Giving Out of Poverty

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“[Jesus] 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. 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’” (Mark 12:43-44).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When I started out as a pastor, the congregation I served published a list of giving, breaking it down into the number of anonymous family units giving at various levels: those who gave nothing during the year, those who gave 1 to 100 dollars, 101 to 200 dollars, 201 to 300 dollars, and so on. Because they had been doing this for many years, the list came out before I had a chance to offer any input. During the next year, I had a number of opportunities to discuss with the church’s leadership some of the stewardship implications of such a list. On the positive side, I found out that the congregation had at least given up the practice of publishing a complete list of the amounts given by each donor some forty years earlier. That had caused a number of hard feelings. We Americans with a northern European heritage take our privacy seriously—especially when it comes to money. And unfortunately, there was always a temptation for those giving the largest amounts to think that entitled them to a larger voice in congregational business.
We talked about how such lists can be a helpful tool—to a limited extent. It is good for congregational leadership to have an idea of how many people are giving and how many are not. It is helpful to see trends of offerings from year to year. But publishing such a list for the whole congregation teaches a number of poor stewardship principles. While it can display cold dollars and cents, it cannot measure the heart. Sadly this method often resorts to the use of shame or appealing to pride for motivation to give rather than trust in God’s goodness.
This negative potential was affirmed soon after the congregation decided to discontinue publishing the list. One of the members spoke to me privately. “Pastor, I’m disappointed that we quit publishing the list of giving. My wife and I used it to gauge our own offering. We always figured if we ended up as one of the top three givers we were doing well. If we weren’t, we knew we needed to raise our weekly offering.” I just shook my head and asked him if he really thought that was the most God-pleasing way to decide what to give. He sheepishly admitted, “No, it’s probably not.” And to his credit, he never brought it up again.
Faithful stewardship is not a matter of dollars and cents, but a matter of the heart. Jesus teaches us this in our Gospel as He contrasts the hypocrisy of the scribes with the faith of the poor widow. Beware of the scribes! They wear long flowing robes in the marketplaces to evoke honorable greetings. They have seats up front in the synagogues and thus are highly visible to the crowds. And, of course, they take places of honor at banquets. What self-centered pride!
But there is an even darker side. Like the televangelists today who prey on the homebound who watch them on TV, the scribes make easy marks of the helpless widows. Instead of helping them, the scribes take advantage of them for their own profit. Then they cover up their wickedness with long-winded prayers so that everyone will think them to be holy. They may be able to fool men but not God. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” says the One who will judge all on the Last Day. God doesn’t take kindly to defrauding widows.
While Jesus and His disciples are sitting in the courtyard, a widow enters with her offering. Offerings in Jesus’ day weren’t handled the way we do today, at a specific moment in the service. Instead, there were thirteen trumpet-shaped metal receptacles. Worshipers would walk up and drop in their coins. Often people would mill around and watch, waiting for a particularly loud offering to be made by one of the rich people, and hear it clang down the neck into the treasury box.
Then this widow drops in a couple of copper coins. These were leptons, the smallest coins in circulation—in today’s money, a fraction of a cent. Not big enough to make a ping that could be heard above the noise of the crowd. But Jesus hears, and to His discerning ears it is the sweet sound of faith and trust—a widow’s trust in the goodness and mercy of God who cares for the widow and orphan. Bold faith that dares to put her last two pennies into the collection place.
It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of a three-year-old being excited about a couple of pennies, but Jesus is! He tells His disciples: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” With Jesus it’s not the amount that counts; it’s faith. Faith alone.
All of you probably recognize this story teaches proportional giving. Jesus says the rich give out of their abundance. They make a lot, and so they give a lot. But the woman gives all she has, 100 percent. Proportional, or percentage, giving is always the way God prescribes. In the Old Testament, Israel was required to give 10 percent of their crops or whatever form of income they received. The tithe was God’s system of percentage giving. One reason God prescribed percentage giving is that it works at any income level. It grows or shrinks with the paycheck.
Now in the New Testament, God still speaks about proportional giving, but He doesn’t demand a particular percentage. We can give more or less than 10 percent. But offerings should still reflect the way we’ve been blessed. How do our financial blessings compare with those of the widow in our text? More important, how have we been blessed spiritually compared to those Old Testament people who had to give 10 percent? They were blessed with the promise of a Savior to come someday. We are blessed with the certainty that the promise has been fulfilled. The Savior, Jesus Christ, has come. We know He died and rose for us, that He has taken away our sins. Could we really consider giving a lesser proportion of our income than people who only looked ahead for the promise?
