Luke 20:45-21:4 “While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.’ As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’”
Jesus noticed people. They mattered to him, and they still do today. He made judgments on everyone. When he told us not to judge he was not saying, “Never evaluate men and women. Be gullible. Let yourself be ripped off. Believe every Email letter you receive telling you that the writer wants to give you $5 million.” No, he was warning us about developing a censorious and critical spirit, one that was self-justifying while unforgiving of others, and prone to comment on their faults. The judgment you pass on others will also judge you. So there was a day when Jesus saw three kinds of people and he discriminated between each of them. In other words he did not say, “People are all the same.” The first group were men in full time religious work who were total hypocrites, covetous thieves on their way to hell. The second group he noticed were rich men who threw their money flamboyantly into the temple offering-horns. The third person was a single godly widow who showed her devotion to the Lord by giving the little she possessed to God. No one had said, “I’ve got to deliver you from poverty before I can tell you of the living, loving God who sent his Son to be our Saviour.” No one robbed her of the blessings of the gospel by thinking like that. She was poor, yet she heard and believed and served God, and Jesus noticed her when many looked right through her; to them she didn’t exist. Aren’t we glad that we have a discriminating God, such an all-knowing, wise and righteous Lord as Jesus is?
THE PEOPLE WHOM JESUS NOTICED.
i] The Lord Christ particularly notices religious people, those men and women who claim that they in particular have been summoned by God into full-time service, who claim they have been given authority from God, speaking up on his behalf. They demand that they should be listened to with respect because it is God who talks to the world through them and men who believe what they believe. Religious men are mankind’s greatest criminals. Millions are living lives of bondage through them. Beware of many religious men and women! Merely being religious doesn’t mean they have a call from the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ to represent him. They do not speak according to the Bible. They know nothing of God’s grace, of the atonement of the Lamb of God on Calvary. They are ignorant of the empty tomb. Jesus often spoke of religious men who had destroyed the life of his fellow countrymen. Once he said these words, “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers . . . I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:8&7); there is no one else. There is one only-begotten Son of the Father. Religious men bring people into bondage to deceit. They teach them to believe lies, and some even urge others to kill themselves in killing others to reach a paradise of women and sweet drink. Jesus tells us here of their thieving ways. What he says is not politically correct, passing judgment on sincerely held religious views, but hear the hardness in Jesus’ voice! It was truth that made him strong. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the market-places and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely” (vv.46&47). What ungodly men, preaching all the old virtues and practicing all the old vices.
I had a meal and an enjoyable time with a family this past week who are not Christians, who pride themselves that they respect every faith and every religion. They considered that their ill-considered vagueness to be maturity, and that they would not be like me or their Christian family members whom they judged to be far too narrow. They would not pass judgment on any beliefs. They believed in the choice of all people to believe whatever they wished or in nothing at all. They did not believe that Christianity was right when it said that there was one God and one Mediator between men and God, the man Christ Jesus. But that Saviour believed in error and in false religion and in deceit and warned us about it. He saw what bad belief does. It corrupts good living. Here were men who loved to wear the most fashionable flowing robes – it was impossible to do any manual work if you wore them. They loved the cries of men – “Father! Greetings father! Bless me father!” They loved the honour that gave them the front seats in big state functions wearing their vestments and surplices of many colours, seating at the high tables with the dignitaries at the feasts, stealing from widows, changing the wills of old women so that they left everything to them, and then praying for 20 minutes in the temple and in functions and facing walls and bowing down so that all could see them.
What did Jesus say about them? “They will be punished most severely.” He did not say that their religion was one of the multi-faceted and multi-perspectival belief systems that mankind had developed in its fascinating history. No! “Such men will be punished most severely.” The Lord Jesus spoke of a severe future punishment! Why will the judgment they receive be so severe? Because they knew more than most people, and had more influence than most people, and they behaved the worst. Judgment Day will be characterized by knowledge and righteousness. These Jews had the key of religious knowledge but they never used it to help others or help themselves. Do you know that Charles Wesley has a hymn on these words of Jesus? Let me read its final verse to you:
“O what a change they soon shall know,
When torn away by death they go
Reluctant from their splendid feasts,
Condemned in hottest flames to dwell,
And find the spacious courts of hell
Paved with skulls of Christian priests!”
