When Giving Less Is MoreErwin W. Lutzer | January 18, 2009
Selected highlights from this sermon
Jesus observed people giving in the Temple. He knew the hearts of each person. One widow caught His eye, for she gave sacrificially with faith in God’s provision.
God still sees us as we give. He knows our hearts. Will we come like the widow and openly give God our all, not seeking the attention and acclaim of others?
So, my friend, today what is in your wallet? There is a story about a man who was recovering from a heart attack, and the doctor warned the family that during his recovery period above all else he should not be told anything that would make him get excited, because if that were to happen he might just drop dead and be gone. But while this man was recovering the family discovered that a rich uncle died and left him a million dollars. They didn’t want to tell him that because it might get him too excited, so they did a wise thing. They asked their pastor if he would go and break the news to him, because after all, pastors have so much wisdom in human relations. (laughter) Why wouldn’t they ask the pastor? So the pastor thought about it and very wisely said to the man, “You know, just speaking theoretically, what would you do if you were to inherit a million dollars?” And the man said, “Why Pastor, if I were to inherit a million dollars I promise I’d give half of it to the church,” and just like that, the pastor died of a heart attack. (laughter)
Why is it that the subject of money is so sensitive? There are a couple of reasons, some of which may be good. One thing is very clear in the Bible, and that is that money is always presented as that which gives God most competition in our lives for our loyalty, for our commitment and for our security, because when you stop to think about it, money makes all of the same promises that God does. Money says, “I will be with you during hard times. I will be with you in times that are rough. I’ll be with you when Medicare works, and when it doesn’t. I’ll be there when you are sick, and when you are well, I’ll be there to feed you, to clothe you, to give you an inheritance so that you can have a wonderful retirement.” Money makes all of those same promises that God does, and because of that it competes with our loyalties as perhaps nothing else.
Money represents the energy of our lives compressed. It reveals our hearts. By nature we don’t like to be probed when it comes to money. We’ve all been to the doctor, and at times the doctor will sit you down and begin to poke around. What he’s trying to do is to find where there is some pain, and in the very same way, sometimes God pokes around in our life and the subject of money does it. Perhaps that’s why nearly one half of the parables Jesus told had to do with money. It’s because of the sensitivity of it.
A pastor was telling his congregation, “Now we’re going to take an offering and I want you to give until it hurts,” and somebody whispered to his friend, “I have a very, very low threshold for pain.” Why is it so sensitive?
Of course many people are going through times of difficulty regarding money during this economy. The leader of one of our TMC communities (and TMC stands for The Moody Church) asked the people to write down how the present economic situation impacts them, and he shared with us at an Executive Committee meeting some of the findings. They were very interesting. Somebody said, “There is nothing in my wallet and I have bills to pay.” Somebody else said, “I’ve been looking for work for six months and have not been able to find any and don’t know where to turn.” And then I’m interested in this remark. I think it was given by a woman. She said, “I run to panic and I forget God’s faithfulness.” She said, “I know that God is faithful but I run to panic and forget his faithfulness.”
The purpose of this message is not only for us to understand how Jesus viewed giving, though this series of messages, Investing for Eternity, is that. It’s also intended to bring comfort and hope to those of you who are struggling financially. It is designed to increase your faith. I want you to leave here today with hearts that are filled with praise, no matter what the future holds, so in the end, we trust that under the leadership of the Spirit, that will be accomplished.
The story is a very interesting one. It’s found in Mark 12 and it is a story that is imbedded in the Scriptures during the last days of Jesus, before the triumphal entry and his death on the cross. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and I’m picking it up at verse 41. “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” Wow!
What I want us to do in the next few moments is to take three portraits of Jesus. I want you to use your imaginations and visualize Jesus there at the treasury. In order to help you do that, keep in mind that in the temple area in one of the courts, there were a number of offering boxes. They didn’t have offering envelopes like we do where you write where you prefer to give. They had various options there in the temple area. But these offering boxes were built like a trumpet. They were receptacles where you could throw in your money and then you would hear it as zinged along and then landed in the box. These offering boxes, or particularly the receptacles which looked like horns, were sometimes referred to as trumpets.
