Monday, November 09, 2009

Sermon on Mark 13:38-44, for LWML Sunday, "Of Mites and Women"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today on this Lutheran Women’s Missionary League or LWML Sunday, we remember that even the smallest gift, given in faith, can be of great effect. So we look to the example of the widow who Jesus describes in the reading, who gave her last two mites as her offering in faith. It’s faith, not the size of the gift that made this widow a spiritual “big-giver.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 16:5-6 reads: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” A portion is your slice of the pie, it’s the piece that’s given to you. If you are a hungry eater, you go for the larger portions. A lot is your portion of an inheritance. It’s the property, wealth, or possessions that are designated for you in an inheritance. But the Psalmist says “The LORD” is my portion. GOD is our portion and lot! God is the greatest gift that is given to you—not wealth or land or material things. Truly we can say that the boundary lines have fallen for us in pleasant places and we have a beautiful inheritance. It’s rather unusual to think of inheriting in this way. But having the Lord as your portion is a bigger inheritance than anything imaginable. And we don’t receive a percentage or a slice, as if God could be divided—but He is our whole portion.

The widow that gave her offering in the Temple lived her life according to this principle. She gave as though God were her portion, and she could give it all away and be secure in Him and His provision for her. She wasn’t giving because she was thinking about what others think, but she gave out of her trust and reliance on God. Jesus saw her while He was teaching publicly in the Temple. He warned people of living their lives in the pursuit of status. The scribes or teachers of the law were notorious for this. Their vanity was to be recognized and honored by people. To take the best place for everything and to make lengthy, showy prayers. They wanted people to be impressed by their holiness and prestige. Their portion, their reward would be the praise of men, but the condemnation of God. Status was very important to them. The devouring of widow’s houses shows they were worse than tax collectors. They took advantage of widows in some way, perhaps by imposing on their generosity beyond what they could afford, or by swindling them out of their money in some way.

These supposed men of God, were to be about the teaching of God’s Word to His people in their service in the Temple. Instead they were fleecing the poor while presenting an appearance of holiness. But they were no men of God—certainly not of the God who calls Himself “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5a). God would return their evil upon them, and they would face the greater condemnation. God is the protector of the widow, the One in whom that widow put all her trust.

Gathering the attention and admiration of the crowds in the Temple would’ve been an easy task for the rich who came to bring their offering. In the outer courts of the Temple, called either the Court of Prayer or the Court of Women, there were thirteen different offering boxes. Each had a trumpet-like opening or mouth through which people dropped in their offering. The wide mouth flared open like a Hebrew shofar or ram’s horn, with a narrow neck at the bottom to keep people from reaching into the treasury box below. Each of the thirteen offering boxes were designated for a different use. Seven of the boxes were for compulsory offerings or temple taxes, and six were for various freewill offerings—the purchase of certain sacrifices, incense, gold vessels, etc. When you imagine that scene, with Jesus sitting amidst a bustling crowd of worshippers moving around the Temple Courts by these offering boxes—you can begin to see and hear how the rich would make a show of their giving.

Imagine the sound of the offering box. With no paper currency, the metallic waterfall of coins jangling and clinking down the trumpet-shaped opening must have caught the ear of many. You could hear how much they put in, even if you couldn’t see the coins. Gold, silver, bronze, copper. Surely people noticed who were the big givers. But two wafer-thin copper mites would barely clink in the box. A tiny sound hushed by the bustling crowd. If anyone even noticed at all, they might have scoffed or whispered at her insignificant gift. Why didn’t she at least keep one to herself? But it made no difference what they thought. Her gift was great in God’s eyes, not theirs. A basic truth of Christianity is that we are to humble ourselves, not exalt ourselves. Making ourselves look great in other’s eyes is not our goal—rather we
should make ourselves lesser and take the place of humility.

The lot she was assigned in life was already a place of humility by default. She had no status or wealth to show off. She had only her faith in God, and two coins that were together worth less than a penny. What you might get for ten to fifteen minutes of work in those days. But it was all she had to live on. Unlike today—there was no such thing as a life insurance policy that could help provide for her after her husband’s death. The only life insurance policy a woman in ancient times could hope for was having a son, like the widow in the Old Testament reading. One day he could be old enough to earn wages to provide for her. While the Jewish synagogues made provisions for the poor to prevent her from facing starvation, she was still consigned to a life of extreme poverty. How pitiful were her circumstances that all her wealth, all she had to her name, was less than a penny. This was all she had to live on, and she gave it away.

