And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury (Mark 12:41).
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill,
O may it all my powers engage,
To do my Master’s will.
Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live,
And, Oh, Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give.
As in Thy sight to live! Let the high meaning of that line take hold of you. Rightly understood, it contains the whole of stewardship. For stewardship, be it remembered, is far more than money. Stewardship is manhood. It is all of life regarded as a happy and a holy trust, for which at last we must give account. In a shining word of personal witness, Martin Luther summed it all up when he said: “I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord who redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature … in order that I might be his son, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness.”
Note the words—“live under him in his kingdom.” That is responsible living, with his eye ever upon us.
Now this truth is sharply, dramatically, and beautifully pointed up for us in the incident with which our text is connected. Let us picture the scene. It is in Herod’s temple, in the court of women which would hold roughly 15,000 persons. One section of the court is set aside for the receiving of gifts from the people. Here are 13 large, brazen receptacles, sometimes called “trumpets,” because of their wide trumpet-shaped mouths. Nine of them are for the temple tax and for those money gifts that serve in place of sacrifices. Four are for contributions toward the purchase of such things as incense, temple decorations, and burnt offerings.
A Big Gift
Only copper coins can be used in these offerings, which means that in the case of the wealthy many pieces of money are thrown in by each giver, and resounding announcement is thus made that here is a big gift!
All this is going on under the observant eye of the Lord. Now there approaches a woman out of whose life has gone the supporting hand of a husband and breadwinner. Her widowhood is compounded of loneliness and poverty. Surely she is to be excused from giving. Or is she? What is to be done about it if somehow she cannot excuse herself?
At the moment her entire earthly estate consists of two lepta, a lepton being the smallest copper coin in the currency of the day, worth about one quarter of a cent. When both of those coins drop from the hand of the woman into the collection box, Jesus notices this, and, signaling to his disciples to come close, he says to them, “This poor widow cast in more than all they that are casting into the treasury.”
“For you see,” he continues, according to Phillips’ rendering, “they have all put in what they can easily spare, but she in her poverty who needs so much, has given away everything, her whole living!”
These are the broad outlines of the scene. What now are the details? What exactly did Jesus take note of that day?
For one thing, he saw in the stewardship of living and giving that motives are more important than measures. A friend of mine is right when he says, “God is not impressed with large amounts, but by a sacrificial spirit of devotion.” When you talk about “amounts” you are in the field of measures, but when you think of the “spirit of devotion” you are in the area of motives.
The man just ahead of this widow let fall a gift one hundred times bigger than hers, but he gave chiefly to produce an effect, to achieve or maintain a reputation. The woman behind her also gave a sum far larger than hers, but the motive behind it was purely a sense of duty, a dull, even irritating thing.
But “this poor widow” was obviously motivated by a spirit as high as the sky—her love for God and his house! The words St. Paul was later to write would have disqualified many contributors that day, but not this widow: “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3).
Meaning And Dignity
How urgently we need to have our whole thinking elevated and Christianized at this point! It is the “why” of life, the “why” of stewardship, that gives meaning and dignity to the “what.”
When we can honestly say, “As in thy sight to live,” we shall begin to realize that, while measures are concerned with the quantity of life, motives are concerned with the quality of life.
There is something else this watchful Christ saw. He observed that universals are more meaningful than particulars.
If you say, “Wait a minute, that sounds airy and abstract,” I shall have to agree with you. Still, its meaning can be made reasonably plain. It is this: you do not find a woman making such a costly gift as this unless she is living by the basic conviction that God has first claim on her and on whatever she has, be it much or little.
We have arrived at a time when millions of Americans are living, or trying to live, without any universals in their lives, any broad and basic convictions that give dignity to their existence and control to their conduct. They live in particulars: a particular truth in a particular situation if the particular situation seems to them to call for it; and a particular lie in a particular situation if either the situation or their mood seems to call for that; but, in any case, no admission of a higher and universal obligation to truth and, therefore, no uncompromising commitment to truth.
Carry this thought over into the life of the Christian and the area of his giving. How many of us are governed in our giving by particulars far more than universals? We give a particular amount if in a particular situation we feel a particular impulse. If we happen to be “flush,” the church is fortunate, for our gift can be a pretty big one. But if the bank account is low and the future looks gray, the church and the Lord had better make some other provisions because in this situation little or nothing is going to be contributed.
The late Bishop Edgar Blake prepared a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in which he suggested that the robbers, the priest and the Levite, and the Good Samaritan represent three different views of life and life’s possessions. The philosophy of the robbers was: “What’s yours is mine, I’ll take it.” The philosophy of the priest and Levite was: “What’s mine is my own, I’ll keep it.” The philosophy of the Samaritan was: “What’s mine is yours, I’ll share it.”