When Jesus said in Matthew 6, “When you give your alms, do not blow a trumpet before you as the heathen and the scribes and the Pharisees do.” I used to read that as a child and I thought they got up and actually blew a trumpet. That’s not what is referred to. These offering boxes, these receptacles, were referred to as trumpets, and what the rich would do was to take their offering and put it into the smallest denominations possible so that they had lots of coins, and they would do one of two things. Either they would stand there putting in one coin at a time, taking their time so that the people behind them had to wait. It was almost like standing in a post office when the person ahead of you is trying to mail a package to Darfur, and you could become impatient, but the people behind them would say, “Oh, they are really spiritual. Look at how much they are giving.” That’s one thing they did. The other thing was the opposite. They would take all of these small coins and they would throw them into this receptacle all at once, and these people were actually referred to as zingers, because you would hear this clang as their offering went through the receptacle – through the horn – into the box, and that was called blowing your trumpet.
So when Jesus said, “Don’t blow your trumpet,” what he was saying was, “Don’t be like the self-righteous Pharisees who love to give when people see them give, and make sure that others see them give. Don’t be that way.”
The first portrait of Jesus is of where he sat. He sat over against the treasury (verse 41) and watched the people putting money into the offering box. He sat there purposefully to watch what was going on. He wanted to see what was happening. Now, they didn’t recognize him I am sure. He was just simply walking along and he sat down, and as far as the people knew, he was simply tired, but he was watching what was happening as the people were bringing their gifts into the treasury. You say, “Well, does Jesus do that all the time? Does he watch?” The answer, of course, is yes. Now, of course, when we think that we have a watching God, Jesus in heaven today, exalted above all principalities, above all powers, watching us intently day by day, moment by moment, not only at what we give but what we’re thinking, and why we give can be scary, but it can also be very comforting.
Some of you who lost your jobs, and some of you who don’t know where your next dollar is going to come from, and you don’t know how you are going to pay your bills, could I say to you today that your Father in heaven is watching, and he knows? Jesus said, “A sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground but that that sparrow is watched by my heavenly father and is seen falling to the ground.”
And then Jesus said, “Are you not of much more value than they?” and the answer is yes, of course. There’s no way to compare it. Of course if he watches the sparrow fall, of course he knows your needs, dear widow, dear single person, and dear couple, and you don’t know where to go because you received a pink slip this past week. Does not your heavenly father know? And the answer is yes, of course, he knows.
Like Ethel Waters used to sing at the Billy Graham Crusades way back in the fifties, and perhaps in the sixties, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” Of course, he’s watching, and he saw this morning as the offering baskets were passed at the Moody Church and all the other churches in the world. He saw. He watched. He saw you let it go by. He saw what you put in, what you wished you would have put in, what you could have put in but didn’t. I mean he sees all that.
Every once in a while you meet a Christian who says something like this. “Whatever I give is my business, and nobody else’s business.” Well, I am here to inform you that Jesus also makes it his business. He sits over against the treasury and watches what we put in and what we keep to ourselves. Wow! That’s where Jesus sat.
Well, let’s take another portrait. We see Jesus sitting over against the treasury watching this happen, but the second portrait is of what Jesus saw, and for this again we turn to the Scriptures. Verse 41 says, “Many people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny!” That’s what he saw.
Now let’s talk about these rich people. First of all, let us be grateful that they put in much. Actually I have to tell you that the temple could not have operated on two mites. It had to operate on larger gifts so we’re glad that they gave them, and we should not denigrate people who give large gifts. As I said last time, we should thank God for wealthy people who can give us gifts that can enhance ministries and help us with world evangelization. So, many of the people put in large sums, but Jesus not only saw what they put in, but he saw also how they earned the money. This is critical and if you have your Bible open, as it should be, you’ll notice in verse 38 that Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Jesus hated pretense in worship. He just hated it. He loved the people maybe, but he hated the way in which they pretended to be more spiritual than they were, walking around in large robes, and expecting to be honored. Jesus is constantly looking at the heart, and he hates pride. In fact, the Bible says God is at war with the proud. I don’t want to be fighting God, but what does “devour widows’ houses” mean? We’re not exactly sure. There are different views, but one thing is sure. It was a form of extortion. Maybe when a widow sold her house the scribes got a cut on it, or they got some money on it, or they gave her advice, or they made stipulations for widows that were unfair. In one way or another they exploited widows and that, in the Bible, is a huge sin. It’s huge, because God in the Old Testament and in the New tells us to take care of widows, and if we don’t, we will give an account.
