IV. “Hurts So Good” – Stewardship means Sacrifice (Luke 21:1-9)
Additional Bible Texts/Themes: Sacrificial System; David’s costly gift (2 Sam. 24:18-25)
Focus: Stewardship means Sacrifice
Application: money and giving
In this last sermon we will finally turn to the question of money. The focus, however, will not be on bankrolling the ministries of a local church, but rather on the sacrificial giving of the people of God. Immediately after commending the widow’s sacrificial gift to the Temple, Jesus predicts the destruction of the same Temple. Her giving was commended not on the basis of its usefulness, but rather its sacrificial nature. Such a theme will go against the grain of American pragmatist culture, which always demands to see results. But scripture and experience teach that a lifestyle of giving decreases rather than increases anxiety, as we learn to trust in God’s provision.
No sermon series on stewardship would be complete without a discussion of the “widow’s mite.” If you type the phrase “stewardship sermon series” into google, you will get page after page of sermon manuscripts and outlines on this text. The widow in this story is a great stewardship hero. She exhibits sacrificial giving like no other character. She shows that it is not the size of the gift, but the heart of the giver that really counts. She had so little, but she gave it all, which is more than we can say for the wealthy. She is the preeminent model of stewardship.
Of course, there is another side to the story. It is not pretty, but it is there. Just for a moment, let’s try to see this story from a different perspective. Let’s try to get inside the skin of the rich. Let’s try to see what they see and think like they think. Let’s dare to see both sides of the story before rushing to Jesus’ response.
If you compare based on percentage, the widow clearly gave more. The rich gave much, but it may have only been a slight portion of their entire wealth. According to Jesus, the widow gave all that she had. We make the same comparisons today when we see rich movie stars or CEO’s giving millions to charity. Sure, it is a lot of money, but it is a small percentage of their wealth and they get a tax break out of it. But think about it. The percentage may not be as high for them, but the effectiveness is great. The widow’s small contribution will make very little difference to the Temple’s ministry. The rich, despite the smaller portion, are provided ample resources for the glory of God. Today’s big donors sometimes make a big difference with their generous donations to worthy causes that far outweigh our five dollars here and ten dollars there. Can’t we give the rich a break? At least they are giving.
Of course, all this assumes that effectiveness is what counts. Maybe what Jesus is focused on is the heart. What are the true intentions of the wealthy compared to those of the widow? This concern for intentions is important. Why we do what we do should not be ignored. And yet the text itself says nothing about intentions. Neither the narrator nor Jesus himself ever say anything about anyone’s intentions. Despite the Sunday School and sermonic representations over the years, the Bible does not portray the wealthy as showy or pompous. Rather, we simply see them giving.
Furthermore, we do not see a window into the Widow’s heart. We have no idea what her intentions were. As far as we know, she struggled with pride. Or maybe she was trying to win favor with God through good works rather than faith. She is not necessarily the humble old woman we usually picture.
If we want to make the moral of the story about the heart, the text will disappoint us. This story is about money. It is about the value of a gift and how to determine the better gift. It is not about how we give but what we give. And when it comes down to it, the wealthy gave more. Their gifts are more useful. They are more effective. They are more practical. They are more.
The widow’s gift, however, is useless. It is ineffective. It is impractical. It is less. Her gift will not support ministries. It will not feed the poor. It will not send out missionaries. It will do nothing. It is a drop in the ocean. Certainly she could have done something more useful with it. Certainly she could have used it constructively for those near to her. Certainly she could have been a better steward of her resources.
You too may feel that your giving is useless. You too watch the big donors go by, supporting charity organizations and bankrolling the ministries of the church. You see how effective their big gifts are. But you keep on giving. You give till it hurts. Then you give some more. And you do not see the pay off. You do not see societies change or ministries bloom. You do not see the personal blessing that preachers promised you. You just see waste: wasted money, wasted resources, wasted energy.
The face of Jesus continues to shine before you, encouraging you to give. He comes before us in this story and says your gift is the better one. You want to believe he is right, but you can’t always feel it in your gut. Something is just not right. You are glad he appreciates your little gifts. But let’s be honest, Jesus, the big gifts are more useful. They can do more for the kingdom. They can make a difference. What’s so special about my useless gift?
