The Heart of the Widow - Luke 21:1-4
If you will, imagine for a moment that your child knew your birthday was coming and they wanted to give you a gift but didn’t have money to buy you something. Imagine that they decide that the best thing they could do would be to give you something of theirs. When you open the gift, you find that they had gone into the basement to the boxes filled with their baby toys and pulled out a toy they had outgrown years ago. What your response be? On the one hand, the child showed some resourcefulness, but ultimately their gift was not much of a gift at all—and quite frankly, you wouldn’t be impressed. You would recognize that they were simply trying to fulfill their duty of getting you a gift without really sacrificing anything.
Imagine the same scenario, but this time the child wraps up their most prized possession and gives it to you, saying, “I love this item a whole lot, but I love you even more and wanted to give you something special.” Would this change the way you viewed the gift? Even if you didn’t need it, your heart would melt at the sacrifice your child made to honor you.
This morning we are going to look at a story just like that from Luke 21:1-4. In this account, Jesus drew attention to a woman who gave everything she had to the Lord and contrasted it with the gifts given by others that involved hardly any sacrifice. As we look at the story we see Jesus commending the widow and condemning the rich, who gave large amounts but essentially gave their leftovers. Our goal this morning is to develop a heart for giving like that of the widow.
As we seek to understand this passage we need to recognize that even though the chapter breaks in our Bibles, Luke intends for us to connect the story of the widow’s offering with Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders at the end of chapter 20. As we looked at that passage last week we saw how Jesus condemned the religious leaders for doing seemingly good things because they were trying to draw attention to themselves instead of trying to honor God. Now, Jesus draws a contrast by picking out a positive example in this widow who dropped a very small amount into the treasury.
The temple was structured in such a way that giving was a fairly public act. There were thirteen collection boxes lined up in the courtyard, each shaped like a trumpet at the top that led to the box below where all the money was collected. These boxes were set up for people to give voluntarily to various temple ministries. The offerings placed in these boxes were not required (like the temple tax was), but they were free-will offerings given by the people to God.
Because of the way things were set up, people generally knew who gave large amounts and who gave small amounts. There was no paper money at this time, so offerings consisted only of coins. The coins were made of different metals and were different sizes depending on how much they were worth. Some were made of gold, some of silver, and some of copper. People paid attention when a large gift was put into the collection boxes. The loud clanging of lots of heavy coins falling into the trumpet was unmistakable. The attentive listener could even tell whether the coins being dropped into the trumpet were light copper coins or heavy gold ones since each made a different sound.
Jesus was sitting across from this area and saw what was going on. Mark’s gospel tells us that many rich people were dropping in large amounts. Everyone was surely paying attention to these people, yet as Jesus watched, a woman caught his attention. In the midst of all these large, loud gifts going into the treasury, she dropped in a seemingly insignificant amount, but Jesus noticed her.
We are told that this woman was a widow, which meant that she had no means of supporting herself (because women could not work or own property), so the only money she had was what others had given her. Luke tells us that she put in two small coins—the equivalent in today’s American money would probably not even be worth a dollar. Her offering would be like someone putting a few coins in the offering plate today.
The chances are that Jesus was the only one in the temple complex who had paid any attention to this woman. Everyone else was focused on those who gave so much more—but Jesus was struck by this woman who stood in line behind others who were putting in large sums of money so that she could offer her meager amount to the Lord.
The contrast that Jesus makes between this woman and the religious leaders is significant. He just got done talking about how the religious leaders were so concerned about themselves that they preyed on widows who had nothing in order to line their pockets. Now, he points to a widow whose pockets were empty, yet wasn’t concerned about what she could get for herself. She was only concerned about giving all that she had to God.
Jesus told his disciples that this woman had put more into the collection boxes than all of the others. That statement was surely perplexing to the disciples; after all, they had seen that what she put into the collection. The amount she put in was so small that many people wouldn’t have even bothered picking it up if it was lying on the ground. How could Jesus say that she put in more than anyone else?
Jesus answered the question they were asking in their minds. In verse 4 he told them,
All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.
Jesus said that his assessment wasn’t about how much money she put in, but rather how much money she kept for herself. The wealthy gave what they could afford, she gave all she had. Jesus recognized that her gift was one of sacrifice and dependence upon God, not one of ritual necessity.
