Be Generous (Mark 12:41-44)

The Widow’s Mite by James Christensen

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you; this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (New International Version)

Money. Can’t live without it; can’t live with it. *Sigh*

If there’s a litmus test of one’s true benevolence and spirituality, it’s how money is handled and/or mishandled. And it isn’t as cut-and-dried as giving large sums of it away.

In today’s short Gospel lesson, the offerings of rich people were unimpressive to Jesus. To him, their big donations are insignificant.

On the other hand, a poor widow’s measly offering is validated as a rich contribution. In giving everything, Jesus holds up the widow as an example for us to follow.

This raises a natural and interesting question: Does this mean everyone should give everything they have? Maybe. Maybe not. Yet perhaps the very question betrays how we tend to think about money – that it’s ours, we earned it, and we can do whatever we want with it.

But the fact of the matter is that we really own nothing. We are merely stewards, entrusted with using that which has been graciously given to us by God. The Lord is the owner of it all. It was never really ours to begin with.

Taken from this perspective, anything we hold onto and refuse to let go, no matter how large or small, is a form of theft. We have taken something that doesn’t belong to us. We aren’t satisfied with being stewards; we want to be owners and masters.

What you do with your money shows your allegiance to the true Owner of it. If it belongs to Caesar, well then, go ahead and give it to him. And if it belongs to God, then there isn’t an issue in distributing money in ways which benefit humanity and uplift the poor.

The widow knew that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. She seemed to understand that God’s values are very different from earthly values. The kingdom of heaven expects us to hold all things, money included, with open hands. Whereas the kingdoms of this world fully expect that people will hold their money with tight fists – which is why we have so many layers of cybersecurity around our assets.

Money is a means to an end and not the end itself. It is the means to ensure the welfare of the common good of all persons. It’s a tool to shape a better society, built not on the backs of the poor, but for the benefit of the needy so that everyone can participate fully in the community.

To build a petty kingdom and become master of a small world is nothing more than stealing from God and withholding resources where they are needed.

And to make things more complicated and challenging, in today’s world, time is money. It’s easy to write a check, transfer some funds, or allocate some resources for others. However, it is never easy to grace people with the gift of time. Relational connection takes time and effort – the kind of time many people believe they do not have. Yet, time also belongs to God, and it is to be stewarded with care, just like our money.

The Poor Widow’s Offering by Unknown artist

Let’s come back to the poor widow. After all, she is our example of true generosity.

In ancient Israel, those in poverty were not required to give. So, whenever the poor did so, they simply gave because they believed in the need to maintain all it took for the worship of God to happen. The widow was under no compulsion to give anything, let alone everything she had. She seemed to understand what the Apostle Paul discovered later:

The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8, NET)

A spirit of generosity is to be ubiquitous throughout Christianity. It is a spirit that doesn’t let the left hand know what the right hand is giving (Matthew 6:3). A generous spirit rightly discerns that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).

And the guide of altruistic giving is savvy to the reality that the accumulation of money often leads to the love of money. So, the generous person keeps temptation at bay by withholding love toward things so that love can be lavishly given to people. For some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

Like the poor widow, we are to put our hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment.

Eternal God, we pray that stewardship will be our way of life. We acknowledge You as the source of all we have and all we are.

Loving Creator, help us to place You first in our lives by being prayerful, loving, and caring for our families neighbors in need, and by becoming less preoccupied with material things.

Sovereign Lord, help us to hear your call to be good stewards, caretakers, and managers of all your gifts by sharing them for your purposes. May Your priorities be our priorities. May we have an active and generous faith.

Blessed God, help us to serve the Church, our communities, and our world with Your good and gracious gifts; and with joyful and grateful heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 10:34-42 – The Trouble with Jesus

Jesus teaching the disciples, from the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome

Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
    a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (New International Version)

Jesus is the sort of guy that gets up in our grill and confronts us with this: All of life centers in him. That may sound incredibly narcissistic. For Christians, it isn’t, because we discern and confess along with the Apostle Paul:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV)

The Christian’s confession of centrality in Christ means that we believe Jesus is the most important person there is. That confession often makes us troublemakers, as we follow in the footsteps of the Lord who was himself a troublemaker.