It is a good outline, and it moves us in the right direction, but it fails to put around life the binding persuasion it needs. It fails to reach the height of genuine Christian stewardship. A charitable pagan might say: “What is mine is yours, I’ll share it;” whereas an informed and dedicated Christian will say; “What is God’s is mine, I’ll administer it.” It is not mine to do with as I please. It is his for me to employ as shall please him.
Can you doubt that this widow was deeply and ungrudgingly committed to such a universal truth as that? I cannot. It was this, in part, that Jesus saw as he watched the worshipers in the court of women.
He saw something else: that not even economic disadvantage can thwart spiritual dedication.
Again we see the picture. “Many rich people put in large sums” (v. 41 RSV).… “A poor widow came and put in two copper coins” (v. 42). Then the excitement (is not the word justified?) of Jesus, as he tells his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” Mark that word “more.”
Then the explanation: “For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty.…” Williams translates it, “out of their surplus,” and Weymouth, “what they had to spare.”
If ever a worshiper had an excuse for saying, “I can’t give; I have nothing,” it was this woman. But she gave anyway. She gave what would have gone for her next meal. Her piety, spoken even in penuary, drew the glowing praise of Christ.
We must not conclude that Jesus was saying every good steward must quite literally put all his material wealth in the offering place. We do not know all the circumstances surrounding this incident.
If we are to be saved from making a mockery of this tremendous lesson, one point must be thrust home to us. The givers who made a minimum use of their economic advantage got no compliment from Jesus, while the woman who made a maximum use of economic disadvantage drew his abounding approval.
You may wonder at this, but I believe it would be difficult to disprove: 95 per cent of all the religious giving done by Americans today is out of our “surplus.” Perhaps you say, “I can’t accept that. In my family, we don’t have a surplus. What we set aside in tithes for the kingdom of God sometimes pinches us.”
How well I know it! Because, you see, I am in the same boat with you. But the catch is that this “surplus” we are thinking about, and which we solemnly affirm we don’t have, is something that only enters the picture with us Americans after we have taken our cut of the luxuries of life. To be sure, after the money is all spent (or at least contracted for), then we are feeling the pinch of it all, and can’t be expected to go through with anything like a systematic and liberal scheme of Christian stewardship.
If you take any standard book of statistics, such as World Almanac or Information Please, you can dig out some sobering figures. In recent years the total giving through all American religious bodies has come to roughly 2 billion dollars. At the same time, however, our spending for tobacco has been running around 5 billion, our spending for vacations over 9 billion, our indulgence in recreation and sports about 17 billion, and money set aside in the form of “savings” has totaled over 19 billion annually.
Add to all this the fact that while we Americans account for only seven per cent of the world’s population, we own almost 50 per cent of its wealth. Am I wrong in saying that practically all of our giving to Christian causes has been out of our “abundance?”
It is time we did some sober self-analysis as members of the Church of Christ. Perhaps you are not among the wealthy, nor even among the “better off.” But take the challenge from the example of a woman whose spiritual devotion leaped over the wall of economic disadvantage and gave in spite of it. Christ has set his seal upon this truth: “The gift that counts is the gift that costs.” What a woman she was! She turned scarcity into a sacrament. She took financial handicap and fashioned it into a halo.
Givers And Gifts
One last thing that Jesus saw, sitting there against the treasury: givers are more to be desired than gifts.
The fact that God got her coppers was not the most significant thing about this incident. It was the higher fact that God had her.
When St. Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, he chided them for being meager and miserly in their giving of their substance to Christian work. He set before them the magnificent example of the Christians up in Macedonia who had no wealth but gave with joyous and sacrificial abandon. But Paul does not end his illustration without giving the key to this generous stewardship. He says of these Macedonian Christians that “they first gave their own selves to the Lord” (2 Cor. 8:5).
No giving short of this ever meets God’s test or gladdens the heart of his son. We have Christians who are willing to give the Lord all the marginal things—bits of time, bits of church going, bits of Bible study, bits of everything but the central thing: themselves!
A businessman said to a minister: “My self says to me 20 times a day: I’ll do this, I’ll do that, I’ll give up this and I’ll give up that, but please let me stay at the center!” To this he added: “I’m trying to live the Christian life, but I’m having a hard time of it.”
Of course he was! For behind all true stewardship is a cross. That cross spells death—the death of this grasping, wretched ego which needs nothing quite so much as to be cancelled out in the full enthronement of Jesus Christ as sanctifying Lord of our lives. The minister and the businessman knelt together while the full, central surrender was made and the full control of the Holy Spirit was accepted. Has this taken place in our lives?
When it has, we shall find that stewardship is more than giving. Stewardship is living. It is living under the eyes of One who still sits over against the treasury—watching. So:
Give as you would if an angel
Awaited your gift at the door.
Give as you would if tomorrow
Found you where giving is o’er.
Give as you would to the Master
If you met His loving look.
Give as you would of your substance
If His hand your offering took.
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