Having seen the way that Jesus commended the widow we can begin to draw some principles from the story. I think there are at least three principles we can glean.
First, is that our giving should be motivated by a desire to honor God rather than ourselves. Those who had put in large amounts of money may or may not have been concerned about how others viewed them, but some certainly were. Surely some loved the fact that everyone paid attention to them when they gave their offerings. What we see is that our decision of what to give should not be influenced by whether anyone will see us give or know what we have given.
Kent Hughes wonders,
What would happen to our great national charities today without celebrity benefits, or published subscribers’ lists, or bronze plaques, or pictures of donors holding three-foot-long checks or standing beside crippled children?
The fact is that much of the charitable giving in America today is done because people look highly upon those who give to these causes. Any time there is a major need, we hear about celebrities who give millions of dollars to help. Such giving earns people headlines.
While most of us will never be able to give a large enough gift to make headlines, it is very tempting to take pride in the fact that we give more than others or that we tithe and others don’t. Even if you don’t feel that you are giving a large amount, you may still feel proud that you have fulfilled your obligation to the Lord. When we give in this way we are really trying to ease our consciences more than we are trying to honoring the Lord. When we feel prideful or smug about our giving, it becomes more about us than God—and that is the attitude condemned by Jesus.
Second, God desires sacrificial giving. Jesus’ assessment of the difference between the people who gave much and the widow who gave little had to do with the fact that they gave out of their abundance, but she gave everything she had. There is a difference between giving God our excess and giving gratefully and sacrificially.
Again, Kent Hughes addresses the issue. He says,
We must give in such a way that we go without something we would like to hang on to—travels forgone, clothing and cars that wait for another season, pleasures put off.
King David understood this. In 2 Samuel 24, which we read earlier, we saw David purchasing a threshing floor where he would offer a sacrifice to God. When he went to the owner to ask him how much he wanted for it, the owner said that he would gladly give it to his king. David responded by saying, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24)
Most of us do not approach our giving this way. Whether we are giving to the work of the church, another ministry endeavor, or even a non-Christian charity, most of the time we give what we can spare, rather than giving sacrificially. We want to fulfill our obligation to God while still being able to indulge our selfish desires.
The third principle is that giving is less about the money and more about the heart. It would be tempting to look at this passage and conclude that God is only concerned about getting our money. Such a view misunderstands the passage. Jesus was commending the heart of the widow more than the gift of the widow. What we need to see is that the widow’s gift revealed the widow’s heart.
God does not need our money; He wants our heart. It’s like the parent whose child gives them the gift of their most treasured toy. Does the parent need the toy? Of course not! They are pleased with their child’s gift not because of what it is, but because the gift carries with it the message, “I love you more than anything else.”
While Jesus was certainly teaching about money, I believe he did so because it addressed the issue of what we love most. God is calling us to give of ourselves to Him. Most of us place the greatest value on our money and the things it can give us. The question raised by this passage is not necessarily how much money does God want from us—the question raised by this passage is, “Are we willing to give everything to God?” Jesus is saying that we should give of our resources sacrificially (whether to the church or to others), that we should give of our time sacrificially, and that we should sacrifice our desires in order to follow God fully.
If you’re like me, you find these principles to be hard teachings. We live in America where we are rabidly devoted to ourselves. We want to be honored for what we do and feel that we deserve to “have nice things.” We want to be the most important person in our lives. The kind of attitude Jesus commends in the widow is one that recognizes that God is more important than everything else—and that we ought to be willing to give everything we have to Him.
Let’s get practical. How do we go about living in a way that pleases the Lord? First, we need to recognize that there is no magic amount of money every person should give. What is a sacrifice for you may be easy for me, or sacrificial giving in my family might be what you spend eating out each month. It is impossible to set a dollar amount that each person should give. I really don’t even think it is possible to set a percentage that each person should give. In the church, we emphasize the tithe (that is 10%). This is a biblical principle, and likely was the standard the rich people in Jesus’ day were using. Tithing is a good discipline. However we see from this passage that God doesn’t just want us to tithe; He wants us to see everything we have as a tool devoted to His glory.