That may also sound like something that happens when a narcissist is in control. Again, for Christians, it isn’t, because we realize that trouble is central to Christian mission; the way of the resurrection comes through the cross; the way to succeed is to fail; and whoever loses their life will find it.

We Should Expect Opposition

We should not be obstinate, pigheaded, short-sighted, legalistic, or use the Bible as a brick to throw at people who disagree with us. That will certainly bring opposition and trouble. But this is not the kind of opposition we’re talking about. Being a jerk is antithetical to the gospel. Don’t be a jerk.

The opposition Jesus experienced came through being humble, meek, just, merciful, pure, and peace-loving. According to Christ’s Beatitudes, embracing these values will smack against their opposites. Pride, criticism, judgmentalism, and selfishness are ensconced everywhere throughout this fallen world.

The virtues of Jesus are counter-cultural; they’re different than how the world typically operates. 

As people who must live in this world, we need to avoid the extremes of simple assimilation into the culture, or an outright rejection of the culture. Blending into culture, and separating from it, are both ways of avoiding opposition and trouble. 

Instead, there is a third way that encompasses both shrewdness and innocence. And it is faithful to the way of Jesus. We need to interact with and engage the culture as salt and light. 

Assimilation means that we lose our saltiness. Isolation means that we hide our light.

But interaction means that we are discerning and seek to apply understanding and truth in the concrete situations of life in the world.

It means that we learn critical thinking skills. It involves listening to others and discovering their values. It requires speaking into another’s life with grace and truth. It is a matter of following the words and ways of Jesus, the center of all things.

Any fool can stand against something and complain about it – shouting from afar about what they don’t like. It’s also foolish to accept everything without question. As followers of Jesus, opposition and trouble is going to come when you rub shoulders with the world. If we never experience opposition, it’s probably because we have either succumbed to the culture or have removed ourselves from it.

We Will Inevitably Upset Our Family

Trouble will likely come from family. In many countries of this world, a family member who becomes a Christian has brought shame upon the entire family and, so, is in jeopardy of being shunned, rejected, or worse. That sort of trouble may be foreign to many, but family separations certainly occur in our own culture because of faith commitments to Jesus. 

Jesus stated that anyone who takes the easy way of loving family more than him is not worthy of him. Anyone who does not take up their cross and follow Jesus, even if it means trouble, is not worthy of following him. 

Each one must die to self. Let… it… go….

Die to the old life; take up a new life – a life dedicated wholeheartedly to Christ.

The old life involves holding onto a spirit of unforgiveness and bitterness; avoiding certain people; refusing to make things right with others. The new life entails keeping steadfast love, caring for others, embracing humility, being self-less, thinking the best of others, forgiving others, taking pleasure in truth, remaining patient, and always trusting God, no matter what.

We Are Going to Feel Afraid

Fear has to do with the unknown. If we expect opposition and trouble, then we won’t live in dread of what might happen. The early Christians even rejoiced in their suffering because they considered it a privilege to be walking in the way of Jesus. (Acts 5:41)

God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. (Philippians 1:29, CEB)

We will receive special help in times of trouble and fear. We have the Holy Spirit, given to us to be our Helper for such a time as this. God is with us.

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2, NLT)

God sees everything and isn’t taken by surprise by your hardship; the Lord will eventually deal with all that is wrong in this world.

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

It is a privilege to follow Jesus into trouble. This is “upside-down” theology. In giving my life away to Jesus, I find it. In getting into trouble, I find peace. In taking up my cross, I find purpose and joy. 

The flooding of thousands of square kilometers of rain forest in Brazil has given birth to an unusual industry – the extraction of underwater wood. Millions of tree trunks, below the waters of a lake formed by the 1980 construction of a hydro-electric dam, captured the entrepreneurial vision of Juarez Cristiano Gomes.

He invented an electric saw that works underwater and set up a company to extract this wood. Lumberjacks equipped with air tanks go down as far as 164 feet but are never in danger of being smashed by trees they cut since they “fall” upward to the surface.

The kingdom of God is upside-down. Facing trouble and opposition doesn’t make us fall; it actually lifts us up.

So, count the cost. Give your life away. In doing so, you will certainly not lose your reward from God.

Matthew 6:19-24 – Where Is Your Loyalty Placed?

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (New International Version)

Nobody can pursue two diametrically opposed commitments. 