I don’t suppose it is being sung in many Wesleyan Methodist chapels today. Wesley was warning religious men about hypocrisy. There may be some who preach the word who are visiting with us today. I know not if there be any, but if there are, or if later they will hear or read this on line, let me ask you whether what you believe you’ve received from the Bible? Have you been taught by Jesus? I am asking whether every minister here, hearing or reading these words, has really been called by God? Do they teach and preach what God has given us to preach in the Bible? If not, don’t ever enter a pulpit again; go to God and repent and tell the people you’ve been serving in the name of God that you withdraw all the errors you’ve taught, that you were misguided and ignorant and are terribly sorry. Explain to everyone you’ve influenced what true truth is, and plead with your hearers to believe it. You don’t like me saying things like this. You want me always to be positive about everything and everyone. I simply ask you whether I am telling you what Jesus said about religious men. He has given me a commission to tell you everything that he said.
ii] The Lord Christ also notices the behaviour of powerful and wealthy individuals. “As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury” (v.1). They were not too powerful or too important for Jesus. He did not stare into the dust humbly when the millionaires and the movers and the shakers came near and their shadows fell across him. He didn’t beat his breast and cry, “Unworthy! Unworthy!” No! He saw what they were doing, the ostentatious way they cast their shekels into the great metal horns above the collection boxes and the cascade of their coins rattling down made everyone glance to see who were giving big bucks to the Temple. That was the mark of these men; they prayed, and they fasted, and they gave in a way that men could see them and people could think and even say to one another, “How God must be glad of having the support of such men!” Jesus was not impressed because those men didn’t miss such sums of money. They still had millions in the bank; it cost them nothing to give that money to God. It was no sacrifice. They still had a fortune. They could purchase whatever they liked. They were giving out of their wealth. They were putting money in the offering boxes to make an impression on the observers, to confirm their position as being “very religious men”, people to be respected and obeyed. Jesus tells us when we give that we are to do it unassumedly and privately. No one is to know; even our own right hand is not to know what our left hand is doing. We pray privately; we fast privately. We engage in religious exercises in order that our heavenly Father sees and hears us, not the world.
iii] The Lord Jesus even noticed a poor widow. She also put money into the collection box, giving to the same God as the millionaires supported. What are the facts we know about widows and their opportunities? It was never said in the Scriptures that the women were not allowed to come near to the Temple, but they were to have a Temple court to themselves, further away from the Temple than the men’s. The treatment of women both by the Old Testament people and New Testament people was not as loving and righteous as it should have been. They introduced regulations that were not in the Scriptures. They were too influenced by the pagan people amongst whom they lived, and so the elevating of women and the recognition of their rank and privileges came about slowly. The women met in their own court and got no nearer the Temple than that, but the authorities knew that there were some women who feared God and that they loved to give to the work of Jehovah. So in the Court of the Women no less than 13 identical trumpet-shaped receptacles were set out to take their offerings. In other words these Old Covenant men wanted the women’s money while at the same time they were saying, “Know your place!” They would feed off her, but they would not feed her, and they might even abuse her. No wonder our Lord had cleansed this temple and driven out the money-changers
She was not put off by all this. She was thankful for what mercies she had. There were more important concerns in her heart – her relationship to God. When she had turned from her sins and unbelief and trusted in the Lord she had acknowledged, “Everything I have comes to me from you. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold,” and she said that from her heart, and she practiced Christian stewardship all through her life. There was a duty and privilege that was hers. Her poverty, and her dependents, and her careful, wise use of every little coin she earned, didn’t prevent her giving to God. She didn’t argue, “A woman like me wouldn’t be expected to give to God.” Did she have children to care for? We don’t know. We know that in her days there were no state provisions; no pensions; no widows’ benefits. The lot of a widow was fearful. Who protected her at night from evil men? Yet she didn’t use this money to buy better locks and bolts or pay for a neighbourhood watchman. She gave to God “two very small copper coins,” each one worth a hundredth of a denarius, it was a few pennies. It was hardly big enough to clink when it landed on the money underneath, let alone rattle down the sides of the horn. It was the sort of coin we hide with our hand when a charity worker stands in front of us in town with a collection box. We are too ashamed to walk past and yet too mean to give much, ashamed to show the collector the pennies we are putting in. So we hide them in our fist as we press them through the opening so that the collector can’t see them.
