In every age, God's people struggle to find the words to speak about the stewardship of money. And though Jesus speaks directly and often about the dangers of allowing money to take the place of God in our lives, people of faith often find such words difficult and awkward. Surely, this awkwardness is compounded many times over in the midst of this economic downturn, in which we currently find ourselves.
On the one hand, thoughtful Christians want to be known as kind and generous people; on the other hand, becoming such a person is not exactly second nature to many of us. For this reason, I believe, Jesus takes an opportunity in the passage before us to point out an unlikely person--a poor widow--as an example of what God values most in the stewardship of our money. I want to suggest that what Jesus values in this woman are a Genuine Heart, a Grateful Spirit, and a Generous Attitude.
Jesus and his disciples were in the temple area near the treasury. From their vantage point, they could see what people were putting into the offering plates. Some of the wealthy folks were putting in large sums of money. Surprisingly, these large sums and the people giving them do not impress Jesus at all. Then along comes a poor widow, who catches the attention of Jesus. The poor widow gives, first of all, from A Genuine Heart.
In the previous verses, Jesus finds himself in a debate with the religious leaders. The religious leaders engage Jesus in arguments about paying taxes to the emperor, about which commandments are the most important, and about how certain laws related to marriage can be interpreted in unusual circumstances. The debate is not engaged from a genuine heart for learning more of God's ways with people, but more as a way of discrediting Jesus. The religious leaders are out to catch Jesus in a theological trap.
Jesus sees through their questions to their true motives. He answers each question without getting caught in the trap. The religious leaders are truly amazed at him. Jesus turns to his disciples and points out the way that these same religious leaders like to be seen in their long robes--it's an impressive display of their authority. He condemns the way they use their positions of influence to their advantage, like getting the best seats in the house in the synagogue and the seats of honor at banquets. In essence, he is saying that their hearts contain the wrong motives--they are out to make themselves look good in the sight of others--first and foremost!
In contrast to them, Jesus sees the poor widow and says, "That's what I'm after!" Her motives are pure. She clearly gives out of a genuine heart for God. Although her gift is meager in comparison to the large sums given by the wealthy, it is by far the greater gift, because it comes from her heart.
I want to suggest that the place to begin in our giving is to examine our hearts. Do we desire to give God the very best that we have, from all that we have?
Several years ago, a Kenyan woman joined our church. Her name was Lydia. She told me that she loved our congregation, but she really missed certain aspects of her home church, especially parts of the worship service. I asked her what she missed the most, and she told me something I've never forgotten. She said, "I miss the offering. In Kenya, we would sometimes dance down the aisles during the offering. We didn't have much to give, but what we did have we gave with much joy. What a privilege to give back to God!" she said.
Ever since that conversation, I try to make the offering more than just a routine part of the worship service. I try to link the offering of our gifts with the attitude of our hearts. As God has given so much to us, especially in and through his son Jesus Christ, surely we can give back to God from glad and joyful hearts!
For Lydia and for the woman in this story, giving an offering to God is first and foremost a matter of having a genuine heart for God. During this season of stewardship in many of our churches, let us remember that God cares more about our heart than the actual amount of the money we give.
Something else is at work in this woman. For her to give such an extravagant gift, she must be giving from A Grateful Spirit. Her gratitude is unspoken, but it is clearly her motivation in giving. Why else would one give so much from the little she had?
Dr. Michael McCullough is a psychologist and the editor of the book The Psychology of Gratitude. In a recent interview on public radio, McCullough says the scientific research reveals what many of us have been taught by our grandmothers all along--taking time daily to be grateful for the blessings in our lives--leads to a higher degree of satisfaction and sense of well-being. McCullough says: "Your grandmother was right. When people are encouraged to take a few moments, every day, even as little time as two or three minutes a day, to simply appreciate a few positive things that typically somebody else did for us, you end up feeling better at the end of the day about your life in general. We see boosts in positive emotion (he says). We see reductions in negative emotion. People are more satisfied with their lives as a whole....They even sleep better at night! They are more prone to spiritual pursuits."
