Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps. 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 Sermon by Ted Johnston (From Mark 12 and 1 Kings 17, drawing on insights from the New Bible Commentary and the Bible Knowledge Commentary)
Two Lessons About Generosity
Our Gospel and Old Testament readings today tell stories about generosity. Let’s begin with the one in Mark’s Gospel:
[Note to preacher: if today’s passages in Mark and 1 Kings were read in the Scripture reading portion of the service, they need not be read again.]
The widow at the temple
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Jesus 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. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44)
This passage falls within the section of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is giving examples of those who reject kingdom values and those who embrace and exemplify them. Ironically, it’s teachers of the Law who reject them. Rather than exemplifying God’s generosity, they love power, position and wealth. Their lives are about an outward show of religion, not about kingdom values. They devour (gobble up) the property of helpless people, perhaps by continually demanding religious contributions.
Then, in stark contrast to these religious leaders, Jesus tells of an impoverished widow who willingly and gladly gives God the money on which her life depends—she holds back nothing. This sort of radical, selfless generosity exemplifies the generous heart of God, which soon will be seen when Jesus offers himself on the cross as God’s gift to all humanity. In the incarnation and crucifixion, God gave everything in the person of Jesus. He held back nothing.
The impoverished widow thus mirrors the generosity of God. Though what she gave, monetarily speaking, was insignificant, her actions spoke volumes concerning her heart of generosity. As far as we can tell, she was not being forced to give. The implication is that her generosity was motivated by love for God. She gave in response to what God had done for her. Generous God, generous widow.
Generous God, generous people
True generosity in the lives of God’s people has always been about saying “thanks” to God—their grateful response to God’s great generosity. But what did this widow have to be thankful for? Socially, she was an outcast. Not only was she poor, she was without a husband, and thus was very limited in what she could do in that culture. Yet, she does not seem to consider herself poor. Her actions seem to signify that she saw herself as greatly blessed. She had the gift of life, and lived in the reality that she was a child of God. She responded with generosity.
Look around—look at your life. Has God richly blessed you? Even though times might be tough, and though you may have suffered loss and pain, are there things in your life for which you give God thanks?
Of course there are—you have life, and a relationship with a living, loving, gracious God. You are his child. You are part of this family of faith—a congregation of people who love you and care about you. You have food, clothing and shelter. You are richly blessed.
Giving to God of our treasure through offerings here at church is a tangible way in which we say “thanks!” for the blessings God has poured into our lives—for the new lives we have in Jesus, for the callings we have received to serve all humanity with Jesus, by the power of the Spirit.
The impoverished widow in this story gave all she had to the Lord. In doing so, she demonstrated her trust that God would provide for her for the next day. We might say that she “put her money where her mouth was.” That’s remarkable, considering the human tendency to worry about not having enough, and so to hold tight to what we have. Make no mistake about it, it was true then and still is true that being generous is an act of faith. Through the generous sharing of what God has given us, we are saying that we trust him to provide what we need, and through us to provide for others.
The widow of Zarephath
This sort of generosity was also exemplified by the widow of Zarephath, who we are told about in our Old Testament reading in 1 Kings.
Then the word of the Lord came to [Elijah]: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’ ”
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16)
Due to a severe drought, the great prophet Elijah was suffering. So God sent him outside Israel’s territory to the Phoenician town of Zarephath and there introduced him to a gentile widow. How ironic that it would be a gentile, a pagan, and a widowed woman at that, who would, with generosity, come to the aid of God’s prophet.
This widow willingly fetched water for Elijah, but when he asked her for some bread, she was forced to admit her abject poverty and state of near-starvation. Elijah reassures her that God will honor her generous hospitality by multiplying the very little that she possesses—a meager supply of flour and oil. The promise is that God will see to it that she has enough to get them through until the drought ends.
Perhaps recognizing him as a prophet, the woman trusts Elijah and obeys, and the truth of Elijah’s words to her were borne out. God kept his promise as a response to her generosity. Once again, we see the generosity of God himself being reflected in the generosity of a person. This impoverished widow’s generosity to Elijah was a response to the initiative of the generous God. True generosity, you see, is a reflection of God’s goodness to us. Once again, we find the maxim true: Generous God, generous people.
Beware a scarcity mentality
Sadly, we live in a me-centered culture that has a scarcity mentality. It preaches the message: “There’s not enough to go around, so I’d better get more and hold on to what I have.”
This mentality is nothing new, and is not unique to Western culture, for it springs from deep within the fallen human nature we all possess. Sometimes that nature (what Paul calls the flesh) raises its ugly head in extreme ways. The Mazatec Indians in Southwest Mexico are an example. By custom, they seldom wish other people well and hesitate to teach others the trades they have mastered. This inhospitable behavior stems from their concept of “limited good”—they believe there is only so much good, so much knowledge, so much love to go around, and so you must hold tight to what you have. For example, they believe that if you teach another person how to bake bread, you will be draining yourself of that knowledge. They even believe that if you love a second child, you will be loving the first one less. To them, if you wish someone well, you are giving away your own happiness and well-being.
A person and even a whole culture that lives according to this scarcity mentality robs themselves of one of the most important keys to happy, successful living: generosity. Happiness in life is about giving, not getting. It’s about open hands, not closed fists. The two widows in our readings today, though poor, were rich in life due to their generous spirits. From them we learn some important lessons:
- At its root, generosity is a response to God’s initiative in our life. Occasions for generosity are more than mere opportunities—they are ways God sets us up to share in his generosity. Let me ask: Where is God calling you to be generous?
- When it comes to generosity, what’s important is not the amount given, but the proportion. Both widows in our readings gave all, trusting that God would supply their need. What does that sort of trust look like for you?
- Generosity springs from this trust—the belief (call it faith) that God is indeed generous and will supply your need. Where is it that God is calling you to a deeper level of trust by calling you to be more generous in your giving?
Let us ponder these questions in the days ahead as we reflect on these two stories of generous widows.