Now something you may not know—or may not always consider—about the story of the widow’s mite: It isn’t primarily a story about proportional giving. It isn’t primarily a story about giving at all. No, the story of the widow’s mite is primarily a story about faith. Faith is recognizing what God has done for us in the past and believing what He will continue to do for us in the future.
The widow in our text has so little of everything except faith. She’s lost her husband, which in those days meant she’s lost her source of income. She is literally down to her last cent. Yet somehow this woman believes God has done right by her and trusts that He will continue to do so in the future. And that leads her to display her faith with a “reckless” gift of all she has.
Christian giving is always a matter of faith. Do we recognize what God has done for us in the past? Do we trust that He’ll be there for our future? God has given us all we have. God has given us a Savior. Do we believe He’ll continue to provide and save in the future? If we believe as the widow did, our giving will be in substantial proportion too. Christian giving is primarily a question of faith, isn’t it—of trust that God will take care of us? The widow in our text trusts totally.
Boy, does that come into play on the last thing we need to talk about this morning. There’s one thing no one knows about the story of the widow’s mite: What happens to her after she gives? We would like to think that Jesus and the disciples take her under their care. Surely Jesus didn’t walk away without helping that day, but what about future days? Did she starve? Maybe. It’s absolutely possible. We’d like to say, “No way! God would feed her!” But we don’t know.
It’s no accident Mark doesn’t tell us. If he did, it would ruin the story. If he did give us an earthly happy ending, we might think the point is if we do what God wants, He’ll take care of us. If we tithe this year, our income will go up next year. But such a view sells God short. He is not into quid pro quo, but grace and mercy. God cares for us because He loves us, not because we make a deal with Him.
Mark fully intends to leave us in uncertainty about what happened to the widow, because our Christian offerings are always to be given in the face of uncertainty; they are always to be an exercise in faith. We don’t know about our jobs next year. We don’t know we won’t face catastrophic bills. Those things are always possible because God doesn’t promise that kind of security to anyone.
What we do have is a far greater security. Our epistle from Hebrews reminds us, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time… to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (9:28). Here’s something that’s never uncertain: Christ is coming back for us. Heaven is one certainty every Christian can hold on to. Jesus’ death and resurrection have made it certain for everyone who believes. And if we mattered to God that much, we can also be certain that He will care for us every day in the meantime—somehow.
This was the faith of the woman. Not that she’d have a meal tomorrow; she really didn’t know where her next meal was coming from—or if there’d be one. Not faith in the next meal, but faith that God would take care of her—His way. Maybe a well-to-do widower would walk into her life tomorrow. Maybe friends would take her in. Maybe God would call her home; but if so, it would be the culmination of what she’d really been trusting all along: provision and security that would be perfect and without end. This is the richness by which we give out of our poverty: when God tells us He will take care of us, we can be sure it’s true.
As you sit here this morning, you don’t know for sure your income for the coming year; you don’t know you’ll have an income. You don’t know if you’ll have a crop; if the yields and prices will be high or low. You don’t know what your expenses might turn out to be. But you don’t have to give in to that uncertainty. You do know you have the Lord. That’s for certain. You do know He has earned for you eternal life; that’s absolutely certain. And you do know He already cares for you and that He’s going to keep caring for you. That’s certain too.
The poor widow held those two precious pennies loosely with the dead hand of faith. That’s how she could so easily let go of them. She was dead to them and alive to God. Everyone else contributed out of abundance; she out of poverty. Those two pennies—they were all she had. And she gave it all away because she realized it wasn’t hers in the first place—everything she had was a gift of God.
I doubt that any of us is going to put everything we have in the collection plate this morning. I know I won’t. And while it may be more than a couple of pennies or even dollars there is no reason for pride or boasting in our generosity. This poor widow’s two pennies will rise up to testify against us. She’s there to keep us from being proud of our giving and to call us to repent of our distrust of the Lord and His goodness. She’s there to remind us of our poverty.
Luther said at the end of his life, “We are all beggars.” It’s the truth. Like the poor widow, we have nothing to offer God. That’s true not just spiritually, but also financially. In reality, you and I don’t own a single thing. Between us, we don’t even have two pennies to rub together that we can legitimately call our own. All that we are and all that we have belongs to the Lord. He just places it under our stewardship to use for His glory and the good of our neighbor.
God freely gives you all that you need to support this body and life and the next. Solely out of His goodness and mercy, He richly provides for you, a poor, miserable sinner. He does something with His Word that you cannot do for yourself. He forgives you. He makes you His own in Baptism. He feeds you the bread of His body, the wine of His blood. In the midst of sin’s famine, to your utter lack and emptiness, to your spiritual hunger and thirst for righteousness, God gives you the Bread of Life. In Him, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Based upon a sermon by Carl C. Fickenscher II for Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 22, Part 4, p. 43-45.


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