A couple days ago, the Sunday Pause was about an observation Jesus made while people watching one day in the Temple. At first glance it is a plain, honest story about those who give out of their wealth contrasted with a poor widow who gives from her poverty. However when we read that tiny story in the context of the events leading up to it (good exegetical practice), another possibility emerges that is just as true and just as important.
Previous to the widow story we see religious leaders finding various ways to attack Jesus. In Mark 7, Jesus is criticized by them for allowing his disciples to eat without first washing their hands. These people maintained their religious purity through a strict practice of ritual hand-washing before eating, a ritual they felt Jesus’ followers should practice.
Jesus’ response is to point out that their clean actions don’t compensate for their dirty hearts; that they are more concerned with looking good than being good. To explain this, he reminds them of a law they have created which allows them to declare that a portion of their money is to be set aside strictly for God (of course, as religious professionals they were still entitled to it). By using God as a shelter to protect their money, they were able to avoid using it to help other people, even their own parents who were in need. In this way they were able to selfishly sidestep the larger law of God to help people in need.
Then, in the paragraph just before observing the widow, we see Jesus again railing against the religious leaders who love to be admired for their righteousness and who pray long, pious prayers to impress onlookers, ‘Yet they shamelessly cheat widows…’
Here is that story of the widow’s offering, let’s read it again including the paragraph before it:
“Jesus also taught: ‘Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.’
“Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.
“Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.'”
– Mark 12:38-44 (NLT)
As we consider the background of this story we discover a different angle to the widow’s impoverished gift. Can you see it?
The widow is giving her last money to the Temple, not just because she is faithful, but because she feels she has to! Jesus is saddened that people feel it necessary to give the last of their money because the religious leaders expect it.
Jesus is fingering a religious system that teaches people they have to give more and more in order to be pleasing to God. He laments that the religious system is emptying people of their freedom and ability to live. With that in mind the quote, ‘she has given everything she had to live on’ takes on new meaning…
Of course our minds go immediately to TV preachers who live in sprawling mansions and fly private jets while they relentlessly and shamelessly ask for donations and ‘seed money’ from poor people in order to further ‘the ministry’.
But many of our local religious organizations are also bold and relentless in asking for more. Every project is for God’s church. Every program is an outreach! We need more space, better parking, new equipment! We need more staff! A gym will provide outreach to youth. The pew cushions are worn – we want God’s house to look nice, don’t we? All cloaked in the truth that giving is good but also implying that God’s faithful people will be, must be, giving all they can and more.
Is this the kind of kingdom Jesus envisioned? An empire of hundreds of thousands of groups of people spending money to build and maintain their hundreds of thousands of buildings and continually strategizing new programs that are better than the previous ones? Telling us that God demands our tithes (does he, really?) and our offerings (does he, really?). Your money should come to this place before you give elsewhere. Professional religious leaders, professional fund raisers, professional church-growers, layers of management and protection and rah rah for us.
It wasn’t Jesus’ idea. ‘You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
Do you ever feel guilted into giving money – whether you have it or don’t have it? Do you ever feel pressured? Is your faith or love ever called into question over how you give?
Don’t let guilt control you. Don’t let God be boxed in.
Look, there is no biblical formula to how we should share money. God simply asks us to be generous. Sure, give something to your church but feel free to look past it too. Give what you can, when you can. Give to the poor and needy when you see them. Give wildly to charities and places of need that touch your heart and soul. Give freely out of love and gratitude to a God who extravagantly gave us this world and everything on it.