Although Jesus says that the widow’s gift is better, he doesn’t explain why. He points out that it is all she had to live on, but this is only a description of her gift and not a clear reason for its greatness. If we want to understand why Jesus praises her gift, we must keep reading. Immediately after this story, the disciples point out the beauty of the Temple. Jesus responds by predicting that a time is coming when not one stone will be left on another. The very Temple to which the wealthy and the widow were giving their gifts will be destroyed. The very same Temple that stands as a reason for giving bigger gifts will fall. Neither the wealthy nor the widow’s gifts will amount to anything. The practical results of their gifts will be destroyed. So all that is left to determine the better gift is this question: who can waste more on the altar of destruction that this Temple is about to become?
I want you to know today that what Jesus values about your useless gift is precisely its uselessness. The more useless it is the better. The more wasteful, the more faithful. The more impractical, the more worshipful. The widow’s gift is not better because it is a bigger percentage. It is not better because of her attitude. Her gift is better because it’s useless. It is better because it accomplishes nothing. It is in the midst of such a lack of accomplishment that God is glorified. God’s control of the universe is displayed when his people lose control and give wastefully to him. So if you feel that your giving is useless, good. Such wasteful giving is worship in its purest form.
This uselessness is the significance behind the concept of sacrifice. We hear this word sacrifice as a big, complex theological word. It carries with it the wrath of God and the substitution of the innocent and the payment for sin. But sacrifice in its most stripped down form simply means uselessness. Not all the Old Testament sacrifices were completely useless. But some of the most important ones were. Sometimes the people would offer to God a whole burnt offering. They would burn up a whole animal. No leftovers. Nothing would go to feed the priests. It was utterly used up – a useless display of devotion to God. And Jesus knew that the Temple and the whole sacrificial system itself would soon be destroyed. He knew that in his own act on the cross he would give up his life as a perfect sacrifice.
Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Plato observed that religious rites and ceremonies shared a lot in common with children playing games. He meant this as an insult, because what the two have in common is their uselessness. The child and the worshipper both aimlessly move around with no practical result to show for it. I say to you that Plato is right. The heart of worship is wastefulness. This is why the giving of our tithes and offerings is a crucial aspect of public worship. We do not just mail in a check or set up direct deposits. We gather together to sacrifice our money as an act of worship to God. Just as we are wasting our time when we sing songs and hear sermons and eat little wafers, we are also wasting our money when the offering plate is passed.
Such sacrificial thinking is hard to swallow in our American pragmatist culture. We like to see results. We evaluate everyone on the basis of results. Our drive for results has made us successful, so we see no reason to abandon it. But when Jesus looks at that widow and praises her painful gift to a Temple that will soon be in flames, he challenges our pragmatic obsession with results. He looks us in the eye and asks, “Are you willing to be wasteful for me?”
All this talk of wasteful giving seems to destroy any sense of accountability for the recipients of the gift. I seem to be implying that whatever churches or charities do with your money doesn’t matter. Just give. Although sacrificial giving is good for you no matter who it is to, I do not intend to let churches off the hook. Accountability is crucial. But accountability should not be based on effectiveness. The question you should ask is not, “How effectively are they using my money? How are they apportioning my investment?” Rather, the standard ought to be the sacrificial giving of the church itself. You ought to be asking, “Is my church giving sacrificially? Are they properly wasting my money on things like worship and feeding the poor?” The example of the widow’s mite applies not only to individuals but the whole body. The church is called to sacrificially give of her resources, not demanding results but praising God through unrequited gifts.
Of course, sacrificial giving may start with your tithes and offerings here at church, but it doesn’t end there. Sacrificial giving is not just an act of corporate worship; it is a way of life. I was always taught to give to the poor, but to be careful about when and where you give because you do not know how they will use it. I was always taught to help the poor but to not give them hand outs. So I have been programmed to never give loose change to a bum on the street. I always find myself thinking, “He’ll probably just waste it on booze and lotto tickets.” Jesus challenges this obsession with results. Yes, handouts are not enough. But a handout is something. It is the initial act of wasting, of letting go of our resources so that God can use them to his glory. The next time you see that homeless person, don’t ask where you money is going. Take a risk. Trust God and give. It is my prayer that as we begin to waste, God will open our hearts to others and grant us more opportunities to give sacrificially. Who knows, maybe he will make it useful after all. God has been known to resurrect things that were wasting away.