If you begin to live this way you may find that you are giving away 30-40% of your income. I have heard of Christians in this country who give away upwards of 90% of their income. They are not millionaires—they are just people who learned that they didn’t need to keep much for themselves.
One preacher has remarked that if we are living at a level of luxury similar to the people around us, we are probably keeping too much for ourselves. Those are challenging words because we are often more in love with our stuff than we are with God.
Work at viewing giving as an act of worship rather than simply a box to check on your spiritual checklist. When you sit down to write your check to the Lord, spend time praying about it, asking God to help you to examine your motives. Do not allow yourself to simply get into an empty routine—take time to come before the Lord and dedicate your offering to Him. Everything you give does not have to be given to the church, but it does need to be given to the Lord.
Let me challenge you to take a month and keep track of every penny you spend. Look at the money you keep for yourself and ask if the things you spend your money on please God. Is it possible that there are some expenditures that would be better used to honor God? Remember that He can use whatever you give Him to accomplish great things. Refuse to allow yourself to evaluate your spirituality based on the size of your offering; rather seek to give selflessly with an eye to honoring Him.
Second, we should work at living sacrificially. Let me challenge you to start moving in this direction by being intentionally sacrificial.
Give up an item you’d like to buy and give the money to honor God.
Choose to go on a mission trip rather than an extravagant vacation.
Choose to turn off the TV and pray for those who are lost or struggling.
Give up a night out and give the money you would have spent to help someone else.
Decide to forego some activity you enjoy and spend that time serving God in some kind of ministry.
Consider another way of sacrificing. Dave Ramsey has pointed out that many of us don’t have money to give because we have it tied up in other places. Most of us spend money we don’t have—which enslaves us to creditors—so we have little money we can give. Work at living more simply. Maybe you can live sacrificially by refusing to spend money you don’t have, by cutting up your credit cards, working to pay them off, and giving the money that would have gone to credit card companies to God.
We must learn to sacrifice. If we will begin to sacrifice the things that are so important to us, we will bring a smile to the face of God, because it will reveal that He is more important to us than our stuff. If we will work at sacrificing, we will discover a new level of joy.
The third challenge is to examine your motives for giving. In America, money is not something that is considered polite to talk about. We generally don’t talk about how much money we give to the church or anyone else, but sometimes we begin to measure ourselves against others by the way we give and the way we live. Refuse to draw attention to what you give to the Lord.
For some of you, it may change the way you give money to the church. Think about the emotions that swirl inside of you as the offering plate comes by or as you make out your check for the offering. Honestly think about what is going on in your heart. If you are influenced by how others will view your gift, let me challenge you to make a change.
You may want to give more anonymously by giving electronically so that nobody sees you give except God and the financial secretary. Or maybe you’ll want to give cash so no one but God knows what you have given. Don’t allow your offering to become a source of pride for you.
Examine your motives for giving to the church, but don’t stop there. Give of yourself without making it about you. Work to serve God without drawing attention to what you have done. Sponsor a child but don’t tell everyone about it. Work behind the scenes doing things that no one else will see and tell no one what you have done. Work to make the decisions of your life only after asking how God would view those decisions. Refuse to make the way you live your life about you—but make it all about God.
This is a difficult sermon for me to preach for a number of reasons. I am always nervous about preaching on giving because one of the major complaints people outside the church have against Christianity is that preachers are always trying to get their money. I hope you understand that is not the case today. I fear that when I preach on giving, it sounds self-serving to many, as though by telling you to give more to God, I am trying to get more money or more power or something else for myself. I do not have an axe to grind, nor are these principles I’ve come up with on my own. This is simply a part of Jesus’ teaching so we believe it bears examining.
This sermon is a difficult one to preach for another reason though—namely that I have to preach to myself as well. Let’s face it, most of us feel that our current level of giving is sufficient. Whether we are giving money, time, or talents, most of us feel like we need more for ourselves. We feel that we are giving God “enough” and he should be pleased with that. When we give with that attitude, we are like the child fulfilling an obligation to their parent by pulling an old toy out of the basement.
We have work to do. We need to work at being people who give of all that we have—our time, talent, and treasure—out of love for our great Savior. If we will do this, then no matter how much we actually give…we will have the heart of the widow.