The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001

It's About the Thought and the Amount
Mark 12:38-44

By the first week of November, most women have already begun thinking about buying Christmas gifts. A few may have even completed their Christmas purchasing. In contrast, most men tend to procrastinate when it comes to shopping. We wait for the last minute to rush to the mall, purchase a bottle of perfume and a card, hopefully at the same store, and then rush home. We gamble on our wives believing that old cliché, it's the thought that counts. That's why this morning's sermon and Sunday school lesson will be rather short. Today is Carol's birthday and I still have a few errands.

As a pastor, I have often heard people use this rationale and the story of the widow's mite to justify their paltry generosity. They have told me, "Remember preacher God accepted the meager offering from the widow because it is the thought that counts!" But I wonder if that is what the story really says.

The scene takes place in the Court of the Women within the walls of the Temple. Women enjoyed greater access to the Temple than Gentiles but were not privileged to enter the Court reserved for the men. In this second chamber stood 13 trumpet-shaped, brass receptacles. Each container bore an inscription, marking the designated use of the deposited contributions. Several vessels held the funds to purchase animals for various sacrifices and others to purchase incense, wood or other gifts for use during the worship services. The courts would have been filled with people who had come to offer sacrifices during the feast of Passover. 

Amidst the commotion of this religious celebration, Jesus sat down to watch the people. People-watching was a coming practice of Jesus. Many of his parables are based on his observations of the everyday habits and behavior of the people of Palestine. When Jesus watched people, he not only observed their behavior but he also assessed their motives. What a staggering thought to consider that God is watching over us. George MacDonald once said, "...he is watching over us with an eternal consciousness, above and beyond our every hope and fear."1 On this particular occasion, Jesus was watching two contributors and noticed the difference a striking difference in their attitudes.

The first difference that Jesus saw between the two is the recklessness of her contribution. Mark notes that she gave two coins. She could have easily gave only one. It would have been almost the same sacrifice. William Barclay notes, "It is our tragedy that there is so often some part of our lives, some part of our activities, some part of ourselves which we do not give to Christ. Somehow there is nearly always something we hold back. We rarely make the final sacrifice and the final surrender."2 

The sermon has been droning on far too long that Sunday morning in Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. Clarence Bunsen has checked out early. Knowing that the offering will soon be announced, he quietly reaches for his wallet only to discover that he has no cash. No matter, Clarence takes out his checkbook and pen. Not wanting ot appear ostentatious, he slides the checkbook into the middle of his pew Bible to write out a check of $30. It is a very generous sum but he is feeling very generous. He nearly had a heart attack that week and he also knows that whoever is counting the collection will see the amount he is writing down. But he does not want to be too obvious.

An older woman sitting to his right keeps glancing toward him with a funny look in her eyes. Clarence is certain that she thinks he is writing in the pew Bible, so he tries to intentionally ignore her. He tries to tear his check out of the checkbook without making any noise. He does not want the lady to know that he has written a check. He proudly puts the check in the plate. After folding his arms, a shock suddenly comes over him. He realizes that he accidentally wrote three-zero-zero on two different lines. Embarrassed by his own carelessness, he considers his choices. He could admit his mistake and ask the counters for the check back. He would have to swallow his pride. His family could eat beans and oatmeal the rest of the month because he gave all that he had in the checking account and a little bit more. Clarence did not know what to do, but in that moment, Clarence knew one think, for the first time all day he felt fully alive.3

The offering plate comes by, and Clarence proudly puts in the check, only to realize a moment too late that he has just written a check for three hundred dollars. He accidentally wrote three-zero-zero on two different lines when he wasn't looking.

What could he do? On the one hand, he couldn't go downstairs after church and find the deacons counting the collection and say, "Fellows, there's been a mistake. I gave more than I really wanted to." On the other hand, he gave all he had in the checking account and a little more. Perhaps he and his family will have to eat beans and oatmeal for the rest of the month, Clarence thought, even though the contribution was going to a good place. One thing was for sure, notes Keillor. In that moment, Clarence felt fully alive for the first time all day.