So anyway, Jesus sees these rich people. He knows where they got their money from, perhaps by exploiting the poor, and they are throwing in large sums, and we commend them for that. We don’t know whether or not they were standing there as zingers, trying to draw attention to themselves, but we can fill in the blanks and think that probably they did. But now the eyes of Jesus have a different focus, and that is on this widow, and when I mention the word widow I want to include in it all the single mothers who are listening. My heart goes out to you. I think, for example, of the fact that you cannot have an adult conversation when you are at home with children. Every single decision is yours. Everything is up to you. I try to imagine it. I’m not sure that I can. And so my heart goes out to you today, and we include you in the story of this nameless widow who is mentioned here in the Bible.
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins.” It’s not just that she was poor. She was dirt poor, and some of you understand that expression, maybe even by experience. Dirt poor – two copper coins! When you read the commentaries on how they try to figure out how much this was, you get differences of opinion because it says that two of them made a farthing, and then it took a whole bunch of farthings to make a denarius, and on and on it goes. But the best that I can find out is that it would be, generously speaking, one-half of our penny. So you could say that she gave a penny because she gave two coins, and usually it is translated mites.
By the way, you know we always talk about the widow’s mite. Give her credit. Okay? She gave two of them. All right? Let’s get that straight. So she gave about a penny. By the way, I read years ago that the copper in a penny is actually worth less than the penny. I shouldn’t have said that because I don’t know where to go with that. I’m just simply saying it. (laughter) You know. A penny for your thoughts! But she gives a penny. So is that going to help with the salaries in the temple? With the penny are they going to be able to reconstruct and rebuild and refurbish the building when it needs it? No, you don’t do anything like that. And she gives both of them – all she had.
I don’t know how you react to this story, but I’ve never preached on this before, and I’ve always had something within me that made me uncomfortable with this story because if she had come to me and said, “Pastor Lutzer, I have two mites and I’d like to give them to the church; I’d like to help your CLC over there,” I’d have said, “Dear lady, you need those more than we do. We’ll find other ways to fund our building campaign, or other ways to send missionaries, but you need it.” I’d have counseled her out of doing this. That’s just being very, very honest.
As a matter, there’s a true story that really illustrates what I mean. In a small church where they had a giving challenge, the people came forward to give their gifts and they noticed a young woman shabbily dressed (as she was almost every Sunday), with a little boy standing beside her, and she came forward, and pushing back tears, she took the ring from her finger and put it into the offering plate. A deacon saw it. Later on when the money was counted he went to her and said, “Hey, you shouldn’t have done this. Take this back. You need this. We’ll get along without it.” She said, “You have no right to give it back to me because I didn’t give it to you. I gave it to the Lord.”
All that I can tell you about this story is that love does foolish things. Love sometimes sacrifices. Love takes risks. It’s amazing what people do when they love. I mean, I am amazed as a parent (I never had a son but I do have three sons-in-law) that the Father God would be willing to send Jesus to die on the cross and go through all kinds of injustices and a horrendous death on the cross when he didn’t need to. It was not for him. It was for us, and I look at that and I say, “You know, love does sometimes do outrageous things,” and I think for this widow, giving two mites was outrageous, but never underestimate what love might do. So that’s what Jesus saw.
Well, there’s a third picture I want us to see. It’s of what Jesus said. Look at the text. Verse 43 says, “And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Now this is very interesting because what Jesus was saying in effect was, “What I just saw is so important I want to share it with you, my disciples, because there’s a lesson here.” And do you know how you interpret that? I interpret it that Jesus is saying that there’s a lesson here also for us and for the church. For as long as the church endures there is a lesson to be learned from this nameless widow. Wow!
