When our church began a sermon series a few Sundays ago, I shared about the significant correlation between a church’s spiritual health and the health of a church’s giving by using the example of giving as a spiritual thermometer. Our giving says something about our faith and our relationship with God. The story of the widow’s mite is about just that. In it, we are able to observe several types of giving: offerings, sacrifices and the more elusive tithe that is not mentioned directly but implied in the context. All three are different ways of giving and have different meanings and purposes in the life of the church.
We find Jesus in Luke chapter 21 teaching in the temple where we have this small but significant scene play out. Before the story begins, he is addressing hypocrisy among the teachers of the law. He accuses them of taking advantage of the widows’ finances while at the same time praying lengthy prayers that were designed to impress people who were desperately seeking God. He is teaching the disciples in the temple courts where all of this is playing out. In fact, there is a collection box within earshot of where they are gathered. As each person drops their offering into the box, the amount is likely announced out loud and recorded in the temple books.
As this happens, a widow, one of the ones who had been taken advantage of by the corrupt teachers of the law, walks up and drops her two coins into the box and they hear the announcement: 2 mites. That would be the smallest amount possible. It would be as if we put all of our offerings up on the projection screen for everyone to see and by our name would be 2 pennies while everyone else was giving an impressive amount. In some ways, it was demeaning for this widow as her offering was less impressive than that of the rich teachers of the law. But Jesus looks deep into her heart and recognizes that it was a sacrifice. She had given everything she had.
In the story, persons were lined up giving their offerings publicly. It is likely that the offerings were going to the poor. Though we don’t know their hearts, it seems that Jesus thought that the teachers of the law and pharisees might have been giving for show given the context and Jesus’ response to it. It is important to note that An offering is different from a tithe in that it is given over and above the tithe. That is why we use the word offering. There are many reasons to give offerings in the Old Testament but sometimes it is given just because. Not out of obedience, not out of a sense of call, but usually out of thanksgiving or abundance. It is what we call, free will.
Now you would think that Jesus would have been thrilled. Right? But he is not. There is an underlying issue that has plagued the children of God since their formation in Exodus. They have neglected to give their tithe and have lived off the obedience of the poor who were faithful in tithing. You might remember that they were sent into exile and punished. Well, this is one of the reasons; equal to idolatry. You can see that very clearly in the book of Jeremiah.
The most famous text we have about tithing is found in Malachi 3:
Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me.
Tithing was a part of the law that had been established since the formation of Israel. It was required of them to give a tenth part. That is where the word tithe comes from. It was a tenth of everything they had. And that was to be the first tenth not what was left over. God blessed them with everything they had, money, shelter, land, gifts and talents etc. God has given us everything in the earth and asked us to be stewards of that gift. The one thing God asks in return is that we give the first tenth back to him. And that wasn’t just money. It was everything, land, produce, lambs, cows, time, children etc.
Leviticus 27:30-33 says this:
“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”
Now the tithe was used mainly for three purposes: temple upkeep, supporting the Levites who were the priestly line that ran the temple, and feeding the poor who were among them.
Over time, the wealthy persons, teachers of the law and Pharisees began to withhold the tithe and pretend as if they were giving the whole thing. That just seems kind of silly doesn’t it? As if we can hide from God? But then again, we have been hiding from God since the beginning of time. That’s why God says in Malachi that they were robbing him. They were not giving back to God what belonged to God.
One thing I think we misunderstand about the tithe is that God intended tithing to be an instrument of grace and trust in our lives. Not a penalty or interest we have to repay. It was part of the covenant God made with his children to love and provide for them.
In his article that appeared in Leadership Journal, John Ortberg says this about tithing:
Tithing is a vehicle of Grace
Tithing is God’s way of creating generous people
Tithing points to our faith that everything comes from God
Tithing is like training wheels- meant to give you a good start but not intended for the tour de france.
Tithing is not the last word in generosity – it’s the first word.
For these reasons God says in Malachi chapter 3:10
“Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.
In other words, God wants us to trust him; trust that he is able to provide us with what we need for each day. Tithing is a matter of trust, faith and obedience
Getting back to the parable, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak to this problem of neglecting the tithe by honoring the two coins of the widow. You see, the public offering given by the rich for show was actually an abomination to God because they were robbing God of his tithe and dropping money into this collection so they appeared to be in good standing with God in public.
The widow, by contrast gave over and above the tithe, and above an offering, she gave a sacrifice; everything she had.
A sacrifice is something very different. It is a response to a call God is placing in our lives to give sacrificially to a cause for the kingdom. Again, it’s not just money. It can be our time, talents, homes, gifts, and any thing else you can think of. It is called a sacrifice because it costs us something.
You may recall the radical giving in the 2 chapter of Acts when the people were selling their land and giving everything they had. This was a sacrifice… not a tithe and not an offering. They were doing this because the Holy Spirit was leading them to sacrifice everything they had to get the resurrection message of Jesus Christ out. They assumed he was coming back soon, but it would take many, many years. Their sacrifices are why we are here today. They were called to a great task of sharing the good news in a radical way and God blessed them and us because of it.
The widow was moved by the spirit to give everything she had. This is the highest from of giving because it demonstrates obedience, faith, trust, and a profound love for God. It is not something that happens everyday, but it should happen at some point in our lives.
Jesus wants to teach his disciples that this kind of giving is not about the amount, but about the heart. Little did they know that Jesus would soon show them what true sacrifice looked like: he would give his life for the salvation of all humankind: out of obedience, faith, trust and a profound love for the Father.
As followers of Christ, we are called to give in all of these ways: tithes, offerings, and sacrifices because at the heart of our faith is the greatest gift of all.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
May we be moved by the spirit of such a generous God.
Ways to practice:
1. Pick one of these scriptures and read it at the beginning and ending of each day. In what ways do the words challenge you to live differently?
Luke 6:38 – “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
2 Corinthians 9:7 – “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
2. Take a brief survey of your life… notice the times you have given in these 3 ways: tithes, offerings, sacrifices. How was your life impacted or enriched? Share your story with someone else as a testimony of God’s faithfulness.
3. Prayerfully ask God to show you if he is calling you to step out in faith in one of these areas of giving? Try responding to what the Holy Spirit shows you. Keep a journal of what happens when you give. Keep it for years to come so that you can return to it for encouragement.