There is a sermon that every preacher hates preaching, and every congregation hates hearing. Well, friends, this is that sermon. Yes, today is the always hated money sermon.
This is week three of our series, “who are you, and what are you doing here?” We’ve walking through this journey of what does it mean to be a church generally and Centre St. Baptist specifically. I’ve been drawing the inspiration for these sermons from both Scripture and our church covenant.
Two weeks ago we looked at this idea of being a unified community brought together in a covenant relationship in Christ. Last week we looked at this idea that we are lead by the Holy Spirit into godly living and that obedience is lived out in community.
Our covenant says, “We engage therefore… to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, its work against sin and injustice in the world, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel throughout all nations.”
This message, unpleasant as it may be to talk about, is necessary. Money is something we see a lot of teaching on in the New Testament, and it’s something which can all too easily become a source of conflict and disunity. Finding a passage for this morning was more of a “which of my many options do I use?” We really do need to talk about it, partly because Jesus talked about it a lot. And now more than ever, I think we need to address this.
So our Scripture this morning from Mark’s gospel is an important one to get our minds going on how we go about “cheerfully and regularly” contributing to support the ministry. What does that mean- to be a community of people who find joy in giving away their wealth.
So here’s the scene: Jesus grabs a seat facing the place where donations to the Temple treasury are made. These donations go to the maintenance of the Temple worship, it’s building, the priests, the furnishings, etc. This box is near the entrance to the temple, thus accessible to everyone. When you go by, you drop in a monetary donation. But it’s in plain view. People can see you making your donation. No discreet envelopes to conceal how much (or little) you may be giving. Jesus watches as many people go by putting in large amounts of money. Remember this is before cheques and paper money. Everything is coins. Coins make noise when they fall into the box. Big donors would get noticed. Big noise means big donation. Rich people are “throwing” (the verb here is ballo which can mean place, but usually means throw or cast) big donations. Not placing gently- throwing.
A poor widow comes and tosses in two lepta.
Lepta are the smallest coins of the Greco-Roman world- two lepta is roughly 1/64 of a days wage. If you’re making minimum wage in Ontario, 1/64 of a days wage is roughly $1.35. So you’re looking at less than a small coffee at Tim’s. This is likely her annual donation.
But Jesus says to his disciples (not to the crowds in this case; he calls his disciples to him) hey, look at her, she gave more than all those rich guys. They gave a fraction of their wealth, but she gave all her poverty. She left it all on the table so to speak.
So what can we learn from this encounter:
First, giving is not about “how much”.
We have this concept of tithing- 10% is good round number. It’s an Old Testament practice. Nothing in the New Testament suggests tithing is required. But nothing says it isn’t. Paul instructed the Corinthians, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” So there is a sense of giving a portion, regularly. The tithe is in place in Israel because the Levites had no land given to them when Israel moved into the promised land. The only income for the tribe of Levi is the giving of the rest of Israel. The other tribes gained prosperity from the land which God had given them. Levi was set aside to teach the Torah, and lead the spiritual life of Israel, and so the other tribes were to set aside a portion to support the work of the Torah. They were to value this, and be glad to have access to it, so the giving should be a joy. It should not be a gift given begrudingly. As Paul told the Corinthians, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
There is no status connected to how much you can give. Giving lots is good, if you have it to give, but it doesn’t mean your gift is better than anyone elses. It’s not about giving more, but about giving better, more faithfully, with the right perspective. The old widow gave all she had. She had virtually nothing. Widows in Ancient society have no status. They are dependant on the kindness of others to survive. She has no means of her own, but she gives, and God smiles.
The rich men throw their bag of coins into the box. They have the finest clothes, live in the biggest homes, and have lots more coins where these came from. But we have to be careful. Jesus doesn’t say their gift is bad, wrong, or that they should ashamed of their gift. He simply says the widow’s attitude is better, because she has an excuse to not give, but does so anyway. The rich have no excuse to not give, and they give their portion obediently according to the Law of Moses (presumably). Their 10% gift is good. The widow’s 100% is better.
Secondly, giving is about priorities: The Kingdom of God or my own comfort
Jesus taught us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”. Is your money for you? Are you committed to seeing ministry happen? Do you really need that new shirt? That new purse, pair of shoes, that second trip through the Timmy’s drive thru etc.?
Do you need Jesus?
Do you want Jesus?
Do you want to see his Kingdom come and his will done on earth as it is heaven?
What are you going to do about it?
This widow was so committed to God, that she was willing to have nothing left. She wanted so badly to do something, anything, to be part of the work of God. So she gave it all. For some of us the money simply isn’t there. We pay our bills and eat and there’s nothing left. Well, let’s talk about how offerings happened in Jesus’ day. Agrarian society meant there wasn’t a biweekly or even monthly pay cheque. There was the harvest. That was your income for the season. And God said, set some aside and live on what’s left. You adjusted your living to fit what was there. There was no social assistance, or subsidies if the crop failed. You were forced to trust in God. To pledge faithfulness to him, and obedience to point of risking everything. In the New Testament, Paul tells us to set aside a gift at the beginning of the week. He’s writing to Corinth, which is an urban centre where sailors and merchants’ income was different than the farmers. But the point is we should give first fruits. Give first, adjust your lifestyle to meet what’s left.
