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“The Widow’s Mite”
Mark 12:41-44


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—November 18, 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.  The text for our Stewardship Sunday message is today’s Gospel Reading from the 12th chapter of Mark.  It is often called the story of “The Widow’s Mite,” from the old English word for a very small coin, a “mite,” like those which the widow gave.

This story takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem on Tuesday of Holy Week. All day long Jesus has been teaching in the Temple courts.  He has had many contentious encounters with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day, exposing their sinful hypocrisy and urging them to repent: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. . .  You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

In our Liturgy we confess before God that we too are all sinners, we too all deserve because of our sins the punishment of hell: “We poor sinners confess unto you that we are by nature sinful and unclean. . .  we have sinned against you by thought, word, and deed. . .  we justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.”

Jesus asks “How will you escape being condemned to hell?”  And he gives the answer in a verse from 1st John that we also use in our Liturgy:  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But, if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Just a few days after the events of today’s Gospel Reading, on Good Friday, just a few blocks away from the Temple, Jesus will be put to death.  Thousands of Passover lambs will be sacrificed in the Temple that week, and all those sacrifices are symbols, pointing forward to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, as John the Baptizer says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed for us.”  By the sacrifice of his life, death and resurrection, Christ takes away the sin of the world, Christ takes away all your sin.  As John writes, “The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin.”  And Hebrews says, “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  “How will you escape being condemned to hell?”  Trust in Jesus as your Savior, for you are completely forgiven, cleansed of every sin by his blood, and made holy through the his sacrifice.

As today’s Gospel Reading takes place it is at of the day on Tuesday of Holy Week.  The worship services and sacrifices in the Temple for that day are over.  Just as we sometimes linger on the way out of church, on the way out of the Temple Jesus and his disciples and many other worshippers pause in one of the courtyards where 13 treasure chests were set up to receive the offerings: “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.”

The Greek word used for “watching” the crowd is the same word used for spectators at a sporting event.  That’s what giving had become for them, a spectator sport.  Jesus was probably sitting with the crowd on a set of steps that had become over the years like a regular set of bleachers facing the offering chests.  Sort of like the Olympic judges holding up their scorecards, with an “8” or a “9” or a perfect “10,” we are told from other ancient writers that when a big gift was given there would be a roar of praise from the crowd of spectators who were watching the offerings.  And because this was Holy Week, the Passover celebration, many people were giving their biggest gift of the year.  Their economy at this time was flourishing; we know that the Temple treasury actually had large surpluses.  And so, as Jesus watches, very wealthy people, dressed in their finest robes, parade in with bigger and bigger and bigger gifts, each trying to outdo the others and win the praise of the spectators.

But, Jesus isn’t interested in or impressed by any of them. He doesn’t join in the crowd’s acclamations for their fantastic gifts.  His attention is caught by a poor widow, dressed in a tattered robe, who quietly and humbly approaches one of the treasure chests to deposit her offering:  “Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two mites, very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.”

No one else even notices her.  There are no cries of praise from the spectators for her humble offering of two little coins, like this reproduction of a such a tiny ancient coin, worth practically nothing.  But, even though the crowd doesn’t notice her or her offering, this poor widow actually receives for her humble offering the greatest praise possible, from the Lord himself: “Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, 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.”

It’s not the amount of the gift that’s important, but the attitude of the giver.  Jesus put it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be careful not to do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

The wealthy, who contributed large sums that day, were doing their charitable deeds, as Jesus says, before men, to be seen by them and honored by men.  But, because they gave with a hypocritical, self-centered attitude, their enormous offerings were actually scored with a big ZERO in the sight of God.  They gave to get, to get praise and fame from men; but the widow gave to give, to give praise to God, out of trusting faith in him.

This is the last time that Jesus will ever be in the Temple at Jerusalem.  This encounter with the poor widow is the last event in his earthly life that will take place in this sacred building which he called “my Father’s house.”  The widow he encounters on this last time he is in the Temple reminds us of another widow he encountered some 33 years before, on the first occasion he came to the Temple, when Mary and Joseph brought him for his circumcision when he was eight days old:  “There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Like the widow Anna, his first time in the Temple some 33 years before, just a few days after his birth, the widow whom Jesus encounters on this last occasion he is at the Temple, just a few days before his death, is also a woman of faith, faith in God’s promise of the Messiah, her Savior.  She may not yet have known that the promised Messiah had come, and that he was actually watching her, as she gave her offering, from just a few feet away.  And she did not know that just a few days away and a few blocks away the Messiah would offer his life as a sacrifice for her sins and the sins of the whole world.  But, like Anna, she was looking forward to the promised redemption, she had faith in God’s promises of the Messiah.  And that is what made her offering different from all the others Jesus observed that day.  That is what made her offering, though humble in the sight of men, more praiseworthy in the sight of God than all the others combined.  Because they gave to get, to get praise and fame from men; but the widow gave to give, to give praise to God, out of trusting faith in him.

That’s the first lesson we learn from the widow’s mite: It’s not the amount of the gift that’s important, but the attitude of the giver.  Paul puts it this way in today’s Epistle Reading, “Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 

Psalm 116 asks, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?”  That’s what was going through the widow’s mind that day as she put her offering in the chest: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?”  To everyone else, it didn’t seem like she had much to be thankful for.  But she wasn’t focused on what she didn’t have, she was focused on the benefits she had received from the Lord, especially the gift of salvation.  That’s the second lesson we learn from the widow’s mite, the motivation for giving, giving back to the Lord, for all his benefits to you, especially the gift of salvation.  As Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, “For Christ love compels us . . .  he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and rose again.”

The third lesson we learn from the widow’s mite is to give proportionally, according to what you have received from the Lord.  Deuteronomy says, “Each of you shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you.”  And Paul writes in 1st Corinthians, “Each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up [for the collection].”  Jesus says that, proportionally, the widow gave much more: “I tell you the truth, 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.”  Give proportionally, in keeping with your income, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you.

This week as we celebrate our national Thanksgiving holiday, in addition to family gatherings and feasting and football, celebrate the real meaning of the holiday, by worshipping with your family here the evening before Thanksgiving Day, and by asking yourself that question from Psalm 116: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?”  The next verse of the psalm gives the answer, your response to the Lord, of which the story of “The Widow’s Mite” is a beautiful example: “I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call on the name of the Lord.”

Amen.

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