Which Is Greater?
Which Is Greater? by Rev. L. John Gable
October 2, 2016
I would like for you to ponder a question with me this morning. Which is greater: 72,814 or 1? Before you answer, let me tell you a story.
One Sunday morning several months ago, June 26th to be exact, the ushers were sitting in the narthex, following the order of worship of the service going on in the sanctuary, readying themselves to collect the morning offering. As they stood up, offering plates in hand, ready to come down the aisle, the main doors facing 34th Street opened and a man walked in. He was dirty and disheveled. One of the ushers put down her offering plate to welcome him and offer him a bulletin and a place to sit, but he declined. Instead, he put a $1 bill in the plate and turned to leave. “Don’t you want to stay?” she asked. “No,” he said, “I just want to say thanks for all you do here.” Then he turned and left.
That morning we received $19,451 in the offering plate. We also received a check from a bequest of a longtime member of Tab who remembered us in her will, for $53,362. So, our deposit in the bank for the week was $72,814.12.
So again I ask you, which is greater, 72,814 or 1?
The question suddenly becomes a little more difficult to answer, doesn’t it? The answer we give will largely depend on what lens, from which perspective, by what standard of measurement we see it. Mathematically or financially the answer is undebatable: the larger, by definition, is always greater than the lesser. But is that the only way to look at the equation? I don’t believe so, and neither, it appears, does Jesus.
We are familiar, I know, with the Scripture lesson we read this morning from Luke’s Gospel. The same story is also told by Mark in his Gospel. Jesus and His disciples are in Jerusalem, near the end of His ministry. They are sitting on the Temple Mount no doubt interested in watching the progress being made on the massive building campaign undertaken by King Herod to rebuild and enlarge what would come to be called the Second Temple on the same site as the first Temple built by King Solomon, David’s son, nearly 1000 years before. As they watched Luke tells us they saw “rich people putting their gifts into the treasury.” The temple coffers were located in the Court of the Women, the first enclosure of the sanctuary, 13 of them, large, shofar-shaped/ram’s horn-shaped chests made of brass or copper, each marked with a designated purpose. No doubt some of those “rich people” were the Scribes and Pharisees and other religious leaders and folks who Jesus has just finished harshly criticizing for their love “of wearing long robes and being greeted with respect in the marketplaces and given the seats of honor at banquets, all the while devouring widow’s houses and, for the sake of appearance, saying long prayers.” It is worthwhile to take note once again that Jesus has far kinder and gentler things to say to those who do not yet know God than He does to those of us who do.
As they watch this steady flow of people coming forward to drop their offerings in to the Temple coffers, the greater sized coins making the greater sound so as to draw attention to the giver, Jesus notices “a poor widow who puts in two small copper coins”, two lepta, the coins of least value, worth 1/100 of a denarius, think a penny- a coin that costs more to make than it is worth, a coin hardly worth bending over to pick up off of the street. This woman drops two of the coins, which forever thereafter will be called the “widow’s mite”, into the coffer that day and Jesus takes notice and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
So, again I ask, which is the greater? And why?
Clearly Jesus has never tried to support a ministry, pay a staff, keep the lights on, meet an operating budget or fulfill a capital campaign. Mites do not go very far in supporting temple purposes. Building campaigns are not launched, ministries are not funded, staffs are not paid, new ministry initiatives are not supported on lepta. Why then did Jesus commend this woman and her meager offering? Perhaps it was because He viewed her and her mite from a different perspective than that which can be measured on a profit/loss ledger or a balance sheet. He viewed her gift not from the perspective of financial heft but of spiritual depth. Apparently she was a woman of few means, and she donated a portion, “all she had to live on”, to God, through the work of the Temple, as an act of faith, and Jesus commended her for it, and interestingly enough we are still talking about her 2000 years later, not so any of those who gave much greater sums that day. Which then was the greater offering? Apparently hers. That day 1 was greater than 72,814.
But that can only be so if we look at her and her gift through a different lens, from a different perspective, by a different standard of measurement, on the basis of faith not finances, discipleship not dollars.
If we view her actions purely from the perspective of financial worth, her gift was inconsequential at best and life-threatening at worst, or at least utterly foolish if this really was all she had to live on. But viewed from the perspective of faith and faithfulness it was the most generous gift given that day. Yet another example that in the economy of heaven things look differently. That which made no difference on the books of the treasury that day is immortalized in the Book of Life. Jesus was looking not at the size of her gift, but at its cost to the giver; not at the size of her check but at the attitude of her heart.