Clarence felt alive because he took a risk. He broke free of his controlled and orderly life and dared to be different. He took a step of faith and now had to depend on God providing in ways that Clarence could not guess while sitting in that pew on Sunday morning. Perhaps for the first time Clarence discovered the risk the widow made when she deposited not one but two coins into the offering chest.

Mark also contrasts the priorities of the rich to the widow by his descriptive account. The rich are numerous. They form a long spectacular processional. Philanthropy became a social event in Palestine. People came to the Temple to display their wealth through excessive offerings. The rich used their generosity to win friends and influence people. Ostentatious giving inundated the Temple treasury with a large surplus of funds. Eventually a law was passed to limit the size of contributions to a certain proportion of one's possessions.4

Whereas the rich came with their friends, the widow came alone. People do not befriend the poor. They have little of monetary value to offer. This was not just alone she was the poorest of the poorest. She is a beggar. She does not have anyone do encourage her. She is not doing her deeds of charity for recognition. She gives because she loves God. It is goes as an unrewarded act of gratitude.

In 1970 the BBC assigned to a popular commentator a special documentary on a relatively unknown nun. Malcom Muggeride who at the time was a popular as Tom Brokaw is today traveled to Far East. He walked through the streets of one of the poorest and most populated cities looking for a woman who served the dying. He finally found her working in the street amid filth, garbage, disease and poverty, that were greater than he had ever seen. But what struck that cynical reportor more than the squalor and decadence was the deep, warm, glow on her face and the compassion in her eyes.

He asked her, "Do you do this every day?"

"Oh, yes," she replied, "It is my mission. It is how I serve and love my Lord."

"How many months have you been doing this?" inquired the stunned reporter.

"Months? Not months but years, about eighteen" answered the woman.

"Eighteen!" exclaimed the BBC commentator, "You have been working here in these streets for eighteen years?"

"Yes, it is my privilege to be here. These are my people. These are the ones my Lord has given me to love," the woman said with a simple but joyful reply.

"Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel like quitting and letting someone else take over your ministry? After all, you are beginning to get older."

"Oh, no," she replied, "this is where the Lord wants me, and this is where I am happy to be. I feel young when I am here. The Lord is so good to me. How privileged I am to serve him."5

Mother Teresa of Calcutta served the poor for over 26 years without recognition. Every day she would rise early and walk the streets in poverty to comfort the dying. She did not seek attention or fame. She only sought to serve. When the widow entered the Temple to deposit her two coins she was not trying to impress anyone. She had only one priority to love and serve her God by giving all that she had. She demonstrated her priorities by the amount of her offering. 

What about you, what does the amount of your giving say about your priorities?

Most women will tell you that the thought is nice, but they are even more impressed when their beloved's thoughts are reflected in the amount of gifts and the price of those gifts. Knowing that some men may still have difficulty understanding this, allow me to offer an example that most men can appreciate-food. If you go to a restaurant and order a steak costing $75 an entrée would you be satisfied when the waiter brings you a 2 oz filet. Would his claims that the filet, though small in portion, comes from the finest beef in the world and exquisitely prepared by a world-renowned chief convince you of the value of you bite size morsel. You would probably not be satisfied with your meal unless you received a filet that was proportionate in size to its price. While the thought is important, small contributions are not always reflective of great thoughts. Whether the portion is a gift, a steak or a charitable contribution it the thought and the amount that are important

1 Quoted by R. Kent Hughes, Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior, Vol. 2, Preaching the Word, (Weschester IL, Crossway Publishing, 1989), 130.
2 The Gospel of Mark. Edited by Barclay, William, lecturer in the University of Glasgow. The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975.
3 Garrison Kellor quoted by No Box Seats In The Kingdom, William G. Carter, CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, 1996.
4 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. II, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 389.
5 Malcolm Muggerride, quoted by Brett Blair and Staff, ChristianGlobe Network, Inc, 2003.

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