The 24nd Sunday After Pentecost November 3, 2013
463(1-2,6-7), 473(1-3), 473(4-5), 652
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Dear fellow-saints—those who have been declared to be sin-free by a just and holy God, having based His immutable declaration solely on the goodness, not of you and me, but of His Son, Jesus Christ:
As we continue to celebrate the Reformation and the uniquely Christian redirection it returned to us—looking to Christ, rather than to ourselves for our sin payment—we look first today to one of the verses of that most famous Lutheran Reformation Hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God:
With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected
But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord
And there’s none other God; He holds the field forever. [TLH 262:2]
Note again, the emphasis on direction. Looking to ourselves and our own strength or goodness, nothing at all can be accomplished against our enemies—sin, death, and Satan. Our loss was certain. Looking, on the other hand, to Jesus, the battle against sin, death, and Satan is already won.
Still, for some reason, we are continually drawn back to, and enticed by, the foolishly damning notion that our own good works play some sort of role in the payment for our sins. Today’s text—the account of the widow’s mites—affords us the perfect opportunity to restudy something as simple as the role of our church contributions in our justification and salvation.
Our study today will center on the theme: With Mite of Ours Can Naught Be Done, and we will find that this slight alteration of a line from Luther’s famous hymn verse is, at the same time, both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. Our study will be based on the Word of God recorded in the 12th chapter of Mark’s Gospel account: Mark 12:41-44
Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”
So far God’s Word. In preparation to be filled and strengthened by a study of these words, we pray: “Sanctify us by your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
The words of our text are perhaps quite familiar to you. Many of us have heard from a young age about “The Widow’s Mites.” But what did it mean to you? What does it mean to you now, today? This is one of those rather simple accounts with an intended meaning and application that are nonetheless inexplicably elusive. In other words, we get it, but we don’t get it.
I recall reading something, many years ago, along the lines of: “The widow went home and starved to death.” You will probably agree with me that the idea implied is rather disturbing. But we actually aren’t told what happened to the widow after she placed everything she owned into the temple offering.
Most Christians simply refuse to believe that anything bad could have happened to her, especially after her selfless act of generosity was commended by Jesus Himself. In fact, I suspect that a solid majority of Christians if asked what they believed happened to the widow in the weeks and years to come, would probably paint a very satisfying “happily-ever-after” picture. Many of us likely grew up somehow believing that she lived out the rest of her days in relative comfort, blessed miraculously by God Himself in much the same way that the widow’s bin of flour and jar of oil never ran dry in Elijah’s day (cf. 1 Kings 17:8ff).
Most of us tend to think in such terms as do most Christian artists. Most often pictures of this account feature an immaculately clean and relatively well-dressed woman watched by an equally immaculate Jesus and his disciples. The fact is we do not know much about the woman. We do not know if she was young or old, childless or a mother. We do not know if she lived a long and happy life after giving her mites or if she died shortly thereafter.
The happy ending is the sort of thing we want to be true, and it tends to be the sort of message we take from this text: “Give lavishly and you will live happily ever after.” We like stories like that. We like things that are neat and simple and happy. Untold misguided clergymen down through the ages have adopted such interpretations of this text because it gives them the means to leverage additional contributions from their members with the added incentive that all will be well with you on earth and in Heaven if you but contribute lavishly when the plate comes around.
Only Jesus doesn’t say that, does He? In fact He doesn’t imply anything of the sort here or elsewhere. His promise about life on earth is that it will be hard for the Christian (cf. John 16:33). He did, in the Sermon on the Mount, assure us that if we “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” all other needful things would be provided for us (Matthew 6:33); but Jesus’ point here was all about relativity of giving and the condition of the human heart. It had nothing to do with trying to extract more money from the temple worshippers, and it had absolutely nothing to say about the forgiveness of sins and how that forgiveness was or is earned.
It is, in that sense that our theme rings true: “With mite of ours can naught be done.” It is deeply disturbing that even many today who profess Christianity can read this text and imagine that this woman’s gift had some sort of bearing on the payment for her sins—something other than as a “thank-you” for the gift of forgiveness through faith in the Promised Messiah. How scandalous, how blasphemous to imagine that man could buy God’s forgiveness, that man could ever purchase that which only the innocent blood of Jesus Christ could earn. In fact, if man does try to pay for the gift of forgiveness, he ruins it. He destroys it utterly.
In a very real way it will always be true that God does not need our money since He can accomplish whatever he wants to accomplish without us. He could turn the leaves on our trees to gold if He chose to do so. What He offers us in connection with our church contributions is a means to participate in His holy work which from first to last is His work. What Jesus was trying to teach His disciples in our text was how beautiful, in God’s eyes, is absolute trust and dedication.