2. HOW THE WIDOW’S GIVING MEASURES UP TO THE NEW TESTAMENT.
Let’s expand this study of the widow and her mite. Let us examine this woman’s gift to God in the light of the finest example of giving recounted for us in the New Testament, in the church at Macedonia, and let us see if she measured up, and if we measure up to the standard they have set for the church by the Holy Spirit. The example is found in the second letter to the Corinthians chapter eight. Paul is describing how the church in Macedonia gave to God like this woman in Jerusalem
i] They gave at a time of most severe trial (v.2). We are told in the book of Acts about the outburst of persecution that occurred in Macedonia and it was at that time that the churches there were thinking about others. They could easily have thought, “You can’t expect us to be giving to others when our own future is so uncertain. We have plenty of needs on our own doorstep without thinking of people a thousand miles away whom we don’t know and will never meet.” Christians dare not think like that. We can justify our meanness by wrapping it in the cloak of prudence, saying that “our first priority is to our own families . . .” We are being asked to search ourselves whether all our talk about laying things up for retirement and old age is not just a covering for a covetous spirit, and we are grudging in our giving. When Providence placed a big convenient excuse before the Macedonian churches encouraging them to ignore their brothers and sisters in need it was then that the word of God was saying to them, “Freely you have received, freely give. Are you going to obey me only when it is easy? Are you going to give to the body of Christ only when it is green pastures and still waters and when you have plenty of money? Or are you going to give whenever there is need?” The woman Jesus saw giving to God had no husband bringing in a wage packet. She had no one to talk over household and family needs. She was alone without an income. What a trial, and yet then she gave her money to God.
ii] They gave out of extreme poverty. We are told that “their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (v.2). Macedonia’s economy had deteriorated. Wars, barbarian invasions and Roman settlement had led to a painful years of recession. Much of Macedonia was at the level of the Rendille people of Kenya, subsistence farmers, living in mud huts. Imagine how it would humble us as a congregation to receive a financial gift out of the blue from the Rendille Christians. So if there was anyone who could plead their inability to give, their exclusive responsibility for the old folks at home, then it was the Macedonians, and yet they were the church who gave to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
Yes we see this in this poor widow. She gave to God all that she had earned by her hard unremitting toil under the Middle East sun. She worked away for some trifling amount but she gave this money into the collection for the house of God. The word used to describe her implies that her poverty was noticeable – it could be seen – it was evident that she was poor. Her clothing must have been in sharp contrast to those long robes Jesus described, in which the religious men liked to parade in front of others. Her very appearance announced her poverty. Yet unashamed she came to the Temple and she gave away to God gave all she had to live on! That is exactly what Jesus says.l
This act of this widow was a wonderful act of faith. After she had given what did she have to buy food? We would have thought she lived a consecrated life if she had cast one copper coin into the treasury, and kept the other coin for her own needs. But both these coins were cast in, and this is particularly emphasised by Jesus that “she put in all she had to live on” (v.4). What was she going to do for a meal that night after working all day? How would she survive? Surely she was one who entrusted such a matter to the Lord himself. We may be certain that he would not fail to provide all her needs when she had performed this act from her heart. She is someone singled out by the incarnate God in the New Testament. She was totally anonymous in the courts of the Temple – simply another statistic of widows – but she was well known in the courts of heaven. She trusted in God to provide for her the next day, and all the coming days, whatever she needed. Her faithful heavenly Father would supply all her wants from his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
iii] They gave out of overflowing joy (v.12). A father goes away on a business trip and his delight, when he is in that city or another country, is to buy some gifts for his wife and children, because the joy he gets in giving them these presents when he returns. A minister goes away and he loves to buy some gifts for the children of the church because he so enjoys seeing their faces light up. When I’ve gone to Kenya I’ve spoken far out in the rural areas where people gather together in the open air and I will preach through an interpreter standing under some trees. Then at the end of the service there will be a little ceremony and they will present to my wife one of their beautiful woven bags. It is much more than they can afford. The joy on their faces as they give that present is the perfect commentary on Paul’s words here. They are not exceptional. Whatever country you went to in Africa you would find the love of God in the lives of Christians and they would be zealous to give you hospitality, food and a bed and anything they could do for you. There is joy in giving. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Someone once speaking quietly to a friend in a church service on the occasion of the deacons bringing the plates around said – and without any cynicism at all – “Hallelujah! Here comes the collection.”