She gave more and that’s interesting to contemplate. How did she give more? By the way (parenthesis), someone has figured out that if her two mites were given compound interest (and I don’t know if this is true) over two thousand years, those two mites with compound interest might be worth something like 24 with nineteen zeroes at the end. You know that compound interest is amazing. Once you get to the higher sums, it is just something mathematically that you have to understand, but it explodes. So who knows how much she gave as far as the heavenly calculator was concerned?
Somebody else has said, “Well, the way she gave more is that her story has inspired giving in the Christian Church for two thousand years, and you think of all of the money that has been given because of her.” And I need to comment on that. This woman, doing that, had no idea that she was going to be part of the Bible. She had no idea that for thousands of years preachers were going to be referring to her and using her as an example. She had no idea that that was going to happen. Let me give you a word of encouragement. God never lets us see all the good we do. Never! We get little glimmers of it, but we never know the impact of a person’s life going even as far as eternity. We never know what impact we have.
Some of you grandparents will not understand the impact that you’ve had on your grandchildren until you get to heaven. This dear lady, unnamed, unsung, didn’t know that she was going to be held up as an exhibit of generosity for generations. God bless her.
But I think what Jesus probably just simply meant is that her gift meant more because she gave from the heart and she gave sacrificially. That’s probably what Jesus had in mind. When we give from the heart extravagantly because we love, that means more to God than if we simply give because we’re expected to, or give out of our abundance as all of us do, because most of us (and I include myself in this) have never given sacrificially in the sense that we had to go without because we gave. Most of us fit into that category, but if we give sacrificially where it actually impacts our lifestyle, and impacts what we have or what we don’t have, now we’re talking about a radical commitment of love and generosity.
I think that there are two lessons that this dear widow has to teach us. First of all, giving reveals the heart obviously. This is found all throughout the Scripture. That’s why the Bible says that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. My friend, if, before you put a nickel into the offering place, you squeeze it so much that it turns red, keep it. All right? If we are not a generous people because God loved us, we shouldn’t give grudgingly. The Bible talks about those who give grudgingly or out of necessity.
Have you ever noticed that here at the Moody Church we do not make it a requirement to tithe? We don’t say to the new members coming in, “Now, if you want to be a member of Moody Church you must tithe.” No, we hold up the tithe as an example, as a benchmark, as a good rule to follow, at least to begin with, but we don’t make it mandatory. I don’t want people to say, “See, you know what they’re doing? They’re forcing us to give because they need the money.” As I mentioned last time, that’s a bad idea. It’s bad motivation. No, we should be asking, “How much can I contribute because I love?” Ultimately it is a matter of love.
Now having said that, you know I began this message by saying that money always competes with God for our affections (and that’s very interesting)? I’m really serious. It does, because the more money you have, or the more money you make, the more difficult it is for some people to give it away. The poor sometimes are the most generous because they know what it’s like for other people to do without so they are generous with those who are going through tough times. They give out money to the poor because they’ve been poor, and they’ve been there and know how bad it is. Poverty is bad. There’s no doubt about it. It’s very bad. I think, though, that one of the most interesting things is that all the statistics that I’ve seen (and there have been all kinds of studies on this) show that the less you make, the higher percentage you give. Now that doesn’t mean that the poor give more than the rich, because if you give 10% of $20,000 or $30,000 a year, it’s not as much as 5% on $100,000 or $200,000 a year. The rich may give more in terms of the actual cash, but the percentage goes down. I don’t know why that is, but our hearts are really interesting.
There is a story of Dr. Criswell who was for many years the pastor of The First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I remember hearing Dr. Criswell preach when I was there as a seminary student. He, since that time, has gone on to heaven, but there’s a story that he told about a young business man who came to him and said, “Dr. Criswell, you know when I began my business and was just making such a little bit of money every year, I gladly gave 10% to the Lord, but” he said, “as my business has grown and has now become a multi-million dollar business and I’m making so much money, I just can’t tithe anymore. I can’t give that much money to the Lord.” Dr. Criswell said, “Let me pray for you.” So he put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “Oh God, I pray that you might reduce this young man’s income. (laughter) I pray, Father, that his business will shrink. Oh God, bring it down to a size that is right whereby he can be faithful with what you’ve given him.”
