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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When there's nothing left

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, Jesus said, "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, 39and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."
41Jesus 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. 42But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins,j]">[j]worth only a fraction of a penny.k]">[k]
43Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."

Jesus shows his messed-up math in this account at the temple. "This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all others," he said. Ah ... NO! If a wealthy scribe comes a long and drops in a talent (a monetary unit worth hundreds or thousands of dollars in today's currency), it is more than a widow's paltry coins (which cannot be worth more than a few buck today). The temple priests would be able to use the rich man's talent to contract stone masons to repair the damaged pillars, or to buy new gold for the decorations in the inner sanctum. The widow's coins would buy one pigeon for one person to make one sacrifice as an act of worship, and then it would be gone!

"This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all others," Jesus said.

Put it in modern terms. A poor widow walks into church right behind a wealthy business man. This week, she has paid her rent and some other bills. The balance in her checkbook is not less than $50. When the offering plate comes around, she puts in every last penny in her purse, $3.14. The business man is worth over $65 million. He drops a check into the plate - $1,500,000. He won't even notice that money missing. But, you tell me, which financial gift means more to that church?

That church needs a new roof. That church wants to fund an evangelism campaign, but they are in a large city, an expensive city. The campaign's budget is $20,000. The pastor has also challenged the church to raise money for a special home in the western part of the state. It's a place for kids from broken homes, kids who have been kicked by parents incapable of caring for them. A lot the kids are from the town where their church is located. In the home, they will be in school, be cared for, and will be taught the Gospel. But, the home has a put a call out to churches state-wide because they are in need of $80,000 to carry on their programs.

"This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all others," Jesus said.

Seriously, Jesus? Are you sure?

When we look at the simple numbers, it seems the Savior of humanity, the one we call "Lord," the one we worship is off his rocker. Stick to the resurrection stuff, Jesus. Leave the declarations about which financial gifts are valuable to the treasurer, OK?

The thing is, Jesus really is Lord, which means master, boss! He gets to declare which gifts are valuable. As we wrestle with this, it becomes clear that when we look at the entire statement, math is not the problem. We don't struggle with the facts of Jesus' statement. We haggle about the facts so that we don't have to deal with the implication.

"I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."

The woman was praised because she gave all she had. Jesus wants us to give all we have. We don't want to do that.

Take that entire story I came up with about the multimillionaire giving $1.5 million to a church that had all the needs I mentioned. If Jesus is Lord of that church, then He will show how the new roof, the evangelism campaign, and the group home for troubled kids will all get taken care of. Maybe the way God takes care of those needs is by a millionaire giving a big gift. Maybe God shows how the needs can be met with less money. However God does, the church acknowledges that God is the one doing it because in that church, Jesus is Lord.

The Lord has no need of the rich man's millions. But if the church becomes convinced that it needs the rich man's millions, then the rich man will become lord of that church, displacing Jesus. That's a problem because the church sacrifices faith for math. As logical as math is, it is subordinate to God, as is everything else, every way of thought (logic, philosophy, etc), every fact (money, number of worshipers, etc), and every tradition of a particular church. Those things all have their places. God is Lord.

As for money, we aren't all called to give every last penny to offering plate. If we did, the next week, we'd all be 100% broke and lined up at the church asking for help with our mortgage and rent payments. The church could not give the help because all the money went to the new roof, the evangelism campaign, and the home for troubled kids. No, we aren't all called to empty our bank accounts. But we are all called to lay all our money at the foot of the cross and declare Jesus to be Lord of our holdings, our accounts, and our cash.

This is much more than metaphor. Everything we do involving money, which is just about everything we do, must be submitted to God in prayer. How much we invest, how much we give, how much we save - God is Lord of all of it.

When we eat out at a nice restaurant, we remember the call of Jesus to feed the 'least of these' (Matthew 25:35). It doesn't mean skipping all meals that are elegant and expensive. But it might mean taking an inventory. A family might ask, how often do we eat out a nice place? If the answer is 16 times a year, the family then takes that to God in prayer. They come up with a plan. They'll eat out 16 times in the next year, kind of. Six of those times, they'll go to their favorite restaurants like they always have. The other ten times, that family will eat at home, a simple meal - rice and beans. They will set aside the money they would have used for the expensive meal and send it to World Vision or Bread for the World or some other agency that combats hunger. Why? Because they submitted their leisure money to God, their Lord, and this is what their Lord told them to do.

I think most Christians would want to hear Jesus say to them "Well done, good and faithful servant." I think most would want to be commended by Him the way that widow unknowingly was. How do we know when we are where Jesus wants us to be with our money? How does one know if he is like the rich man Jesus told to give everything away (Luke 18:22)? Here's a starting point - the 10% tithe.

Figure out your total income, and give 10% of that annual amount to the church. Make that a regular practice. No matter how good or bad the year is financially, make this something you will not waver on. Tithe. Faithfully, consistently, tithe.

Then, begin praying in earnest for how God wants you to use the rest of the money (and stuff) you have. Don't say, "OK, I've tithed, I am in the clear." It's not about being 'in the clear.' Don't say, "OK, I've tithed, I have done my duty." It's not about 'duty.' Tithing is not one of the ways we earn our ticket to Heaven. That ticket cannot be earned, only received as a gift of grace. Tithe because you long for the heart of God to beat in you. Tithe as ridiculously extravagant expression of gratitude for who God is and how much God loves you. Tithe as a spiritual discipline that declares who is Lord over all your life. Then, after the tithe is given, sit down with God and your bank account, and start praying.

The thing with the widow was, when she gave those last two coins, she had nothing left. All she could do then was look to God. Our faith is impoverished until we get to that point where we have nothing left, and all we can do is look to God.

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