The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver. It is the most depressing task trying to persuade someone to do something in the church when they are reluctant. We could do so much more as a congregation if there were more cheerful givers. What an impact would be made on this town if only people cheerfully gave of themselves to God’s work, joyfully taking office, and joyfully giving hospitality, and joyfully praying in the mid-week meeting, and joyfully working on the fabric of this old building, and joyfully helping in the Sunday School, and joyfully on Friday nights with the Young People, and joyfully being involved with the catering for fellowship lunch, and helping out joyfully wherever they were asked, and never doing anything reluctantly as though it were such a burden to do some work for the Lord, and give some time to the Lord and even spend money to the Lord’s church. God loves a cheerful giver, and so do we all. Thank God we have many such. We wish we had more, as does every congregation. We are not told of the widow’s spirit in giving her two coins. We presume it was not in a reluctant spirit.
iv] They gave as much as they were able to give. “For I testify that they gave as much as they were able” (v.3). We are to give according to our means. Put another way Paul is saying that you should give in proportion to what God has given you. He said it this way in I Corinthians 16:2, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” This means at least two things: (1) since we are all supposed to give proportionately, those who have more money are expected to give more. We who are particularly blessed materially must remember this, and (2) the Lord never asks us to give what we do not have, or contribute beyond our means. So there is a certain dynamism about the giving, that some weeks we are much better off that others. Are we all giving in proportion to the material blessing that the Lord has given you? I think that surveys show that the poorest church members give the highest percentage of their income to the church, while the wealthiest give the lowest. When the Lord blesses you with some sudden increase – a tax rebate or a little legacy – then is a good opportunity to think of the congregation’s needs. Certainly this widow gave as much as she was able.
v] They gave even beyond their ability. Ah, now we are coming to the stature of this widow. Paul says, “they gave . . . even beyond their ability” (v.3). Paul didn’t expect each person to give the same amount. What is expected of us is not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice. When Catherine Booth went to her father General Booth after her first sortie into open air evangelism he asked her how she had got on. She told him that she thought it had gone all right, and that she had done her best. He was not pleased with that answer: “You can do better than your best through Jesus Christ,” he told her. It is thus in everything that we do in the Christian life. We do not work for Jesus according to our ability. The world can work according to its ability. We can go beyond our ability. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Think of the mature Christian. He studies the Bible and books about the Bible. He is at every meeting. He serves at the door of the church and he welcomes people. He gives hospitality to strangers and missionaries, and his children hear servants of God speaking at his table. He gives generously to the work of the church. He prays in the Prayer Meeting. He visits the sick. He is involved in any kind of evangelistic outreach in which the church is engaged. He accepts any office to which the church calls him. We are talking about just one single person. We are saying that it is the same man who is doing all these things without his life being destroyed but rather fulfilled and that he can live at that level because Christ is mightily at work in him. He is working beyond his own wit, energy and means, and if you ask him about everything he does for the church and how can he do it all then he doesn’t understand your question. He feels he does very little. “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). This explains the poor widow.
vi] They pleaded for the privilege of giving. They saw it as a privilege, to deny themselves and give to the kingdom of God. Without any pressure from Paul or anyone else, “entirely on their own they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints” (v.4). They considered it an honour to put money in a bag and have that money taken a thousand miles away and be spent on fellow believers whom they would never meet. What an honour to do something for the body of Christ. Let me tell you of a good tradition that is disappearing. Some people show this honour of serving the congregation financially by always writing out the first cheque in a new cheque-book to the church. It’s a little tradition they have developed. I think their parents always did this, and they have copied them. They want to give to God first because he is first in their life, otherwise, if they waited to give out of what’s left over there might not be anything left. This is disappearing because cheque books and cheques are disappearing and it’s not the same with credit cards.