It’s truly amazing. The more some people make percentage-wise the less they give. Why? Money competes with God for our affections and that’s why the Bible says, “When riches increase do not set your heart on them.” And that’s why it has often been said, “You should proportion your giving according to your income, lest God brings your income in accordance with your giving,” but the bottom line is it’s always been a matter of heart. Always! It isn’t so that we can pay for the lights and pay the salaries. It’s always a matter of heart. That’s what this dear woman teaches us.
I think there’s another lesson, though, inherent in the text as I look at it again. I can’t just leave it the way it is. I have to ask myself a question. Did this dear lady, God bless her, go home and starve? I don’t know but I don’t think so. I think God took care of her. I think that when she stood there and she gave her two mites she didn’t know that Jesus was watching. This was not a show. She was not a zinger and she wasn’t blowing her trumpet. I think it was given out of love, but also faith – faith to believe that God would meet her need. It’s the kind of faith that you and I need in a time of economic uncertainty. It’s the kind of faith that you and I need when it seems as if whatever has been nailed down is being torn up and we don’t know where the economic decline is going to end. At a time like this we need faith, and we need to believe.
You know, when you look at our bulletin you can tell that as a church we’re in great financial need, and we haven’t cut back a lot of things yet, although we have some things in place where we are not spending money, even though we could use it and need it, but we don’t know what the future holds. People say, “Pastor Lutzer, are you nervous? Are you afraid?” No, not really, because I believe God is going to bring us through it, but we never know what sacrifices we’ll make in the way. We never know where we’re going to have to cut, and as leaders we always have the responsibility to make those kinds of decisions, but what we need is faith.
Now in order to illustrate let me tell you that this past week I spent two-and-a-half days in the state of California. Could I say parenthetically that it was just so gratifying (maybe that’s not the word) to turn on CNN and see that is was 17 degrees below zero in Chicago, and then walk out of the hotel dressed just as I am now, able to take off my suit coat later in the afternoon and enjoy the warm sunshine, and I thought “I hope that the people in Chicago never know that there is a place like California where you can do that.” I was speaking at the Master’s College. Many of you are acquainted with the ministry of John MacArthur. As a matter of fact, the school gave the tie that I am wearing today to me. It is the official school tie. I told John I’d wear it in the pulpit on Sunday morning.
The topic was suffering. I’ve never been at a conference yet where I’ve heard such messages on insight regarding suffering. Dr. John MacArthur and also Sinclair Ferguson were there speaking about suffering in a way that I had never heard before. But on Friday night before I spoke, they had a 20-minute testimony by Joni Eareckson Tada. Now many of you will be acquainted with her the moment I mention her name, but for those of you who aren’t, 40 years ago she dove into the Chesapeake Bay and broke her neck and has been a quadriplegic for 40 long years. In order to give you an idea of how long ago that was, I remember when I read her first book telling her story sometime in the 70’s when I was the pastor of Edgewater Baptist Church. It goes back a long, long time.
She has a wonderful ministry called Joni and Friends, and some of our people here at the church (the Butler family for example) have often attended her retreats and brought music in that context. But Joni was wheeled in, of course, in her wheel chair and she spoke, and I want to give you a summary of what she said, because it does relate to economics. She said when this accident happened she had some very tough questions for God. They weren’t just questions that you might ask in a Bible study, you know, like “What do you think about this?” No, no, she had some tough questions. “God, you say you love your children. If you love your children, why are you so mean to them? Why do you treat me like this?” She wanted to die. In fact, she would have committed suicide if she could have, but as a result of that, God brought her through that and gave her insight into suffering the likes of which none of us could possibly fathom.