Trying to live in both worlds of pursuing earthly treasure and heavenly treasure is not possible. 

Jesus has no place for any of his followers to ride the fence between those two worlds.

We cannot practice God’s will, and at the same time have a moonlighting job with the world.

As followers of God, we must have a single-minded loyalty to kingdom values. 

We are to do the will of God, from a right and sincere heart, and follow Christ’s teaching alone. 

We may give of ourselves, and give of our money, with sincerity, but if we walk away from that and believe the rest of my money, time, talents, and resources are mine to use as I want (since I fulfilled my duty) then we have a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the domain of darkness.

Jesus, as he typically does in the Gospels, used metaphors to communicate that we must have an unswerving loyalty to God’s kingdom values.

The Treasure Metaphor

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. So, what are earthly treasures? 

Stuff, money, possessions, control, power, position, and recognition from others. 

You may rightly ask in response, “Is any of that really, in and of itself, wrong?” 

No. However, that’s not the real issue. The real question is this:

Do we use our earthly treasure to build heavenly treasure, or do we hoard earthly treasure for our own purposes apart from Christ’s kingdom values?

A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

So, Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ ”

But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight, you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves but are poor in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:13-21, CEV)

Earthly possessions are tools to be used. Jesus warns that we must not accumulate personal wealth, esteem, and success for the sake of placing ultimate security in money, but for advancing God’s kingdom values. 

Why do that? 

Because earthly treasure is temporary, and heavenly treasure is permanent. 

Heavenly treasure is righteousness; it’s right and just relationships. Humility, peace, grace, mercy, purity, and forgiveness are all relational values. The only thing that we will take with us when we die is relationships; it’s the only thing that’s permanent.

If I am genuinely committed to God’s kingdom, my most cherished values will be established by God. 

Whatever it is that we value, those values consume our thoughts and our efforts. In other words, what’s truly in our hearts directs our work.

And what we value derives from how we perceive our identity. For many Americans, we are defined primarily not as citizens or workers, but consumers. Jesus is neither advocating that we take vows of poverty, nor that we ought not to enjoy the good things in life. Rather, Jesus wants us to define where our loyalties truly lie.

The Light Metaphor

In the ancient world, the eye represented what you fixed your gaze on, or what your focus was. In our culture, we could replace the word “eye” with the word “goal.” The word “body” represents the entirety of one’s life.  So, we may interpret Christ’s words in this way: 

A goal is the focus of a life. If your goals are good, your whole life will be full of proper focus. But if your goals are bad, your whole life will be full of blindness. If then, the focus within you is only really blindness, how great is that darkness!

If the goals and dreams of life are toward earthly treasure, you will blindly move in that direction and your life will end up in disordered love and misplaced values. At death, you will have nothing to take with you because all the eggs have been put in the temporal basket.

The Slavery Metaphor

Jesus flatly stated that we cannot simultaneously serve God and money. Pick and choose. You must go one way or the other; there is no middle ground. 

The question Jesus is posing is: “Who’s your Master?” 

  • When deciding between two jobs, or two homes, or how to spend your time or your money, what set of values comes into play?… values that define me as a follower of Jesus?… or values that define me as an American consumer? 
  • Will I be a bondservant of Jesus, or a slave to credit card debt? 
  • Will I serve God, or serve the lifestyle that I believe I deserve?

Conclusion

None of us are immune from the temptations of all the world’s shiny things, of ambling into misdirected goals.  If you find that you are slave to the wrong god, then there is good news: There is an infinite storehouse of grace that flows from the very heart of God through Jesus Christ. 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:9, CEB)

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Our Father in heaven,
may your name always be kept holy.
May your kingdom come
and what you want, be done,
    here on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us the food we need for each day.
Forgive us for our sins,
    just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us.
And do not cause us to be tempted,
but save us from the Evil One.

The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, NCV)

Acts 2:42-47 – A Changed Community

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)

You’ve likely heard the old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” It is a wise saying. Yet, what if we don’t know something is broken? What if we keep living our lives with something out of whack and don’t even realize it? Or, worse yet, what if we don’t care?

