This isn’t a Sunday School lesson about money. This is about Jesus, and the generosity of faith. The quote above is often ascribed to Luther, though I was unable to trace down the exact source. Authentic or not, the principle holds that a genuine faith in Jesus changes more than our personal philosophy or sentimental feelings about God. Such faith is bound also to impact the Christian’s relationship to the physical things of this world, especially the ones that have been entrusted to our own care and keeping.
Our passage for Sunday School this week from Mark 12:41-44 shows that Jesus takes note of what people do and how they go about doing it. He sits Himself down here near the offering box. He makes Himself a spectator as people come and go into the temple. Jesus “watched the people” come and go, give and leave. Worse yet, perhaps, Jesus “called his disciples to him” and talks to them about those other people’s deeds.
Some religious folks routinely abuse the notion that “Jesus is watching.” It becomes a frightening threat hanging over our heads, meant to make people better behave according to the Law–or else! On the other hand, “Jesus is watching” becomes a false promise that Christ is surely offering extra special rewards and recognition for our conspicuous acts of faith. God forbid that we (or our kids!) walk away from this Gospel today with such legalistic anxiety, guilt, or false hopes. We will have missed what Jesus means to show His disciples here.
Consider these verses from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
The world praises generosity, recognizing that people who have plenty should be generous, not greedy. Christians and Non-Christians alike recognize a common value and duty to help those in need. Sometimes we legislate this moral obligation to give more and help others; taxes are one example of a government compelling otherwise reluctant people to do what they should for the common good–and give! In a similar way, society has legislated the common moral prohibition against theft and murder.
Generosity, or the outward result of handing over the goods, can be required by force of penalty and punishment. Some religious groups (including some groups of Christians) require their people to tithe, to give at least 10% of their income. Sometimes failure to do so is cause for discipline, up to and including expulsion from the faith group. The Mormons (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), Seventh Day Adventist, certain Baptist and Pentecostal groups and some Evangelical non-denominational churches are very strict examples of people who go beyond encouraging to actually requiring all members to tithe. They must give at least one tenth of their increase or income (10%), citing for example the Old Covenant law from from Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 14.
As a people who live by faith in “the New Testament/New Covenant in My blood,” the Lutheran Church does not require tithing as a condition of membership in good standing. The goal of tithing is a helpful and Biblical guideline some members freely choose to use, but giving 10% is never a requirement nor just cause for church discipline in our congregation or Synod. However, the people Jesus sees at the temple are bringing their required tithes and other offerings, some giving generously far more than the Old Covenant laws required. “Many rich people put in large sums.” (Mark 12)
It’s one thing to give because someone forces us to give, but quite another to do so by choice. Believers and unbelievers also recognize universal psychological and social benefits to charitable giving. Giving to others in need tends to make us feel better about ourselves, and think of ourselves as more virtuous, valuable, caring and helpful people. Public giving also tends to make others think more highly of us, respect us more–but only when they notice it! We might “sound no trumpets” (Matthew 6) in our time, but often the news reporters and camera crews are called to announce an exceptional gift and draw our attention to it.
When others give above and beyond what the culture demands, we should be grateful. When you give a gift to help others, it may help you think and feel better about yourself. But when our own good feelings and the recognition or praise of others becomes the goal of our giving: what happens when it doesn’t feel good enough? What happens when others aren’t grateful enough?
Disappointed, angry, cynical, embittered–some simply will give up on giving. After all, there are far less costly ways to make ourselves feel better. Others may seek out someone who will give them the recognition they desire and feel they deserve for their giving. Perhaps one concludes such ungrateful people don’t deserve our help, even when they actually need it desperately.
So here Jesus sits by the offering box, watching what people give, knowing how they give. For some it is to meet religious requirements. For others, perhaps they attempt to escape feelings of guilt or avoid public shame if they don’t give. Some seek the promised reward of personal satisfaction or public recognition for doing such a good work. Some misguided folks may even hope to please God and earn His favor. Jesus says, “they all contributed out of their abundance.”
All gave from their plenty, their left-over excess, but one. The widow puts in her two coins. Jesus isn’t teaching His disciples a math lesson here, whether the total amount nor even the percentage. Earlier in Mark 10:17-27, a rich young man asked Jesus what he had to do to earn eternal life.
21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
But here in our lesson, Christ gives no lecture on the legal stipulations and requirements of this New Covenant eternal life. If the New Testament Christian wants to know the legal requirement for eternal life, there it is: get all your stuff out of the way and come, follow Me. She gave 100%, but the percentage of her gift isn’t even the real point. He teaches here a faith lesson.
There is one VERB, one action word repeated and translated into our English throughout every verse in this passage as putting in, contributing. At its essence is not necessarily the precision of “putting” or the helpfulness we immediately associate with “contributing.” Rather, this action word is more focused on what a hand does with a spear or a ball, or perhaps even a piece of trash. With more force we would say “threw,” with less we might say she “dropped.” The old King James Version may have captured this best here, saying “they cast money” or “she threw” her two coins in the box.
The focus is that she let go of it. With greater or lesser force, she opened her hand and released whatever it held. Some did the same thing out of their excess. She cast her gift from her impoverished hand that held next to nothing of any real use to anyone. She threw her gift from her hand that nonetheless held “everything she had.” The last phrase is literally her whole Bios, “her whole life” she dropped in God’s keeping. To that, Jesus draws our attention.
Such a gift is precisely what Jesus offers for us. His whole life is poured out for you on the cross. He baptized you into His death and resurrection, bidding you to put on all His righteousness. He invites us to take and eat of the Bread of Life, take and drink of his whole life’s cup of blessing for you. What Jesus has to give is His all, everything He has and does is offered for you. His gift of eternal life is given to you. Christ calls his disciples to take note of her gift, because it is so similar to His own when He prays from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
How beautifully we teach our children so to pray every day, giving themselves and all they have into God’s care and keeping, “for into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul and all things.” Perhaps have your kids review Luther’s Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Maybe, if you don’t already, consider making daily use of them yourself.
Mark 12:41-44 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he 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.”