All She Had

Luke 21:1-4

Let me start with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Henri Nowen:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say "thank you" to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

Most of the time, when we talk about thanksgiving and thankfulness, we start with the assumption that we all have plenty and that thanksgiving can only really come out of our abundance. But more often than not, when Jesus talks about thanksgiving, it is in the context of relying on God for the little that you have. The people that he spoke to where not, by and large, people who had a lot – they were people who lived on the raw edge of poverty and starvation. And no story characterizes living a life of gratitude more than this one:

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (Lk 21:1-4)

It’s only four verses, and it seems almost out of place. This brief vignette tucked in between a chapter of Jesus’ battling wits with the Jewish rulers and the chapter that follows which deals with eschatology. It’s like a breath of fresh air in the stale hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers and lawyers. And that’s probably just what is was for Jesus. Luke introduces it as though it is in the very next breath following his condemnation of the Jewish rulers, “As he looked up.”

He has endured the onslaught of traps and snares posed by the rulers who were looking for any possible opportunity to arrest him. Then suddenly, as a ray of sunlight breaking through the turbulent storm clouds, Jesus looks up and sees a widow hobbling over to the temple treasury. She stands in such stark contrast to the self-aggrandizement of the rulers he has just described (cf. 20:46-47) that he cannot help but notice.

She had not come to be noticed, in fact, she came and left and went her way without knowing that she had been noticed. She was, and remains anonymous. Not that there was much to notice. She was poor, she was elderly, her gift was hardly worth the trouble she went to to bring it.

Anyone else who happened to look up and notice her wouldn’t have given a second thought. They would have dismissed her as insignificant and unworthy of their attention.

But Jesus noticed, and her action is in such contrast to the hypocrites who demand attention, that he cannot help but be startled by her selfless faith and point her out to the crowd who was listening.

Let’s try to get a feel for what she has done. Poverty for this widow was not a temporary setback; a little short of cash until her social security check showed up on the first of the month. It was a constant, suffocating presence. She had no one to support her, she was dependent on the pity of strangers for the little that she had. When Jesus talked about praying, “Give us this day our daily bread…” he was voicing the desperate need of people just like her.

And just like the prayer, her life embodied the trust that it took to pray that when you know you cannot provide for yourself. When she put in her two small copper coins, she was choosing God over eating that day. Her trust in God was so complete and thoroughgoing that it permeated every decision of her day.

Most of us can make it through an entire day without encountering a decision we can’t confidently handle on our own. We are self-sufficient and skilled at navigating our way through a complex world of priorities and consequences. When you and I wake up in the morning, if we give a thought to God, it is in an abstract, impersonal way. Our prayers are antiseptic and sterile of any real personal need that only God can supply. We might pray for God to guide us, but we already know where we are going that day. Our prayer might be for health or wealth, but we feel pretty good and we’ve got a good job. Yes, we might pray for others who are sick, but they are under the care of a doctor and we’re pretty certain that’s where the real healing will come from. Yes, we need God, we’re just not sure of what it is we need him for. We’ve got the bases covered.

We can’t begin to relate to this woman who, when she wakes up, prays for a bite of bread to ease the gnawing hunger in her stomach. I’ve fasted and felt very hungry, but 24 hours later, I know there’s food in my pantry. I’ve not had to worry about where my next meal is coming from, and the uncertain desperation she must have felt daily. Or at least what I suspect I would have felt.

The truth is, I don’t think she felt desperation or uncertainty. Her prayers for daily bread were breathed with a sure confidence that God would provide exactly what she needed when she needed it.

When she hobbled up to the treasury box and dropped her two small copper coins in, it wasn’t with a regret that there was that much less for her to live on, but with a thankfulness that God had given her the crust of bread that sustained her that day.

What is most interesting to me is that Jesus points out the contrast between her minuscule offering and the much larger amounts being given by the other worshipers. He says, “All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” He’s not commenting on their motivation, or their generosity, but that their offerings, even if they were generous were given from their abundance, their “extra.” They could well afford to be generous. She, on the other hand, could not afford even the little that she did give. It was, in fact, “all she had.”

The apostle Paul would later encounter a similar type of generosity. When a collection was being gathered for those Christians in Jerusalem who were impoverished and in desperate need, Paul came to the church in Macedonia, a church in such poverty they themselves were in need of a collection being taken for their relief. Instead of excusing themselves because of their own needs, they insisted on giving to this relief effort for brothers and sisters hundreds of miles away. Paul describes their desire to help:

And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. 

Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)

That is the secret to generosity that is pleasing to God – having first given yourself to the Lord. If you have first given yourself to the Lord, then every gift will be sacrificial. If you haven’t first given yourself to the Lord, then any offering will be too little.

I’m not sure how you look at giving. Sometimes it sounds like we’re collecting dues to keep the electricity on and the preacher paid – that it’s merely an organizational function that we need to get out of the way. Giving that is obligational will always leave us dry; however much we give will be that much less we have for ourselves.

If this poor widow saw her offering as an attempt to keep the ecclesiastical machinery running, she should have kept it for herself. And if you or I had been there, we might have been tempted to tell her to reach in and take a little bit out for herself, she needed it more than they did. But Jesus applauds her sacrificial generosity with a hint that she had really discovered the secret that everyone else had missed out on. This wasn’t between her and the temple, this was between her and God. And she wasn’t about to miss out on that.

The widow could have given one of the copper coins and kept one for herself, but she gave them both. I’ve found that the more I give, the more I feel like giving. The more generously I give, the more generous I want to become. And when I am generous, I start to experience gratitude for what God has given me.

I believe that’s the way God wired us. He wired us for paradox – those who are last shall be first; if you want to live, you must die to yourself; if you want to become rich, you must become poor.

Giving is like that. God wants us to know the joy that he gets in being generous. Now, the world tells us happiness is found through amassing possessions and money and accumulating wealth. Giving it away only detracts from your happiness – it’s that much less for us. But God knows that real joy comes from giving it away; joy and thanksgiving are hard-wired into generosity.

Thanksgiving isn’t a feeling that comes from having enough on your plate that you aren’t hungry, or enough in the bank that you don’t worry about having a roof over your head and clothes on your back. Thanksgiving doesn’t come from our independence from want but from our dependence on God and knowing that he is the one who provides for all our needs. It is that humble realization that everything we have truly is a gift from him, not a result of our superior life skills.

This poor widow experienced the feeling of thanksgiving because she had discovered that out of her poverty, God had displayed his overwhelming generosity to her. As she gave him all that she had, he gave her all that was his.

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