Like most of us today, Jesus’ followers then were awed by the magnanimous and very public gifts of the rich. Jesus’ point was that the rich could afford to be generous because their generosity really required no trust. That’s why this text has almost nothing to do with money and everything to do with faith and trust. The rich had and have infinitely more than they need to survive.
In modern terms, a million dollar contribution from a billionaire would in no way “crimp the style” of such an individual—though we would probably fall all over ourselves in gratitude and praise were we to receive such a gift. On the other hand, a couple of pennies dropped into the collection plate on a given Sunday would probably be regarded as almost something of a nuisance by the counting teams. A couple of pennies—or a couple of dollars, for that matter—are not going to pay the bills.
Jesus sees with different eyes. He sees with divine wisdom and understanding—wisdom and understanding that He seeks to share with us here today. He is concerned, not with the money, but with the heart. To make it more personal, God does not want your money. God wants your heart. When God has your heart—when you and I have truly learned to trust our God—the rest will flow naturally and effortlessly.
Which brings us to the next truth expressed by our theme. “With mite of ours can naught be done” also rings absolutely true in connection with our own personal finances. How so?
The lesson was probably first taught in connection with the manna provided for the Children of Israel in the wilderness. You will recall how Moses recorded in Exodus 16:16-18: “This is the thing which the LORD has commanded: ‘Let every man gather it according to each one’s need, one omer for each person, according to the number of persons; let every man take for those who are in his tent.’Then the children of Israel did so and gathered, some more, some less. So when they measured it by omers, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack. Every man had gathered according to each one’s need.”
The lesson? Work to gather more than you need—especially when doing so causes you to neglect other God-given duties—and the Lord always seems to find a way to remove that excess from you. How He does this always seems ordinary and unavoidable—your cars break down, medical bills pile up, the kids need braces. The list is endless, but the bottom line is that the bottom line doesn’t really change. As with the manna, “those who gathered much have nothing left over.” On the other hand, seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and even the little bit that you earn will, with God’s blessing, without fail always be enough. “He who gathered little had no lack.”
Everything that we have is a gift from God—a God who can always be trusted to provide. Whenever He deems it advisable, God will always find a way to siphon off the “over-gathering” of His beloved children.
It has been well said that a faithless man can never match the widow’s offering, no matter how much he gives. Faith that trusts God—faith that without reservation casts itself upon the mercies of God—is the key.
Do you want to get to the real nub of the trust issue? Do you want to learn something about your own lack of trust? Ask yourself this: Did it, or does it even now, occur to you that the woman’s actions were irresponsible, even reckless? Do you find yourself actually condemning her for the very actions that her Savior praised? Her puny offering, after all, did little or nothing for the temple treasury. Wouldn’t she have been better off keeping it?
Such questions pose deeply troubling insights into our own souls, don’t they? They form a crystal clear window to our own personal lack of trust. Our inclination would have been—at best—to counsel the woman to give little, and to use the greater part for her own livelihood. At worst we would have counseled her to give nothing at all until the economic circumstances on the home-front brightened considerably.
Jesus, on the other hand, loved the woman’s absolute, unquestioning trust. How you and I ought to pray for the same. You and I need the sort of trust that reasons that the very same Creator God who sacrificed his own Son to pay our sin debt would never deny us any of the lesser gifts, if such gifts would not prove detrimental to our spiritual well-being.
There is, finally, one way in which our theme does not ring true. God can and does use the trusting, willing offerings of His people to accomplish great things. With mites from his people—whether the “mite” is one dollar or one million dollars—God can and will supply the blessings necessary to preserve and advance the Gospel ministry, here and abroad. Nothing in all creation is more important.
Jesus was never about money, always about souls. He came to earth, not because we lacked earthly wealth, but because we were absolutely spiritually destitute—lacking the spiritual capital to pay for even one of our sins. This is the lack he came to supply. You and I could and can add nothing to our sin payment. God has declared us holy and just not by what we have done or will do, but because of the perfection of His Son. Was Jesus holy? Then so are you—washed clean, pure, and sinless in His sight. Jesus alone did that for us.
God grant each of us the strength of faith and the rock-solid trust necessary to cast ourselves recklessly upon Him and His good promises—His promise of forgiveness overshadowing all other promises. God grant us the wisdom to put all earthly wealth in its place—literally and spiritually—and to value that which He Himself values above all else. This has been the example of the saints that went before—the heroes of the Christian faith who were given the grace to walk in trust and faith as God’s chosen people. This is the trust and the faith for which we pray, so help us God. Amen.