Summary: Christ makes clear that part of the call of disciples is not just that we give "a lot" or "enough." but that we give sacrificially; not that we give out of our surplus, but that we offer from our first fruits. Giving matters because it is what God asks of
Today we have come to that ever-dreaded sermon topic, money. I would like to tell you that I'm going to sugar-coat today's sermon and make it easy to swallow so that we can all leave here feeling good about ourselves. But if we are going to be honest, really honest, about why giving matters, I can't do that. And the matter of giving and generosity can't be sugar-coated because ultimately, when it's all boiled down, our giving reflects directly on our relationship with God. God's mandates about giving are clear, and Jesus' teachings about money and the poor number second only to his teachings about the kingdom of God. For all the uncertainty about the meaning behind certain themes and passages in the Bible, the message about our obligation to give to God from our first fruits is clear. Here, with matters of money, is one of our greatest opportunities to follow God's commands and to reflect the generosity of Christ, and instead we always end up looking very human; very selfish instead of self-giving, very greedy instead of very faithful.
In case you are not aware, I am passionate about giving back to God. So let me share with you why giving matters to me. First and foremost, giving matters to me because God has given so much for me, for all of us; God in Christ gave himself for me, how could I not give back to him? It would be like receiving a gift from a friend and never saying "thank you." God has given us clear instructions about how to say "thank you" to him, and that is that we return to him a portion of our first fruits; specifically, that we offer to God a tenth of the first harvest of our fields. And today that means that I give back to God right off the top of my income. My faith would be incomplete if I didn't say "thank you" to God; not just through my prayers, worship, or devotional practices, but also through my giving. Similarly, my faith would be incomplete if I didn't give to God because that says that I don't trust God with my resources. More specifically, it says that I need my money more than I need God.
There has never been a time in my life that I have not given at least a tithe to the church. Before I was earning an allowance, my parents gave my sister and me each a quarter to put in the offering plate every week. Then when we started getting an allowance, we were taught to tithe, and we made a pledge to our church to do so weekly or monthly. Currently, between the two of us, Ken and I give a little over 11% of our total salaries. Please notice that I did not say "our total income." I said our total salaries. That means that we are paying a tithe on the money that goes to pay our healthcare costs, and into our retirement fund, which we will give from again when that starts paying out after our retirement. If you calculate the amount we give compared to our actual income, it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 14%. And we wouldn't have it any other way. When we figure our monthly budget, this is the first obligation that is considered; it is our "first fruits." If things are tight, we don't cut what we give to the church, we make sacrifices in other areas; like eating out or going to the movies. Giving makes us better financial managers, and it also keeps us from getting too attached to "stuff" because often we have to say "no" to stuff so that we can fulfill our obligation to God. Giving is one of our ways of saying "thank you" to God. God has asked it of us, and it is the least we can do. Certainly, there are lots of things that I would love to use that money for. It would be nice to have cable TV and an iPad. But those are not necessities, and as faithful Christians, our devotion to God through giving is a necessity. Giving matters to me because God matters to me.
The same is true of the widow in today's scripture reading. What matters most to that woman as she walks into the Temple that day is her relationship with God, and she shows that through her offering. She has given, literally, "her whole life", two copper coins which were all she had to live on that day. One might have thought she was putting in merely two copper coins, but in fact she was putting in everything she had. How many of us would do that?
Sadly, most of us are like the rich people who walked into the Temple before the woman. Relatively speaking, we are quite well-off, and yet we give very little out of our abundance. This story poses the same challenge to readers today as it did in Jesus' time. People usually think of giving to the church and to charities as an option. The money for giving back to God comes out of the surplus only after often unnecessary personal expenses; if it comes out at all. The contrast in this story between the offering of the widow and all the others who are tossing in what they can spare, exhibits the false values of a society that does not really offer sacrifice to God.