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October 8, 2017

Sermon Luke 21:1-4 . . . “People to meet in heaven:  a widow and her mites”

“People to meet in heaven:  a widow and her mites”

Luke 21:1-4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Back in April of 2013, Ken Stern wrote an article for The Atlantic.  He called it, “Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity.”  To put it another way, he said, “The wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent.  What’s up with that?”

He went on to explain:  “When Mort Zuckerman, the New York City real-estate and media mogul, lavished $200 million on Columbia University in December to endow the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, he did so with fanfare suitable to the occasion:  the press conference was attended by two Nobel laureates, the president of the university, the mayor, and journalists from some of New York’s major media outlets.”  

And why not?  When Phil Knight gave $125 million to the Oregon Health and Science University, and Paul Allen gave $300 million to the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, they had lots of fanfare too!

Then he wrote, “If you scanned the press releases, or drove past the many university buildings, symphony halls, institutes and stadiums named for their benefactors…you would be forgiven for thinking that the story of charity in this country is a story of epic generosity on the part of the American rich.”

But, he said, “It is not.  One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income.”

We wonder why.  Is it because the wealthy would sooner care for themselves first?  Is it because they’re too shut off from the needy around them?  Or do they simply give while asking, “What’s in it for me?”

So it was in the book of Luke.  If you would, please turn in your Bible to page 1119 as I read the words of our text.  I’ll start where it says, “The Widow’s Offering,” chapter 21, verse 1:  “Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and He saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  And He said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’”

It had been a long day in the life of Jesus.  Glance back a page to chapter 20, where it says, “The Authority of Jesus Challenged.”  Luke wrote in verse 1:  “One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to Him, ‘Tell us by what authority You do these things, or who it is that gave You this authority.’”  

And after He told the parable of the wicked tenants in verse 9, spies came in verse 22 to ask, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”  And Jesus answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Then after Sadducees came to test Him, He said in verse 46:  “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widow’s houses and for a pretense make long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”

It had been a long day in the life of Jesus.

And as He sat in the temple that day with His disciples, all of a sudden, out of the blue, came a widow with her two small copper coins.

If you didn’t already know it, the entire temple complex was a series of concentric circles.  The closer you came to the center, the holier the place, and fewer were the people that could enter in.

On the farthest outskirts was the court of the Gentiles.  It’s as close as non-Jews were allowed to go.  Closer to the center was the Court of the Women, as close as women were allowed to go.  Next came the inner court, where only Jewish men could go.  Then finally, at the heart of the temple was the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could go.

Look again at verse 1:  “Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box.”

“The offering box,” he said.  Actually, there were thirteen offering boxes, each one shaped like a trumpet, and each one with a sign to show exactly what that money would be used for—bird offerings, wood offerings, incense offerings, and sin offerings.

And as thousands came from all across the region to give their gifts, there must have been quite a lot of noise.  Cattle were lowing, doves were cooing, and the sound of clanking coins filled the air.

In those days, people didn’t have paper bills like we do.  Instead, they had coins--some fairly large, and some pretty small.  And as those coins slid down the throat of those trumpets, they let out a huge rattling sound, much like tolls at a toll booth.  And when the high priests heard that sound, they must have been very proud and very happy.

But in the midst of the vast, pressing crowd, there was a woman whom Jesus said was, “a poor widow.”

Now if there was ever a redundant phrase, that was it.  In fact, in first-century Palestine, the words “poor” and “widow” were synonymous.  If widows were to live at all, they would live off the love and kindness of other men in the family or anyone in the community who might provide something for them.

Even the book of James talked about it.  He said, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this—to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”

Can you see her in your mind?  Her body is worn from years of labor, and she’s dressed in a simple hand-sewn smock.  Her back is hunched, her sandals are dirty, and her clothes are patched from constant wear every day.

And as she stood in line with so many others, she held in her hands two small copper coins.

The King James Version called them “mites.”  Luke called them “lepta,” the smallest and least valuable coins in all of Judea.  If a denarius was worth a day’s wage, two lepton were worth about six minutes.  Put them together and you couldn’t buy much more than a slice of bread.

Still, there she was, a poor widow, and her two paltry copper coins.  And as she stood beside that trumpet, ever so quietly and carefully, she slipped them in and went on her way.

For just a moment, time must have stood still, for it was in that moment that Jesus saw her and said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Did you hear that word?  “All,” Jesus said.  “Everything.”  Anyone else probably wouldn’t have even bothered to come to the temple that day.  And if they had, they would have kept their coins to themselves.

But as she held those two little coins in her hand, what represented the last of her life and her hopes and dreams, she closed her eyes, said a prayer of thanks and gave her self to God.

Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century writer, historian and teacher, loved his wife, who also served as his secretary.  But as it often happens, he was absorbed in his own personal and professional interests, and he treated her as if she were still his employee.

Then for months, during a long illness, she was confined to bed.  And when she died suddenly and unexpectedly, he was ridden with guilt.  After the funeral, he went back to an empty, lonely house.

He wandered around aimlessly, engrossed in his thoughts about the woman he loved.  Then he went upstairs to her bedroom and sat in a chair beside her bed.  Thoughts flooded his mind as he reflected on the fact that he hadn’t been there very often during her long illness.

That’s when a little book caught his eye.  It was her diary.  He never would have read it while she was still alive.  Quietly and carefully, he began to leaf through its pages.

She wrote, “Yesterday, he spent an hour with me.  And it was like being in heaven.  I love him so much.”  Then he turned a few more pages and read, “I listened all day to hear his steps in the hallway.  And now it’s late; I guess he won’t come to see me.”

He read a few more entries, then he threw the book on the floor and ran out into the rain, back to the cemetery.  Then he fell on his wife’s grave in the mud, sobbing, “If only I had known.  If only I had known.”

Imagine you had a set of post-it notes.  On some, write the word “temporary.”  On others, write the word “forever.”  Now walk around your life and put one of those post-its on all the stuff in it.

On your car, put one that says—“temporary,” and another on your house.  Put “temporary” on your television, your iPad, and your phone.

Now take your “forever” post-its and put one on each member of your family.  Put one on your friends.  Put one on yourself.

You see, one day, all the things this world thinks are valuable will be gone.  What’s left are eternal gifts from God.

As one author wrote, “Stewardship is not all about giving money, whether to the church or to some other worthy cause.  It’s about taking care of each other.  We’re connected—connected by faith, connected by mission, and connected by love.”

So what lesson does this widow have to teach us?  

Really, there are two.  The first is found in this—God sees what man overlooks.  Everyone noticed the big gifts that people gave, even the disciples.  But Jesus saw what no one else could see—the gift of a poor widow.  And while so many gifts made so much noise jingling in those trumpets, the widow’s mites were heard in heaven.

And the second lesson is this—though she was so desperate and in need of charity, (she gave the last she had to live on!), she trusted God to be faithful to care for His own.

As the prophet Malachi wrote in his third chapter:  “’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house.  Test Me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’”

And how can all this be possible?  Because once there was a Man who gave His all.  As a child, He was laid in a manger.  As a Man, He had no place to lay His head.  When He died, it was the death and humiliation of the cross.

What did He give to save us?  Everything.  Absolutely everything.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

 

We thank You, dear Father, for the faith and the love of that poor widow.  Help us to follow in her footsteps, as we seek to follow You.  This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen

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