One day, a Salvation Army volunteer stood at a street corner ringing his bell right next to a big red kettle. It was the first day of the Salvation Army kettle drive. The volunteer was hopeful that the people who were out shopping would respond generously and get the campaign off to a good start.
Most of his shift was just like any other. People passed by. Some gave. Others acted as if he was not there. He was used to it. He had spent 15 years on that corner. He had seen it all.
Except, he had never seen what would soon take place. Two separate acts of giving would leave him confused and puzzled.
First, there was this unusual donation by these two men. Before they donated, the volunteer could hear them having an intense discussion. They were arguing about who could give the most. He could tell these were two rich men. They dressed well and carried huge wads of cash with them. Once they reached the kettle, they started competing with one another by donating bill after bill. This went on for some time and a crowd started to form around the kettle. It only made them give more. The volunteer enjoyed the show. He estimated they contributed more than $1,000 in their “competition.” Money, he knew, that the organization could use it to serve others.
Moments later another person approached the kettle. She was different. She was dressed in old clothes. Her jacket had holes in it. Her pants were dirty. The volunteer knew her. She was a homeless woman who often begged for money on that same corner. He assumed she was going to ask for money and he was going to give her enough money so she could eat.
When she arrived at the kettle, her hands were tightly clinched. She was holding something. Looking at the volunteer, she slowly opened her hands to reveal two pennies. It was all she had. The homeless woman never asked for lunch money. Instead, she placed both pennies in the kettle and walked away.
The volunteer stood was puzzled and in disbelief. He wondered, “What could make someone who has nothing be so generous?”
It is a question we may be asking as well. What makes someone be generous? When we think of generosity our thoughts might turn to the Christmas season. We define generosity as giving a gift to someone. At its basic level this is correct. But, what if generosity is more than about giving a gift? What if generosity was a way of life?
These questions come out of our Gospel reading today from Mark 12:38-44. Jesus is making one of his final public appearances in the Temple court before his arrest. As he is teaching, he notices people donating money. It was likely for an offering to support the Temple’s activities. He sees some rich people giving a large offering. He also sees a widow who gave all she had – two coins – to the fund. Jesus draws a contrast between these two acts by saying it was the widow who gave the biggest gift. Why did Jesus say this? Wasn’t it the rich person who gave the largest gift?
Our basic instinct is like our Salvation Army volunteer. We believe it was the rich who gave the biggest gift. Their donation would have the biggest financial impact. Jesus does not tell us how much they gave, only that it was more than the widow’s gift. So, why is hers the biggest?
Jesus is not focusing on the amount that was given, but on something much deeper. He is looking at their motivation for giving.
It is likely that the rich gave to the Temple offering because it was a religious requirement. This likely centered on the idea of the tithe. Deuteronomy 14:22-23 says a tenth of all crops were to be set aside and brought to the place of worship. In other words, a tenth of what we have is to be given back to the Lord as an act of worship in praise of what God has done in our lives.
Jesus isn’t concern about how much they gave or that they are following the command to tithe. Instead, Jesus is looking in their heart and showing their motivation. Their only concern was to do what was expected. It was a budgeted exercise of looking at what one hand and making a proper gift. In being driven by expectations, Jesus shows that their giving was outwardly focused on what they had to do to be considered a “good person.”
Giving that is outwardly motivated is based on a few assumptions. One assumption is that we own our money. I worked hard for it and I have earned it. Another assumption is that we can choose when we give. If it is my money, I can decide when I want to give and how much I can give. Giving becomes defined as something we do after everything else has been paid.
For the most part, I think this defines how many of us look at giving. We see giving as a choice. We look at our budgets, examine our resources, and decide if we can give, regardless if it is to the church, our families, or even a charitable organization. This attitude says generosity is something we can turn on or off based on our choices. Regardless of our choice, we likely see giving as a one-time activity that is separated from everything else that we do.
What if our acts of generosity could be deeper? What if giving was not a one-time event, but a way of life? What if our giving was like the widow instead of the attitude of the rich?
Much like the homeless woman, the widow had two small coins that she gave to the Temple collection. It was all she had. We can assume she was in poverty. She shouldn’t have been. The Law required that the community care for their widows. Earlier in our passage, Jesus suggests this wasn’t happening. He says the religious leaders were cheating widows out of their property.
If she had so little then why did she give? Shouldn’t she have saved the money and cared for her needs? That is likely what we would have done. Jesus doesn’t answer these questions. Instead, he looks at her heart and sees why she gave. Jesus finds that her motivation was based on something much deeper than the rich givers had experienced. She gave because of her love of the Lord.
The widow lived generously by giving her entire life to the Lord. It was an act of faith. For her, living generously was a response to what God had done in her life. Her response was to give all she had to the Lord. This wasn’t simply a financial act of giving. The widow gave her entire self to the Lord and in response to God’s gifts shown to her.
That gift from the Lord is the gift of life. It is the gift of salvation from our sin through faith in Jesus Christ and recognition that Christ died for us on the cross. It is the hope of a transformed life in Jesus. The gift of salvation is given freely to those who believe in Jesus Christ.
The widow had a deep love of God and a faith that transformed her entire being. She wanted to share that with others. Because God had blessed her life, she wanted to bless others as well. In making her offering the widow wasn’t thinking about expectations. She was giving her entire self as an act of faith. It is possible she was guided by the words of Hosea 6:6. Here, the prophet tells us that the Lord desires our that we give our total devotion to the Lord and not simply focus on expectations of giving.
God desires that each of us live generously as a response to what the Lord has done for us. Each of us have been blessed in indescribable and amazing ways. Through faith in Christ, we are recipients of salvation and grace. It is the greatest blessing we could ever receive and we are called to share this with others. This is a daily sharing of ourselves in response to God’s love.
To live generously means we must allow God to change our assumptions about giving. We need to recognize that what we have is not ours, but God’s possessions. Our gifts, talents, money, and resources were given to us because of God’s love for us. We are called to be stewards or caretakers of God’s resources. The decisions we make are not about how best to use our money, but how best to care for what God has given us. Modern theologian Mirosvlav Volf writes that if our possessions were given to us by God then this should inspire us to live generously.
Living generously isn’t about one-time gifts, but about a way of life that blesses others. Though big and small ways, we seek to bless others because God has blessed us. Generous living changes the attitude of our giving from “this is what we do” to “this is who we are.” There are many ways we can live generously through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Our generosity does not have to be a big financial gesture. The smallest gestures of a genuine heart can be used by God to bless others and help them to see God’s love in their lives.
We live in a time where living generously is uncommon. We are more driven by living for ourselves or our own desires than we are an idea that God loves us and therefore we should love others. Yet, if we live this way, I believe the world and our communities will see some amazing things.
Imagine the difference each of us in our two churches can make if we lived each day with the desire to be generous because God has been generous to us. Even though we are small in size, the difference we could make in our communities would be breathtaking and inspiring. It would be kingdom-oriented giving that would share the message of Christ’s love in real and lasting ways.
Perhaps, the words of the homeless woman might help us to see this more clearly.
Before she could walk far away, the volunteer had to stop her and ask why she gave. The homeless woman looked at him and smiled. She said, “My son, I have more than I could ever ask. I have faith in God. I have a warm place to lay my head at the shelter. I have food there. I am blessed and I am thankful. Even though I have little, I want to share what I have with others. Maybe they’ll know that God loves them too.”