The ancient church after Christ’s resurrection and ascension was on a mission to live communal life together different from how they lived before Jesus came into their lives. Today’s New Testament lesson gives us a glimpse of what that life together consisted of.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and scholar)

We know something needs to change when it doesn’t quite match up to the life depicted by our ancestors in the faith – a life of fellowship, of glad and sincere hearts, and of concern for the common good of all. We never just change or alter something for change’s sake or because we like or dislike something. No, instead, we adjust our lives according to whether it lines up with the relational dynamics of Holy Scripture.

I had just one grandparent when I was growing up. My Grandma was seventy-nine years old when I was born, and she lived to be ninety-seven. I always knew her as an old lady. Although quite aged, she had a lot of spunk to her, all ninety-five pounds of her. 

I remember Grandma had an old wooden cutting board in her kitchen. I don’t how old it was, but it was probably purchased from Methuselah’s Kitchen Outlet. It was cracked and nearly falling apart. The board had deep furrows in it from the thousands of cuts made on it. Grandma liked her cutting board.

For Mother’s Day one year my Dad bought her a nice brand-new cutting board. After thanking my Dad for the gift, Grandma proceeded to put the new board in the back of her cupboard and continued to use her nasty old cutting board. Whenever my Mom or sisters helped her in the kitchen, they were not about to touch that old board because it was like a bacteria trap with its deep grooves. 

Grandma didn’t care about anyone’s concerns about her cutting board. When my Dad finally asked her why she did not use her new cutting board, she simply answered, “Oh, it is much too nice to use.” We all knew that was Grandma’s way of saying that she liked her nasty old cutting board and nobody was going to tell her she can’t use it.

Sometimes folks, including Christians, can be like my Grandma, bless her stubborn old heart. They just like the way they do things, and really don’t see what others see who aren’t Christ followers. They fail to consider or realize that non-Christians have no emotional attachment to the cutting board. All they see is an antiquated old board they would never use and find it weird anyone would ever want to use it.

Christians may forget or lose sight of how overwhelming and even intimidating they can be with those outside the faith. Because Christianity is familiar to Christians, we don’t see what others see when they view us from the outside. 

I remember once walking into a beautiful new church building and sitting down and seeing a huge old pulpit that was literally falling apart. Since I’ve been around a lot of churches, I quickly discerned it was likely the old pulpit from the old church building. I asked someone, and it was. But as an outsider to that fellowship, I had zero emotional attachment to the pulpit, and it was a distraction because it just looked like a big old ratty collar on a new little puppy.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The point I am making is this: The decision to change our lives, or not to change, must come from a motivation of biblical and human values. The Christian’s mission and purpose are the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbor). We express those values through our daily devotion to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Such life together is attractive and winsome to a watching world.

If people matter, including those who don’t think or believe like us as Christians, then we will make decisions based upon that value. Nothing need be fixed or changed if the mission is going forward with biblical values driving it. However, if people stay away, or know nothing about our shared life together, then we have a prime reason to change. If this has gone on for years, even decades, I suggest that the fellowship of people is eating meat prepared from a cutting board full of bacteria and it is making everyone sick.

Whenever a faith community is focused on trying to keep people from leaving, instead of reaching people with an outward focus, then that community has lost its sense of spiritual values.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The main verb contained within the Scripture verses for today is the word “added.” Those who accepted the message of repentance and faith in Jesus were baptized and about three thousand were “added” to their number that day. We then get a string of participles, that is, words connected to the main verb of “added.” The result is this: The Lord “added” to their number daily those who were being saved.  Please understand the text makes it quite clear that the driving force of Christ’s church is to reach people.

It could be we take the old cutting board for granted and simply expect other people to use it if they are in our kitchen. If that is the case, there is to be a driving motivation and desire for outreach. There are people aplenty who need the kind of deliverance Jesus provides.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy

If something is off in our faith community, then the biblical solution is to change our lives, change our practices, change our speech, and change our daily behavior by reaching people for Jesus and adding them to the fellowship.

Whenever Christians break bread together at the Lord’s Table, the communion reminds us of our highest purpose and values. Jesus came to this earth for those estranged and far from God and others. Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are saved by grace through faith. This reality is made tangible to us in the elements of bread and cup. They are a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace. We are to come to the Table forsaking all personal agendas and embracing God’s agenda of redeeming humanity.

And, by the way, after about a year of sitting in my Grandma’s cupboard, my Dad took out the new cutting board, put it on the kitchen counter and threw away the old board. It was about time.