The Macedonians pleaded, “Please let us have the privilege of giving to our brothers and sisters too.” Don Whitney knows a man who was in the construction business and also a skilled handyman. He was converted about three years after his wife. During that period he often told her that he never wanted to join the church because he was so certain that he would be constantly being asked to repair something in the church. Then after he was abruptly and dramatically saved, he began repairing things all over the church building without being asked. Why? Because Jesus Christ had changed his life and given him a concern for the needs of others, especially those of his Christian family. The same was true of his giving. Even though he had unpleasant childhood memories of being taken to church where, he says, every Sunday featured a high-pressure appeal for money, after he met Christ he began giving ten percent and more of his income to his church. A powerful testimony to a transformed life is a transformed cheque-book, particularly when those who once decried giving to the church begin to do it.
vii] They first gave themselves to God. “They gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (v.5). They were aware that in first place they were the Lord’s. That was the reason the widow gave her two coins to the Lord. She could have said what a later hymn-writer penned:
“In full and glad surrender, I give myself to Thee.
Thine utterly and only and evermore to be.”
O Son of God who loves me I will be Thine alone.
And all I have, and all I am shall henceforth be Thine own.”
All? Does the love of Christ constrain you to give all – all that you have? Is it possible to have Christ the Saviour but reject his Lordship over all you have? Whose is the money you have? Who owns the cash in your purse? Who owns the money in your bank account? Who owns your home and car? You might say, “That’s obvious. It’s mine, of course. It’s my possession, or it’s under my name; it’s obviously mine.” Now I am asking you to realise this, that if Christ is your Lord then you have to change and begin to manage all that is his as he, its owner, wishes.
Who owns the money you have? Your answer to that question depends on your answer to an even more basic question – Who owns you? There was a missionary who was talking about the Lord Jesus to the chief of a tribe. The chief tried to impress the missionary with gifts of a horse, blankets, and jewellery. But the missionary replied, “My God doesn’t want the chief’s horses, blankets, and jewellery. My God wants the chief himself.” The chief smiled and said, “You have a very wise God, for when I give myself to him, he also gets my horses and blankets and jewellery.”
Do you understand what that chief understood? If God owns you, then he owns your money and everything else too. To those of you who are not Christians let me challenge you to give yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t you believe that he died on a cross to pay for your sins? But Jesus’ blood doesn’t just pay for sins; it pays for you. It purchases you as God’s own possession. God already has a rightful claim to own all people and all things because he is the Creator and owner of everything. “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. The world and those who dwell in it” (Psa. 24:1). You have your money and possessions and life on loan, as a trust. You are the manager of Another’s trust fund. But I am telling you the price of you becoming a follower of the Lord, that if you receive him and his salvation, then God has a double claim to own you. The Lord is your owner not only as the Creator who made you but also as the Saviour who paid to restore you from sin. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).
If you are a Christian then how you disburse God’s trust fund (that is, your income and inheritances) should reflect God’s own values and priorities. We are all going to be held accountable for managing his money – according to Jesus’ own word, Luke 16:12, “If you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?”
Does it sound good to you, that everything you have as a Christian belongs to the Lord? Do you like the thought of treating your money as not really yours but God’s? Maybe not. You might prefer to have God stay out of your finances. But, like it or not, there’s really no such thing as ‘your finances.’ There are only God’s finances, which he allows you to handle for a while. This might not appeal to you at first, but treating your money as God’s money turns out to be a privilege and a joy. It honours God, and it blesses you enormously.
Handling money God’s way is one of the vital signs of a healthy relationship to God. If you reject God’s claim of ownership and want to be your own person without answering to the Lord, you might think it will bring you more freedom. But it won’t, because of all sorts of worries and problems which wealth brings into a Christless life, and if nothing changes, it will eventually land you in hell. If you choose to spend your life without God, you will spend eternity without God, just like these teachers of the law facing solemn punishment. But if you accept God’s claim of ownership, if you put yourself and everything you have in God’s hands, you will be blessed. When God owns you, your problems are his problem. Your cares are his concern. God will guide you and help you flourish in this life and for eternity. The key to financial freedom is realising that all your money is God’s, and the key to spiritual freedom and comfort is knowing that you are not your own but belong to Jesus as his treasured possession.
10th June 2012 GEOFF THOMAS