I don’t know of anyone else who ministers to so many millions of people (and she’s on the radio and she has had a lot of exposure to helping people) out of complete total brokenness. She said that every morning she wakes up and she says, “God, I can’t do this another day. I can’t.” I say also that her pain is worse than it used to be. She said that now it is at the very level that it was when the accident happened. She said she lives with chronic pain 24 hours a day, but at seven in the morning, the woman who takes care of her comes in and begins the process, and Joni tells God, “I can’t do this another day. If I’m going to do this another day, you have to do this. If you don’t give me strength, I’m just going to lie here. I cannot do it.” And this dear woman (we shall call Mary) comes in and begins to help Joni to get out of bed, and she brushes her teeth and does everything for her, and as time goes on, Joni begins to realize that God has given her strength for another day. Now that’s been 40 long years.
People say, “Joni, we’d like to pray for your healing. Can we pray for your healing?” And Joni says, “Sure, but first of all I want to tell you what kind of healing you should pray for.” She says, “Don’t pray that I’ll walk.” In fact, early on there were all these people who said, “God has shown me that you are going to walk,” and so forth and it never happened. She says, “Don’t pray that I walk. Pray for the healing of my soul.” She said, “What 40 years in a wheel chair has done is it has given me a hatred for sin, and I see how terrible it is.” And she said, “My soul needs healing because I still struggle with pettiness, with self-pity, with a very, very narrow view sometimes of people.” She said, “Pray that that will happen. That’s more important than whether or not I walk. Holiness is more important than happiness or wholeness physically.” And then she said this. She said, “Having a disability isn’t the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world is to have an impure heart.”
Remember when Jesus was talking about lust he said, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you. If your right hand offends you, cut it off and cast it from you.” Well, if you cut out your eye and your right hand, you’d be disabled, but Jesus said, “It is better to enter into heaven disabled, having taken care of lust and the sin that is keeping you from faith, than to arrive in hell completely healthy and well,” after which, of course, you won’t be. So Joni said, “The disability isn’t the worst thing. It’s the sin in my heart that you have to pray for.” And I just thought, “Wow!”
But then she said this, and this relates to the fear that we have of the future. She said, “What this did was it blasted me against God. I had nowhere to go except God wholeheartedly.” She said, “It was like sand blasting to blast out everything I had depended upon, everything that was important to me, whether it was my looks, whether it was my future, whether it was my career. All that was gone. I had only God.” And she said, “I discovered that God wasn’t mean. I discovered that God cared about me. He is loving beyond all words.” And she said she discovered in the crucible of suffering that Jesus seems much bigger to us and much more able when we are desperate.
I wonder if our financial downturn might be given to us by God to teach us that Jesus is bigger than we realized, and better than we realized, and more trustworthy than we realized because we are in financial need and we don’t know where to turn.
There’s a final lesson that I think this dear lady teaches us and that is this. What a beautiful picture of Jesus! I say a beautiful picture of Jesus because he also was rich, the Bible says, but he became dirt poor, and he came to live on this earth and to die on the cross so that you and I could be redeemed, and he gave it all, an extravagant irrational love, and because of that he gave what he had, so that you and I might be saved. What a beautiful picture of generosity is our Savior, and that’s why we should be generous. We should be generous because he’s been merciful and generous to forgive us, to make us heirs of God, and joint heirs of Christ. He gives us all the spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, and because of that we too can trust and believe that the God who sees the sparrow fall is the God who will take care of us.
Hard times? Yes! Ask Joni. But is he loving? Is he kind? Is he trustworthy? Can we believe him though our wallets are empty? And the answer is yes.
Let us pray.
Our Lord, today, we ask that you will help us. Help all those who came today whose focus has been on their need. Help them to see, Father, that you are with us in the good times and in the tough times, and when we don’t know where to turn, we ask that wholeheartedly we’ll turn to you. Help us to see Jesus bigger because we are desperate.
What prayer do you have to pray today? Whatever it is just simply say, “Lord Jesus, I give to you my burdens.” Some of you need to give him your sins, and if you do in faith, he’ll exchange them for his righteousness. Whatever God has talked to you about, you do.
Father, hear the cry of your people. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.