So we can see how this widow lived her life according to the principle that the LORD was her portion and her cup, and that He held her lot. She wouldn’t have thrown her last two coins into that box if it weren’t for her confidence that God would provide for her needs. We can have that same confidence if we cast our lot with the Lord. Jesus showed her faith as a lesson in giving—where others gave from their abundance and had plenty left over, she gave from her poverty and had nothing left. And so her gift was far greater than all the impressive sums of money that rattled and clinked their way into the offering box.

It doesn’t take faith to give out of your excess or your leftovers. The author C.S. Lewis wrote this about giving: “I do not believe one can settle on how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.” His point is that the measure of giving is not how large or small our gift is, but whether it is sacrificial. We can see how sacrificial our giving is by whether we have to cut back on some other luxuries or comforts we might otherwise enjoy.

Real generosity is also kind of reckless. The widow could have kept back one mite for herself, but she threw them both in, trusting in the God who was her portion and lot. When we give with generously we don’t hold back for ourselves, but open our hand with no expectation of return or reward. What a remarkable thing, that Jesus chooses this act of giving, that amounted to less than a penny, as the finest and most admirable example of generous giving in all the Bible.

The widow was a spiritual big-giver. Her gift had more weight than all the other gifts, even though the amount was miniscule. We can be a spiritual big-giver even if we don’t have large sums to give. You’d have to wonder what could anyone do with so small a sum. It seems that it couldn’t accomplish anything. But what we fail to remember is that it isn’t the giver or the amount of the gift that is significant. Rather it is God, who can put the smallest gift to great work, and bring abundance out of lack. The widow certainly gave from her lack, there was nothing else to support her but the mercy of God in which she trusted.

When we as sinners cast our lot in with Jesus, the Lord is our portion and lot. We learn that it’s better not to build our life on status and reputation, or showy displays of giving to gain attention. Rather, we should do our giving secretly and without looking for praise. We put our trust in the Lord, and receive in Him our full portion, our overflowing cup, and the lot of our inheritance. In the Lord we gain far more than wealth or status can give. We gain a Father and a Savior who possesses all things. We gain a Lord who will always be our guardian. We gain a heavenly family to call our own, and to live with in harmony in our Father’s eternal mansion in heaven. If we have cast our lot with Jesus, then there will be no lack or shortage of anything for us. The widow gave from her poverty, and yet the abundance of God belonged to her. So also God grants His abundance to us. He fills up what is lacking. He supplies our needs before we know them.

If we have the Lord, we can be content in all circumstances. We can live in contentment in whatever our state: whether in plenty or hunger, abundance or need, because we can do all things through God who strengthens us (Phil. 4:11-13). The God who can work great things from the offering of a widow’s mites; the God who can turn the dust of the earth into man; the God who prolonged the oil and flour of the widow in Elijah’s day; the God who takes the littlest gift of faith, and puts it to mighty work in His kingdom. This God strengthens and supplies us in our need, and will not leave us needy or forsaken. He is the one who gave the costliest gift, who made the greatest sacrifice in giving, when Jesus offered up His life for our sins. He became poor for us, giving up everything He possessed in heavenly glory, and yes even His life. He gave it all up so that He could take away our sins. His purchase makes the Lord our portion and our lot. No gift compares to this, and He desires to give it to you and to all of us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Read Psalm 16:5-6. What does it mean to have the Lord as our portion or lot? How does this order our priorities in life?

2. What mattered most to the scribes? (Mark 12:38-40). How does this differ from the way Jesus taught us to give and to pray? Matt. 6:1-8. What are examples where we fall into the trap of showing off our status or our “holiness”?

3. What was the status of a widow? Who guards the widow? Psalm 68:5; Malachi 3:5

4. Why is a place of humility better than a place of honor? Mark 10:31, 42-45.

5. Why should giving and true generosity be sacrificial? What might we sacrifice in our giving? What made the widow’s gift bigger than all the others?

6. Who was the ultimate example of sacrificial giving? What did Jesus acquire for our inheritance through His death on the cross and resurrection?

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