So all of this begs the question which you and I must ask of ourselves: how are we to place a value on the worth or greatness of our giving? Through what lens, from what perspective, by what standard, do we measure our genrosity? Purely in financial terms or are we also able to attribute a faith factor to it? Clearly both perspectives need to be considered if our giving to the Church and to other Kingdom of God activities is to be considered an act of discipleship, not just philanthropy. We must admit, we who have much, that we can give much and it can still be totally void of faith, much less of any measure of sacrifice. There are some among us who can give great sums and never really miss it if it is just a matter of moving a decimal point or two, or a couple of zeros in one of our accounts. So there clearly is something more to be measured in our giving than the numerical size of our gift. While this story is clearly an instruction directed at the rich, it also teaches that even those who think they have little and nothing to spare or to share still have a responsibility to give. I have heard of individuals through the years who faithfully put $1 or $2 in their offering envelopes week in and week out. I even heard recently of Syrian refugees in a camp in Italy who took up an offering among themselves to help respond to the recent earthquakes there. So, as the Talmud teaches, “Even the beggar living on alms can be charitable.” Clearly Jesus is making a point here by telling this story that rich or poor by the world’s standards the “greatness” of our giving has far more to do with faith than it does with finances; it is a matter of the heart more than the measurement of the amount. He addresses issues of greed and generosity, and questions each of us ask ourselves: given all that I have how much is enough, and to what do I look for a sense of security? These are issues all of us wrestle with, or should.
Somehow, though, these varying standards of measurement must be kept in conversation with one another, our heads and our hearts, our desire to give significantly and to grow spiritually. Perhaps that is why Jesus spoke so frequently about money and possessions because He recognized that we don’t have a very clear way of measuring their value and worth and importance. We turn to the tangibles in our lives in the hope that they can give us a sense of security which they really cannot give at all. We tally up our bank accounts and think we are fine, without much consideration that from a spiritual perspective we may indeed be bankrupt. Like the Church at Laodicea we read about several weeks ago in the book of Revelation which said, “I am rich! I have prospered! I have no need of God” to whom Jesus said, “You are poor and blind and naked.”
Jesus talked more about money and possessions than He did any other topic because He knew what a trap these can be for us spiritually. If we view our tithes and gifts and offerings solely on the basis of what can be measured and justified on a balance sheet or counted in a banking account, we may well find ourselves “rich in the things of this world and poor in the things of God.” Have you ever paused to ask yourself, “What if the things I value most are the very things which keep me from actually trusting God and growing in faith?” What is the gain in that? So I ask you again, which gift is the greater and how is its greatness to be measured?
I am not going to suggest to you today that there is an “either/or” way of looking at our giving; rather it must be a “both/and”, head and heart. We would all agree that we who have much have a greater responsibility to give at more significant levels than those who have little. And, those who have little should also feel the impulse to give for there is always one who is in greater need. I believe the Biblical principle of the tithe, proportional giving, 10% of our earnings be they great or small, is a really good and helpful place to start. Giving is an act of faith and discipleship; it is an expression of gratitude to God for all we have been given. Like the man who stopped in that Sunday morning who just wanted to say “thanks” for all we do here, our offering is the same expression of gratitude to God for all He has done and is doing.
Clearly Jesus uses this teaching to underscore that it is not the size of the gift that matters. The “greatness” of the gift is not determined by how much goes in to the plate, but by how much remains behind. He doesn’t romanticize the small gift nor does He give undo honor to the large. He seems to measure all gifts by the same standard: how much does one have remaining after the offering is made? The measurement then is made not in financial terms, be it less or more, but in spiritual terms, what is the level of sacrifice and commitment?
I come to the conclusion for myself that I want my giving to be substantial or significant enough to benefit the Church and the other organizations we support because we believe in the work they are doing. I believe my giving should demonstrate my faith and my values. Along with that, I believe my giving should be sacrificial enough to demonstrate my dependence on God and my gratitude for His provision, which means I want my giving to have both a financial and a spiritual impact, both on me personally and on those who receive it. In a word: I want to become richer in my giving. I want to grow spiritually as I give financially, and I want that for you as well.
The question then of which is greater can only really be answered by asking another question: through what lens, from what perspective, by what standard do I measure the value of my giving? And the answer to that question will require both a calculation of the head and a commitment of the heart. Amen.
O Lord, some of us have mites, and some of us have millions, and most of us fall somewhere in between.
We know it is our responsibility to give from what we have been given, and Jesus made it very clear that it was not the size of the gift, but the size of the giver’s heart that matters.
You, O Lord, know our treasures and our hearts. May both swell to the occasion.
Lord, hear our prayer….