I always love it when the scientific research backs up what the Bible has said all along. The Psalmist says it in Psalm 100: "Enter God's gates with thanksgiving!" The Apostle Paul says it: "Give thanks in all things." (I Thess. 5:18). Jesus encourages daily thanksgiving in the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread." (Matt. 6:11). A grateful heart is a foundation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy life. We would all do well to take time each and every day to count our many blessings.
You can bet that the woman in this story has a grateful spirit for God's blessings in her life. Jesus affirms her because she is giving for all the right reasons-- a genuine heart for God and a grateful spirit.
And there's one more thing going on. The woman's genuine heart for God and grateful spirit motivate her to give with A Generous Attitude.
Her gift is clearly the most generous of all--not in the amount of the gift but in the sacrifice behind it. Jesus says, "All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
When I first came to the church I am serving twelve years ago, I received in the mail a very unusual financial gift at the time of stewardship dedication. The gift was a money order made payable to the church in the amount of $5, along with a personal note of gratitude. At first, I thought the note and the gift were some kind of a joke. Who sends a money order for $5 as a stewardship pledge to a Presbyterian church? In the note, a woman named Lilian Hafer, from Washington, D.C., wrote of how much the church meant to her. She believed in the mission and ministry of our congregation, and it gave her great joy to send her offering. The note was hand-written, clearly written by an elderly person who had difficulty writing. No one in the church seemed to recognize her name. Each year for ten years she sent a money order for $5 with a similar note of gratitude. Then two years ago, I received a phone call from a coroner's office in Washington, D.C. Lilian Hafer had died and had listed our congregation and me personally as "next of kin." She had lived and died in a government-sponsored retirement home with no possessions or money to speak of. The coroner simply wanted to confirm that we knew who she was.
I believe that Lilan Hafer was like the woman in this story. She owned very little. She lived simply. Yet, her life was characterized by the same genuine heart for God and grateful spirit that motivated her to give with a generous attitude of giving. I believe that Jesus would point to Lilian and say, "That's what I'm after!" Follow her example!
Generosity has a way of multiplying itself, doesn't it? Jesus points to the poor widow to both challenge and inspire his followers to likewise give with a generous heart.
Let me close with a wonderful story of what one generous gift can do. Last year, I had the joy of speaking to a weekly prayer gathering of widows who live in the inner city of Atlanta on fixed incomes. After I had spoken, a man who leads a ministry among these widows offered a prayer request. He said that he hoped to initiate a summer internship for urban and suburban young people to work side-by-side in making repairs to the homes of these widows. He said the cost of the summer internship would be $10,000. I thought it was unusual that he would offer the prayer request in the presence of women who had so few resources. However, he did know that they have a powerful gift of prayer!
And they had gifts to give! One of the widows, an 88-year old woman named Mrs. Rhymes, called out a pledge for $12. The women all gave thanks to God for this initial gift and prayed that God would multiply that gift many times over. Several months later, I saw the ministry leader, and I asked him what happened to the summer project. He said that over $10,000 was raised and the program was a huge success, bringing together young people from rich and poor backgrounds to work together to bring the necessary repairs to the homes of these women. He said it was a transforming experience for everyone involved.
It truly is amazing to me that God can take what seems to us like a small gift, and when it is given for all the right reasons--from a genuine heart for God, with a grateful spirit, and a generous attitude--multiply it many times over.
May God bless us in this season of our lives, with those very characteristics that are pleasing to Jesus in the stewardship of our money: a genuine heart, a grateful spirit, and a generous attitude --to the glory of God! Amen.
Let us pray:
Loving and gracious God, thank you for the many blessings that you pour out upon us. Help us to remember these blessings each and every day of our lives. As we give our financial gifts to you, may we give as did the woman in this story and as did Lilian Hafer and Mrs. Rhymes. May our gifts be pleasing to you and may they accomplish your purpose in the world. In Jesus' name. Amen.