The Biggest Donor
Scriptures: Mark 12:41-44; Mark 10:17-22
I once read a story about two men stranded on a deserted
island. The first was frantic with worry, but the second seemed unconcerned. The first man said, "Why aren't you worried?" The second said, "Because I make a $500,000 a year." The first man said, "What does that have to do with getting off this island?" The second replied, "I tithe. I give ten percent to the church. So I'm sure my pastor will be looking for me."
Okay, let's be honest. Pastors worry about the church
budget as much as anybody. I admit it. I feel a huge relief when people pledge enough during the stewardship campaign to meet the budget for the coming year. I sleep better at night, and so does the Session.
But Jesus did not seem concerned about that. In our
scripture reading Jesus and his disciples sit in the temple watching big donors put their offerings in the treasury box. We are not sure how Jesus knew they were big donors, but they probably poured their coins into the treasury box like an old fashioned slot machine paying out a jack pot. But then Jesus sees a poor widow put in two small copper coins, each worth about half a cent. Jesus probably knew what they were by the sound they made in the treasury box: a tiny plink, plink. That was it. But Jesus says to his disciples,
This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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.
In poker we would say she was all in. She had given her
whole life to God.
In contrast we have the story of the rich man whom Jim read
about in Mark 10. This man comes to Jesus saying, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life." He probably assumes there is a contribution involved.
Week before last President Obama was in Seattle for something like
three hours attending two fund raising events. The first was a reception for about 30 people each of whom paid over $30,000 for the privilege of having hors d'oeuvres with the President of the United States.
The rich man may have had something like this in mind when he asked
Jesus about eternal life. He probably assumed that eating hors d'oeuvres with God in heaven would require a contribution, and he was prepared to make him, no doubt a sizable contribution. But Jesus says to him, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." That's not the contribution the rich man had in mind.
The tendency when we hear this story is to focus on the part where
Jesus tells the man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. But the most important thing Jesus says comes at the end. He says to the man, "Come follow me." When it comes to serving God, Jesus wants the rich man, like the widow, to be all in. It's not about how much you give; it's about giving yourself. Jesus does not want your money; he wants you. The money you give is meant to be a part of giving your whole self to God.
This does not mean you should all go out and give all your
property to the church. Jesus actually condemns that kind of thing in the verses immediately before our story. In Mark 12:38-40 Jesus says,
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.
Jesus is talking here about religious teachers who prey on poor widows to sign over their property to the temple.
You may have read about Creflo Dollar. That's his name:
Pastor Dollar, pastor of a mega church in Atlanta, who teaches that God will give health and prosperity to everyone who tithes, to everyone who gives 10% of their income to the church. I don't know if tithing has made his church members rich, but it certainly has made Pastor Dollar rich. In March he asked his congregation and social media following to donate $65 million to buy a new Gulfstream jet for his travels. That was to replace the older Gulfstream jet he already had. I would not be surprised if there were widows in his congregation who sold their houses to help him buy that jet. That's what Jesus calls "devouring widows' houses while saying long prayers."
Jesus condemns that kind of thing: exploiting poor widows or
anyone else to finance your religious projects. And yet, in the very next story he commends the poor widow for giving her last two cents to the temple. In one breath Jesus rails against the scribes who squeeze poor widows out of their last two pennies, and in the next breath he lifts up a widow who gives her last two pennies as an example for the disciples. How do we make sense of that?
Here is the point. Jesus does not want your money; he wants
you. Seriously, you think the Creator of the Universe is strapped for cash? Do you think that someone who can feed 5000 people with five loaves of bread is worried about the church budget? I may worry about the church budget. The Session may worry about the church budget. But I don't think Jesus worries about the church budget. Jesus worries about you. Jesus wants you to be all in for God. Jesus wants you to find yourself by giving yourself away, to discover a greater meaning for your life by losing yourself in something bigger.
You have probably had the experience of trying to buy a
present for someone who already has everything they need. You wonder what to buy, but you finally pick something out, not because the person needs the gift, but because the gift symbolizes the relationship. It's not the money you spend on the gift that is important; it's the relationship symbolized by the gift.
So it is with your pledges. Your pledge is not about making
the church budget; it's about a relationship. It's about you committing your whole self to God.
One last story. Gordon Cosby, a pastor for many years in
Washington, D. C., tells of his first pastorate at a little Baptist Church in the deep South. There was a widow in the congregation who supported herself and her six children on $40 a month.
One day, Cosby was going through the giving records of the
congregation. Apparently in the Baptist church the pastor goes through the giving records, which is another reason to be Presbyterian. Cosby was going through the giving records, and he discovered that this widow was giving $4 a month-a tithe of her income-to the church. He told the church board about this, and the board told him to visit the widow and tell her that she did not need to give this money to the church, that she should keep it to use for her family.
So Cosby went to visit the widow and told her that she no longer had
to give her $4 a month to the church. Cosby says, "As I talked with her tears came to her eyes. 'I want to tell you,' she said, 'that you are taking away the last thing that gives my life dignity and meaning.'" (Quoted by Ben Patterson in The Grand Essentials, p. 19.)
Why does a poor widow put her last two coins in the temple
offering? Not because the temple will close without those coins, but because those coins represent the dignity and meaning of her relationship to God. And so do your pledges.