Third, giving is an indicator of Spiritual health and maturity.
Want a quick litmus test of your commitment to the Kingdom? Check out what you give. Check your pattern of giving. If your offering is going down it means either something has happened to your financial well-being or there is something negative happening spiritually; something in your attitude toward Church and ministry specifically. The widow in our story today pleased God. She, Jesus says, is your example. Don’t get rich and give a tithe to impress Jesus. That won’t work. This widow’s spiritual maturity dwarfs that of the rich folks tossing big bags of money into the offering. Some of those guys gave to impress people. That sound of the money hitting the box meant they were important, godly Jews. Some were using their money to gain esteem. Their offering was a tool. They used their offering for their own gain. But Jesus told his followers:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4).
There is no reward in giving to impress people, and your monetary giving should never translate into influence, prestige or power. Money is not leverage.
Far too many people in our churches use money as a tool or worse, a weapon to get what they want. “I give lots, so I should get my way. I am entitled…” “The church needs me and my donations.” “I’ve done so much for the church.” “Oh people are upset; they don’t like that, and they’ll stop giving.” “Giving will go down.” “We’ll lose donations.” “I don’t approve of this direction so I won’t put my money in the general fund.” “I won’t support this.”
People do it. Christians actually do this. When you do that you aren’t proving a point. You aren’t protesting some perceived injustice. You are robbing God and hurting the mission of the Kingdom. I know that sounds harsh. But that’s the language God uses. Check out the books of Malachi & Haggai, written after the Jews had returned from exile. The people of God were storing up riches. They were building their homes while the Temple was a pile of rubble. They were giving God scraps and leftovers, and God said you are robbing me. Malachi 3 says, “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.” Refusal to faithfully participate in ensuring that ministry happens, when you have the means, is robbing God. It isn’t that God actually cared about the building itself. He has the whole universe for his home. But the nonchalant attitude towards the Temple revealed the selfishness of the people. God was mad because his people were more concerned about their physical comfort than their spiritual health. They made their first priority their homes. Their heart’s desire was not to serve and worship God, but was to have status. Their first love was their stuff. They failed to see that this prosperous land they had been given was a gift from God.
Are you committed to the Church? Are you really committed? Is the Kingdom of God truly your heart’s desire or is the Kingdom of God just something you contribute to if there’s something leftover? If the mood hits you just right? If you agree with everything that’s happening?
If you are truly devoted to the fellowship of the church and seeing the Kingdom of God revealed to a suffering world, then giving should be a joy. That’s what our covenant says, we will cheerfully to support ministry. We should find joy in supporting this. Offerings shouldn’t be a burden or chore, but a gift. Being part of what God is up to is a something to rejoice over.
What does it mean for community?
Two weeks ago I spoke about this idea of koinonia– fellowship, which means partnership, sharing, community. We’re all in this together. We share the load. We all come and bring our gifts.
We shouldn’t get legalistic about this tithe- the 10% mark. It’s a good principle. If you need that mark there to discipline yourself to give, then by all means do so. I know people who faithfully tithe to the penny. They still give to other causes above and beyond the tithe to the church. This is a good attitude to have. But don’t let it become a barrier, or a law that impedes freely and joyfully participating in the Kingdom.
We give from where we are at- financially and spiritually. Those of us who are mature should be giving more. As your faith grows, so too should your generosity. We should be committed to developing ourselves and each other in maturity.
Now, giving is not only about your money. There are ways to give if you are not financially able. For instance, this congregation has been able to save a lot of money because of the hard work of some of our folks. Free labour helps keep our finances in order. Of course the work you do shouldn’t be an excuse to not give if you can. Both is always best.
Church finances are a funny thing. Churches are often critiqued for being money grabbers. The impression of money is that we exist to make money. A real church commits to use/spend money well. It’s probably prudent to have some money ready just in case, but for the most part, our money should be going out as quickly as it comes in. We should be using our money to invest in the Kingdom to see mission and ministry happen, here in this building, in this town, across Canada and around the world. The money we have is not our money.
We are called to be good stewards of money. This doesn’t mean we hold on to it and build up a vast amount of cash. That’s not godly stewardship. Stewardship is about using the resources entrusted to us (financial and other) wisely for our Master to produce the results he wants. What results does he want? The lost to be found, the hungry to be fed, the stranger to find community, the homeless to have shelter, the vulnerable to be cared for, the prisoner to sin to be set free, and Jesus to be proclaimed as LORD, to the glory of God the Father.
Hording money doesn’t make that happen.
But we get to be part of that mission. We get to be partners with God and one another to proclaim and share with others the goodness and marvelous wonders of the Kingdom of God.