Why Giving Matters
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
October 16, 2011
Mark 12: 38-44 (NIV)
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, 39and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
41Jesus 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. 42But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
43Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Today we have come to that ever-dreaded sermon topic, money. I would like to tell you that I’m going to sugar-coat today’s sermon and make it easy to swallow so that we can all leave here feeling good about ourselves. But if we are going to be honest, really honest, about why giving matters, I can’t do that. And the matter of giving and generosity can’t be sugar-coated because ultimately, when it’s all boiled down, our giving reflects directly on our relationship with God. God’s mandates about giving are clear, and Jesus’ teachings about money and the poor number second only to his teachings about the kingdom of God. For all the uncertainty about the meaning behind certain themes and passages in the Bible, the message about our obligation to give to God from our first fruits is clear. Here, with matters of money, is one of our greatest opportunities to follow God’s commands and to reflect the generosity of Christ, and instead we always end up looking very human; very selfish instead of self-giving, very greedy instead of very faithful.
In case you are not aware, I am passionate about giving back to God. So let me share with you why giving matters to me. First and foremost, giving matters to me because God has given so much for me, for all of us; God in Christ gave himself for me, how could I not give back to him? It would be like receiving a gift from a friend and never saying “thank you.” God has given us clear instructions about how to say “thank you” to him, and that is that we return to him a portion of our first fruits; specifically, that we offer to God a tenth of the first harvest of our fields. And today that means that I give back to God right off the top of my income. My faith would be incomplete if I didn’t say “thank you” to God; not just through my prayers, worship, or devotional practices, but also through my giving. Similarly, my faith would be incomplete if I didn’t give to God because that says that I don’t trust God with my resources. More specifically, it says that I need my money more than I need God.
There has never been a time in my life that I have not given at least a tithe to the church. Before I was earning an allowance, my parents gave my sister and me each a quarter to put in the offering plate every week. Then when we started getting an allowance, we were taught to tithe, and we made a pledge to our church to do so weekly or monthly. Currently, between the two of us, Ken and I give a little over 11% of our total salaries. Please notice that I did not say “our total income.” I said our total salaries. That means that we are paying a tithe on the money that goes to pay our healthcare costs, and into our retirement fund, which we will give from again when that starts paying out after our retirement. If you calculate the amount we give compared to our actual income, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 14%. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. When we figure our monthly budget, this is the first obligation that is considered; it is our “first fruits.” If things are tight, we don’t cut what we give to the church, we make sacrifices in other areas; like eating out or going to the movies. Giving makes us better financial managers, and it also keeps us from getting too attached to “stuff” because often we have to say “no” to stuff so that we can fulfill our obligation to God. Giving is one of our ways of saying “thank you” to God. God has asked it of us, and it is the least we can do. Certainly, there are lots of things that I would love to use that money for. It would be nice to have cable TV and an iPad. But those are not necessities, and as faithful Christians, our devotion to God through giving is a necessity. Giving matters to me because God matters to me.
The same is true of the widow in today’s scripture reading. What matters most to that woman as she walks into the Temple that day is her relationship with God, and she shows that through her offering. She has given, literally, “her whole life”, two copper coins which were all she had to live on that day. One might have thought she was putting in merely two copper coins, but in fact she was putting in everything she had. How many of us would do that?
Sadly, most of us are like the rich people who walked into the Temple before the woman. Relatively speaking, we are quite well-off, and yet we give very little out of our abundance. This story poses the same challenge to readers today as it did in Jesus’ time. People usually think of giving to the church and to charities as an option. The money for giving back to God comes out of the surplus only after often unnecessary personal expenses; if it comes out at all. The contrast in this story between the offering of the widow and all the others who are tossing in what they can spare, exhibits the false values of a society that does not really offer sacrifice to God.
Jesus doesn’t ever mince words on this subject. He told the rich young ruler that he must sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. And on several occasions, Christ told the disciples that persons must be willing to renounce their own desires and take up the cross in order to follow him. And here, Christ makes clear that part of the call of disciples is not just that we give “a lot” or “enough.” but that we give sacrificially; not that we give out of our surplus, but that we offer from our first fruits. Giving matters because it is what God asks of us and it affects our relationship with God. We “cannot serve both God and mammon.”
One day a pastor was called to the house of a church member who was having financial difficulties. The pastor counseled him for a while and then stopped. “Let’s have a word of prayer and while I pray, you make a commitment to give one-tenth of your income to the Lord.” Thinking about his income, the man thought to himself, “That won’t be difficult. That’s only $1,800 a year—only $34.61 a week.” They prayed, and the man promised to give back 10 percent to the Lord and to the Lord’s work.
Years passed and the man’s income had increased to over $200,000 a year. He called for the pastor again. “Pastor, I’d like to be released from that 10 percent I promised the Lord several years back. A tenth of my income is now over $20,000 a year, and I have some plans for spending that.”
“That’s no problem,” the pastor replied. “Let’s pray.”
As they bowed their heads, the pastor began to pray, “Lord, You know what a problem this bigger salary has been to my brother here. I’m asking you to reduce his income, perhaps to the original $18,000 a year, so he’ll be able to afford his tithe once again…”
Here’s the thing. When we give to God out of our surplus, it means we are making decisions on how we spend our money based on societal pressures, which these days means “more, more, more.” We have to have the next great gadget or the new car. We have to have a bigger house with the highest speed internet and full digital cable with TiVo. We have to “keep up with the Joneses” as the saying goes. And we become so consumed with our desire for more that we really become slaves to our money. But when we give sacrificially to God and to God’s purposes, we have to detach ourselves from the “stuff,” which invariably means we are freed to serve God. We have to make decisions about big purchases instead of just “impulse buying.” We have to make sacrifices and determine what is really “necessary” and what is not. And when we make financial decisions with God in mind first, it also enables us to plan and save for the future, for the well-being of ourselves and our children. And it has been my true experience that in giving to God generously out of my first fruits, I still have all that I need.
So what is generous and sacrificial giving to God? The widow in today’s reading gave everything. The widow’s gift of her whole livelihood was unthinkable and even foolish. It seems as if she gave everything in exchange for nothing! But did she? She gave her whole life to God. She gave everything she had and everything she was. She was entrusting her whole self to God. Her two tiny coins were the final, foolish, unspeakable, humble, outward manifestation of that absolute gift. Her gift was so humble that no one knew its magnitude except for her Lord. She is, in fact, what we are called to be: a tiny, flashing, mirror that reflects the final, foolish, unspeakably humble and utterly self-giving of God to us in his Son Jesus Christ.
I know that we live in a culture which is so dependent on money. And in no way is this Scripture passage insisting that any of us literally give all our money away. What it is talking about is proportional giving and the priorities in our lives. I know that for many, tithing can seem a bit intimidating. But tithing is neither a floor, nor a ceiling. As I said, Ken and I give about 11%, and we plan to give more in the new year. If you don’t give now, how about giving one percent of your income? If you currently give one percent, try moving to two. You get the picture. And as you plan for giving to God, you will discover that so many other things fall into place for you as well.
We give to God because we are disciples of Jesus Christ. We give to God out of thanksgiving for God’s great salvation of our souls. We give to God so that the Church can use that money to reach others with the message that has so changed our lives. We give to God out of love for God and neighbor! And we give to God in order to be able to keep our own focus on Jesus! That’s why giving matters.
It’s only in giving our lives completely and totally over to God that we find life abundant. So today I challenge us all to grow in our giving to God! May it be so. Amen.