As he sat opposite the Temple treasury, he watched the crowd putting money into the almsboxes. Lots of rich people put in substantial amounts. Then there came a single poor widow, who put in two tiny coins, together worth a single penny. Jesus called his disciples. ‘I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘This poor widow just put more into the treasury than everybody else. You see, all the others were contributing out of their wealth; but she put in everything she had, out of her poverty. It was her whole livelihood.’
The old ones are the best. ‘I was on a plane,’ said the comedian Bob Hope, ‘and suddenly it started to go into a spin and head straight for earth. Everybody was panicking and someone said, “Do something religious!”
‘So,’ he said, ‘I took up a collection.’
We smile, because the stereotype is all too familiar. I was in a church the other day where we had a regular offering, and then, because there was some special event coming up, there was a second offering specially for that; then, as we left church, there was someone standing at the door with a plate for yet another good cause, just in case anyone had any spare change left in their pockets or handbags. It did not, shall we say, create a good impression. In fact I do not now remember anything else at all about that service.
Now, of course the church has to pay its way. If people don’t give to support mission, ministry and the buildings where they happen, the doors will soon be shut. And we all know that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9.7). So do we, if it comes to that. Generosity – when it obviously comes from the heart – is a lovely and loveable thing, not simply when we happen to be the recipients.
But money is always good for a wry smile, whether the subject is income tax, bankers’ bonuses, mortgage rates, or anything else. In my country at least, we all find it slightly embarrassing. And, as a result, many clergy go in the opposite direction to the one who organized that triple collection. We don’t want to put people off, so we don’t mention it.
But one of the little-known facts of the human anatomy is that there is a direct electronic link between two key organs: the heart and the wallet. Actually, and interestingly, the link seems to work in both directions. Of course, someone whose heart has been warmed and transformed by the preaching and living of the gospel will be only too ready to share what they have with the community, the pastor(s) and the teacher(s) through whom they have come to enjoy that transformation and the fellowship that it brings. But, equally, there are many people who have given to God’s work more from a sense of social or civic duty (when a large local church has a special appeal, say) and who, to their surprise and perhaps alarm, find that they are thereupon drawn in and, themselves, transformed.
In this case, of course, the former link seems to be working better than the latter. The rich people are putting money into the treasury almost as a way of holding it (and the Temple which it supports) at arm’s length. (‘We’ve done our bit,’ you can sense them thinking, ‘so now we won’t have to worry about all that stuff for a while.’) But the widow, putting in two tiny coins, is clearly overflowing with love for God. And, as we know in theory but often forget in practice, what counts is not the amount but the proportion. The rich put in large sums but a small percentage; she put in a tiny sum but the maximum percentage. She was prepared to go without, for herself, rather than stint on giving what she could to God.
As a result, of course, she becomes a parade example of that total love for God of which Jesus was speaking earlier in the chapter. This is the last incident before the great discourse in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, and it’s almost as though Mark has placed it here to say to us that the reality to which the Temple points is alive and well, even in this poor widow. There is such a thing as a total love for God, and it will show up in your giving.
This in turn comes through into the life of the Easter people as we see it in Acts and in Paul’s letters. Once God’s new creation has arrived, God’s people can rely on his provision for all their needs; and part of that provision will be in the pockets of their better-off Christian neighbours. The early church lived as a family, a family where the needs of the one would be met directly by the generosity of the other. They were in it together. And this affects the very meaning of the word ‘love’ itself. When Paul tells the Thessalonians that they already love one another and that he wants them to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4.9 –10) he doesn’t just mean that they should have nice, warm feelings for one another. ‘Love’ here means ‘charitable concern’, ‘mutual support’ or something like that. I suspect that if members of Paul’s churches were to be miraculously trans-planted into one of today’s Western churches, among the things that would horrify them would be the way in which the vast majority of Christians retreat, when it comes to money, into their own nuclear families and special-interest zones. Of course, our knowledge of the worldwide church and the severe needs suffered by many of our brothers and sisters there is now almost too full: we can’t take it all in, and we certainly don’t think we can do anything about it. We’re right; by ourselves, we can’t. But if God’s people as a whole took the story of the widow’s two coins seriously (and linked them, as Mark fairly obviously links them, with the challenge to love God and our neighbour), it would be surprising just what a difference it could make.
Give us generous hearts, good Lord, that we may show our love for you and for one another in response to all your love for us.