religious leaders had a fake outer cloak of faith, the widow had genuine faith. Where they were showy about their faith, wanting praise from those around them and praying long prayers on street corners, she was humble. And where they looked like they were giving significant amounts but, in reality, weren't making any sacrifices, what she was saying as she put those coins in the box, just between her and God, was, 'I love you, all I have is yours. Here's my heart, and my life.' Earlier in the chapter one of the scribes asks Jesus which is the most important commandment. And Jesus says:
"you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength."
Do we love him enough to trust him? I guess that's the main challenge for us from this passage:
2. Challenges for Us
a) Ask ourselves – do we trust God?
Do we trust him enough to give him our heart and our life and our money? When we're honest with ourselves, we know that we too can very easily be like those religious leaders can't we? We slip into looking like people who love God, making all the right noises, and yet, what we do behind closed doors wouldn't always point to our love of God. Whether that's our prayer life, our internet history or our giving. And so we need to examine our hearts and ask whether God would be pleased with our lives and our giving.
You see, this passage is like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, for those who have little, it's a great encouragement isn't it? You don't need to be Bill Gates to be able to show great love for God. We can show our love for God even with a small amount given sacrificially – and it won't be any less precious to God than giving millions. But to those who are better off, it's stark warning that God sees our heart, and he knows what we keep for ourselves. We can't pull the wool over God's eyes! So this passage can be both a terror and a comfort. I wonder which way it strikes you?
For me personally and my wife Sophie, as we've looked at this passage together, and as I've been preparing this sermon, we've been praying that we would trust God enough to say 'all I have is yours' – our heart, our life, our money. And therefore give sacrificially and not just comfortably. It's not a comfortable prayer. But it feels like the right response. And this story tells us that if we trust God then we will:
b) Give sacrificially and not just comfortably
If we don't notice our giving or if we're not having to make any changes to our lifestyle as a result, then it's probably not sacrificial. But I also want to encourage you and say thank you. Because we've seen amazing sacrificial giving as we've setup St Joseph's over the last few years. We're so thankful to God for that – and for what it shows about folks' trust in God. So let's be thankful and let's keep going.
To that end, here are some quick, practical thoughts on our giving from the Bible. Firstly, if you're not giving at all, let me encourage you to get into the habit of giving regularly. Giving and generosity are very much a habit we can get into. So start now and practice it as a habit. It's a habit that will be good for your soul. Jesus said 'it is more blessed to give than to receive'.
If you're a parent, help your kids get into that habit. I'm very thankful to my mum & dad who encouraged me into a habit of giving at least 10% right from the first time I got pocket money. They helped me to appreciate what I had and to see that I shouldn't just keep it all for myself. And it sowed a habit that I don't regret. It was a blessing.
Let me also say that, everyone can give something. As Christians we are to be characterized by generosity – that might be giving away millions, or it might be giving away a slice of bread to the homeless person next to us, when all we have is a single loaf of bread. Whatever we have, we can give away something and have a spirit of generosity. Most evidence seems to point to the fact that the more people have, the less they give away as a percentage - so don't wait until you have a certain income before giving, start now and make it a habit.
But let me also say, particularly to those more comfortably off, don't give out of what's left – give out of what you start with. Don't give God the dregs. Instead look joyfully at what he's given you, consider how you can be generous with it and how you can use it to bless others, and think about what you could give back to God.
This story also tells us that giving should be joyful. Both because we're thankful to God and because we're blessed in having the ability to be generous. So whilst it's helpful to develop a good habit, if you've been giving for a long time in a certain way it can become a bit stale. It just automatically goes out your bank account or you have a set %. So maybe this year, rather than trying to develop a neat, tidy giving technique—why not lay it all before God. Ask Him to lead your heart and open your spiritual eyes - so that your giving can be a joy rather than a duty. Listen to this from the great 19th century bishop JC Ryle:
"Above all, let us give as the disciples of a crucified Saviour, who gave Himself, for us, body and soul, on the cross. Freely we have received. Let us freely give."
We don't give sacrificially because we're forced to. We give because we have been shown incredible generosity ourselves. And as we look to the cross and all that we've received in Jesus, how can we not freely give ourselves?
The widow in this story sowed generously. She humbly gave all she had – two, small, copper coins – and as far as she was aware, not a single person even noticed. Yet Jesus did! And here we are, remembering her 2000 years later. She sowed generously and God has brought about a rich harvest.
So let's pray that he would enable us to sow generously and joyfully here in the North East, both as individuals and as a church. Wouldn't it be great in heaven, to be like that widow and be overwhelmed with joy when we find out that God has taken what we've sown and produced a harvest here far greater than we could ever even contemplate? Can you imagine that widow finding out how God used her two coins?