Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

The generous giver (Mk 12:41-44)

Its been a momentous week in politics, with the Scottish referendum on independence. If you followed the debate in the run up to Thursday’s vote, you will have seen that economic and financial questions were central to the Yes and No campaigns. Money mattered to them both. For example, the two sides clashed on questions such as:

  • Which currency would an independent Scotland use?
  • How much oil income could Scotland expect to receive if outside the UK?
  • Would supermarket prices go up or down if Scotland went it alone?
  • And would the NHS be better funded from Westminster or from Edinburgh?

It is no surprise that the debate on these topics became very heated. Because, if we are honest, money is close to all our hearts. It is our natural instinct to want to live in material comfort and prosperity. A high income seems to many people to be the best way to guarantee security and comfort for themselves and their family. We live in a materialistic culture where money is idolised and income is to be maximised. A society which believes that only your bank balance can give real security and hope for the future.

But what is the correct Christian attitude to our money? Undoubtedly it is a gift from God, but what does he want us to do with it? As we look at our Bible passage this morning, I hope we will learn from the wisdom of Christ concerning money. Our passage from Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a wise observer. As a man who can see past superficialities to see what’s really going on. Jesus was a financial adviser endorsed by God, not simply the government. He is someone we should all listen to, especially on our annual gift day at St. Michael’s.

But before I begin, let’s pray: Father God, thank you that you speak to us through your Word in the Bible. Help me to explain it now, and help us all to understand. Amen.

A Generous Widow

Today’s Bible passage takes place in the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple was at the very heart of the city, and the most prestigious place of worship in the whole of Israel - a bit like St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey are for us in England today.

It inevitably cost money to keep the Jerusalem Temple running. It was expensive to keep it going as a place where people could meet with God, and meet with one other. Money was needed to support those who worked at the Temple, to keep it clean and well maintained, and to pay for all the sacrifices and services offered to God in that holy place.

St. Michael’s is a Christian church not a Jewish Temple, but like the Temple we too have running costs that need to be met. We too have overheads that must be covered. We too have ministries that require resources to run. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, St. Michael’s relies on the generous giving of its congregation to continue its God-given mission. Thank you to all of you who have supported St. Michael’s work over many years. It would not be here without you.

If we had been one of Jesus’ disciples in the Jerusalem Temple that day, we would have seen a whole congregation of worshippers making their own personal contributions to the Temple treasury. And verse 41 tells us that Jesus was there too. He “sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the Temple treasury.”

There were lots of people in this crowd that Jesus had a low opinion of. People Jesus didn’t admire. Mischievous Pharisees, murderous chief priests, hypocritical teachers of the law, and money-worshipping merchants. But there was at least one person in the Temple that day that Jesus was impressed by. In the middle of the crowd, Jesus noticed one good woman. One “poor widow” who stood out and caught his attention – like a beautiful flower growing in the middle of a rubbish dump, or a star shining against the blackness of space.

And the reason Jesus noticed this poor widow wasn’t because of what she looked like, or what she was wearing or what she said. It was because of what she DID. This poor widow impressed Jesus because she was very, very generous with her money. She was giving generously and sacrificially for the sake of others.

Verse 42 tells us that she put two small coins into the Temple treasury, like we put money into the collection plates when they are passed around church on Sundays. The two coins were actually the smallest, ugliest coins you could get, like putting in two grimy copper coins into the collection today. And we are told that those two coins were worth “only a fraction of a penny”.

From the outside this widow’s donation was remarkably unimpressive, especially compared to the “large amounts” that rich people were putting into the collection at the same time:

  • Her donation probably didn’t make much of a noise when it went into the collection bowl –compared to the great sound that all the coins of the rich people must have made.
  • And her copper coins wouldn’t have looked much compared to the silver and gold coins that rich people poured in.

But amazingly, in verse 43, Jesus tells us that the widow’s donation was greater than the rich people’s gifts. Even though her two coins were smaller and less valuable than the rich people’s coins, Jesus tells us that the widow had really given MORE than them. “Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others’”.

