This is my favorite kind of story – the one where the underdog comes out on top.
So it’s strange that I’m not too fond of it.
Jesus is in the temple, watching people put money in the treasury. If we translate this to today, we might put Jesus in a church balcony. From his bird’s eye view he watches the service take place: hymns are sung, prayers are said, a sermon is preached. Then it comes time for the offering. He watches the plates pass from one pew to another. He sees a few people get out over-sized checkbooks and fill in the extra-large “amount” boxes. They place their checks in the plates, unfolded, so everyone on their pew can be impressed as all those zeros float by.
But not Jesus. He’s not impressed. His attention has moved elsewhere.
Jesus is focused on a little old lady sitting in a far back corner. The ushers either forgot her, or assumed she had nothing to give – the plate never came to her pew. So she gets up and goes to the back of the church where the ushers are standing. She places two crumpled up dollar bills in a offering plate. The ushers smile politely.
Back up in the balcony, Jesus waves and points to get his disciples to see what he’s seeing. “What? What happened?” they ask, a bit confused; some of them were daydreaming.
“Did you see that widow give two dollars into the offering?” Jesus asks, his eyes a little misty with tears.
“Yeah, I saw it,” one disciple responds. Without thinking, he gives a little laugh and adds: “That’ll cover 1/2,000th of the budget for the week! Maybe she should have kept those two dollars for her groceries.”
In a flash, Jesus’ eyes turn from sparkling-kindness to hard-scrutiny. “Listen up,” he says. The disciples snap to; no one’s laughing now. “Here’s the real truth: she gave more than any of those big-checked, deep-pocketed folks. They gave just a part. She gave a leap-of-faith everything.”
It’s a great story where the underdog wins. The problem is that I am not the underdog in this scenario.
I possess far more than just two dollars. I am a middle class American. I’m not so wealthy that I have an oversized checkbook, but I am so wealthy that I can have all I need and most of what I want. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, the global standard for “poor” or “low income” means living on less than $10/day. “High” income is more than $50/day. I did the math, and I’m way above $50/day. If you live in the United States, the odds are good that you are, too.
It doesn’t always feel like it, but the reality is: We’re rich. That means that we middle-class Americans are not the heroes of this story. We’re the ones who “give out of their abundance.”
I want to be the one that Jesus would be proud of, the one that Jesus brags on to his disciples. So I guess I better give everything I have, right?! Get me an oversized check…
But wait: is that right? If I give everything, then that’s going to create some problems. Maybe I could make it paycheck to paycheck – maybe – but there’d be no contingency plan, no college savings, no retirement account. The next time my car breaks down or my kid breaks an arm, we’re in big trouble.
Which makes me wonder whether Jesus really wants me to put everything I have in the offering.
Some Biblical scholars think not. Some are of the opinion that the widow in this story isn’t a hero at all, but a victim of the religious establishment. The Temple took her last two coins – and just a few verses later, Jesus predicts the destruction of that Temple (which happened in 70 A.D. by the Romans). This gives us a tempting interpretation: we’re to pity this widow, not admire her!
It’s tempting to lean into this alternative perspective. I’m not supposed to give everything after all! Thank goodness – now, back to online shopping…
But I’m not sure that’s the point Jesus is making, either.
Jesus is genuinely praising this widow. Her willingness to give everything is worth more to Jesus than the rich guys’ willingness to give a part. And it’s that willingness that’s key; maybe we still have retirement plans and college savings and a cushion in our checking accounts that will cover the next rainy day. But we should be willing and ready to give it all for Jesus, if and when that’s required of us.
It’s like… signing up for military service.
Today is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember those who’ve served in the military. I’m happy and grateful to honor these men and women, especially because I myself have not put my time in. They have been at work on my behalf. I am here because they were there. Today is a day to pause and appreciate that fact.
When someone signs up for military service, they take an oath of enlistment:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
That oath means that they will be willing and ready to go wherever they’re needed and do whatever is required of them. It might even mean giving everything – giving one’s life in service. It might not; and for many it does not. But everyone who enlists is essentially giving up their lives because they’re committing to do so should the time come.
When we sign up to be followers of Christ, it’s a very similar arrangement. Jesus might call on us to die for our faith – as many Christian martyrs have done. Jesus might call on us to give all our money away – as he did for the rich young ruler in Mark 10. Or… we may never be asked to give our lives or our money in their entirety. Like a soldier, the moment we started following Christ it’s as though we gave it all away – because we’ve agreed to give it all to serve Christ, however it might be needed of us.
If you’re a Christian and you’re thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute – I didn’t think it was giving up everything to follow Christ” – well, you’re not alone. We Christians often feel that way. We come down for an altar call all green and excited like – well, like an 18-year-old soldier idealistically enlisting for military service. Like that solder, the longer we serve the more we understand the entirety of what we’ve signed up for.
And even if we understood the full commitment when we first said “yes,” time can make us comfortable. We get accustomed to a certain standard of living. Then, when Jesus does ask us to give our whole selves for some kingdom work, we might find ourselves unwilling to put those last two dollars in the offering plate (so to speak).
In order to keep ourselves ready for service to Christ, we Christians have to train just like soldiers do. We call our training “spiritual disciplines” – things like reading Scripture and praying and attending church and serving others that keep our spiritual lives strong.
If we want to keep ourselves ready to give everything for Christ, then the spiritual discipline we need is the one the widow did in today’s story: making an offering.
Mercifully, the Christian tradition for an offering isn’t to give everything, but to “tithe.” Based on Biblical passages like Numbers 18:26, a tithe is a 10% gift to God. You don’t have to be a math whiz to note that 10% is far from “everything.” We keep 90%!
This seems really easy until you start actually tithing. 10% of your paycheck may be more money than you really wanted to put in the offering plate. For most of us, this is the Goldilocks sweet spot. It’s large enough to be a sacrifice but small enough to give us plenty leftover to pay the bills – just right.
Along with tithing is a tradition of giving our “first fruits.” Old Testament passages like Exodus 23 instructed God’s people to give the first of their crops or livestock to God in offering. For those of us who aren’t farmers (that is: almost all of us), this translates into writing our offering check before any other bills. I confess, some weeks I’m tempted to put off writing that tithe check – but to the best of my ability, I write that one as soon as our paychecks drop in our bank account.
For me, a 10% offering that comes first is an essential spiritual discipline. This weekly practice reminds me that everything I have came from God, and that God comes first in my life. In other words, my offering helps me to stay ready to give everything if and when it’s required of me.
As we think about what our own spiritual discipline of making an offering should look like, we’d do well to remember that the hero of this story gave two tiny coins. She gave almost nothing… but she gave everything. The important part isn’t the amount, but the heart behind it.In that spirit, I have a challenge for you. Find two one-dollar bills. Take them to church with you the next time you go. Think of that widow. Imagine that these are the last two dollars you have to your name. Then, place them in the offering plate and say this little prayer:
“Jesus, all that I have is yours.”
Pew Research: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/09/how-americans-compare-with-the-global-middle-class/