And in verse 44 Jesus tells us why. The rich men “gave out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” The poor widow had made a massive sacrifice, she had been wonderfully generous. In his wisdom, Jesus had seen past the outward show of the wealthy men and observed the true nature of what was taking place. Jesus saw what was taking place in people’s hearts, not simply watching the weight of gold they were giving to the Temple.

The remarkable woman had placed her entire income at God’s service. She had sacrificed all she had to live on. The rich people in the Temple gave more coins than her, but were holding plenty more back in reserve. The widow had given all she had to the Temple, and trusted that God would look after her from now on. She was entrusting her future wellbeing to God, not to her bank balance. She was putting her security in God, not gold. In short, she had performed an amazing act of faith that drew Christ’s commendation.

This is more than just an amazing story, because Jesus wants this widow to be an example to us. We know this, because in verse 43 we are told that Jesus called his disciples together to look at what this woman had done and learn from her. Jesus wanted his disciples to learn that we too should be generous, not greedy, and to put our trust in God, not in our bank balance. And if we are Jesus’ disciples here today, then he also wants us to learn from this widow too. If we are Christians, we too should be sacrificial and generous with our money. Its good for those we give to, and good for us too.

In fact, I was skim-reading a book last week called “Affluenza”. Affluenza is a book by psychologist Oliver James that compares our financial affluence with our emotional wellbeing. He argues that over recent decades the Western world has got wealthier and more materialistic, but over the same period our happiness, our mental health and our anxiety levels have actually deteriorated. Western nations, he says, are suffering from ‘affluenza’. Our attitude to money has become a self-destructive disease, a virus that does us no good. If we seek our security in our income, we will get sick. But if our security, self-worth and hope are in Christ, we are free to be generous with our worldly goods. We are free to give generously to a whole host of good causes. For example:

  • By giving generously to St. Michael’s, you are helping to fund our work with children and young people, so that they can grow up to know and love the Lord Jesus. You are helping to pay for our outreach to our community, as we seek to share the Gospel and God’s love with our neighbours. And you are helping to cover the costs of maintaining and modernising our ministries here on-site.
  • Beyond our own church, we can also give generously to Christian churches and charities doing God’s work elsewhere in our diocese, elsewhere in the UK and elsewhere in the world. I have recently added links to many of these organisations to our website. Organisations like Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Crosslinks, Tearfund and the Church Mission Society. Do please give them your support.

So there are lots of ways we can be generous with whatever money we have. If we are generous, not greedy, then we will be helping other people and honouring God. And if we are generous, not greedy, then even though our bank balance may be a little less we will be trusting God a little more. And of course the great news is that God is completely trustworthy. Following Christ may not make us rich, but it can make us totally content. He may not give us heaps of cash, but he can give us security for eternity.

A Generous Saviour

When Jesus watched the generous woman in the Temple, he was sitting down. When Jesus commended her generosity, he was being a wise observer. But of course Jesus didn’t stay sitting down. He also practised what he preached. Jesus wasn’t just generous with money, he was generous with everything he had. Jesus wasn’t just willing to sacrifice money for others, he was willing to sacrifice his whole life as well.

Jesus gave up all his status, power and privileges as the Son of God when he came down from Heaven to earth to rescue us. Above all, he sacrificed his life on the Cross so that we could be forgiven our sin and saved for eternity. His generosity towards us literally knew no limits. As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8:9 “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ - though he was rich, for our sake he became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich.”

In other words, Christ gave up the glory in Heaven to live and die on a Cross on Earth. He gave up all his divine privileges to give us treasure in Heaven. There are few better ways to show our gratitude to him than by being generous with our own treasure on earth.

So today, on our Gift Day at St Michael’s, can I challenge us all to imitate the poor widow in our passage. Let’s be generous and sacrificial with whatever money we’ve got. We shouldn’t be generous to try and buy our way into heaven, or to earn ourself a place in God’s good books. Jesus has already achieved that for every Christian. But we should be generous because we trust God more than money, because we love our neighbours in need, and because we are grateful to Christ - our generous Saviour.