The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 11/12/2000
Text: Mark 12:38-44
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

There is an old story of a father going to church with his three daughters and giving them each two quarters to put in the offering. When the offering came around the oldest put in her two quarters, the next did the same, but the last held onto hers. When she was going out of church, she pulled the pastor down to her level. "Sir, my daddy gave each of us kids two quarters to put in the offering. Sally put hers in the offering plate, and Julie put hers in, but I wanted to give mine to you." When the pastor inquired as to why, she responded, "I wanted to help you; my daddy said you are the POOREST preacher we have ever had!"(1)

Uh-huh. For what it is worth, I have always avoided excusing my inability to afford something by saying, "I am just a poor preacher," because I have never wanted anyone to be able to reply, "I know; I have heard you."

When it comes to poor preaching, some of the poorest is about money. Not because preachers find the subject too complex or difficult, but rather because we are intimidated by dealing with a topic in which we are perceived to have a vested interest. When I was young and brave, I used to say that I actually ENJOYED preaching about money, because, of all the idolatries to which modern America is tempted, money is unquestionably #1. I said I did not mind preaching about money because I liked to see the generous folks smile and the stingy ones squirm. I said I did not mind preaching about money because I was not preaching about MY money, but GOD's. I am older now, and whether I like it or not, the fact that my family and I are financially supported by what comes in the offering plate, for me to preach about tithes and offerings can be viewed with some legitimacy as feathering my own nest. I do not want people to think that, and the easiest way to avoid it is to avoid the subject as much as possible.

From all that I have been able to learn over the years, most folks are quite content with that. In a book entitled Plain Talk about Churches and Money,(2) one of the authors states:

Clergy often come to their calling with a distinct aversion to conflict and to having to deal with money issues. Our culture seems to reinforce them in that behavior. So long as clergy are cowed and anxious in the face of money and wealth, they will remain silent about the spiritual issue that touches our culture more deeply than any other. The more I steeped myself in this book and looked at churches around me, the more I became convinced this behavior is the way a culture controls a challenge to itself. A money-driven culture seems to want clergy who are "safe" and "tame" when dealing with the spiritual dimension of money.(3)

Of course, faithful preaching will not allow avoiding the subject of money. Fully one-third of Jesus' parables had to do with money and possessions - that would be one sermon in three - and that was in a society that was much less money-oriented than ours. If Jesus' emphasis was that strong, what should a faithful preacher's be? And whether he likes it or not!

Does it intrigue you to note where Jesus parks himself when he comes into the Temple? As the lesson has it, "He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury." Interesting. Some folks do not mind that, I suppose. Years ago, when I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education, one of my colleagues served a church in which the practice was to publish the amount that individuals gave from week to week in the following Sunday's bulletin...John Jones, $20, Mary Smith, $10, and so on. Should we try that here? Somewhere I read about a minister who walked down the aisle while the collection was being taken, looking at what each individual put in the plate. After it was gathered, he returned to the pulpit and said, "I know that some of you are upset with me for what I have just done. But I wanted you to know that as surely as I know what you gave, God knows." Yup. (But I wonder how long he lasted in that church.)

The Lord knew how much the widow gave...and how much all the others gave as well (and how much you and I will give today). The issue was not the amount. Jesus told his companions, "this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. They all gave out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in everything, all she had to live on."

Should she have done that? Given everything she had, even the last little bit of food money, to God? God did not need it. But then, I do not NEED it when my children give gifts to me. For the time being, I am far wealthier than they; I could buy for myself anything they might purchase for me. But they still give me gifts - birthday, Christmas, Father's Day. Why? For the same reason I gave gifts to MY Dad - they say "I love you, Dad." And the value of those gifts is FAR greater than any dollar amount involved. My Dad NEEDED nothing I ever gave him; but I needed to give those gifts to him. No, God did not NEED what that widow gave, or what you and I ever give. Instead, we give to God as an expression of our relationship. We give because we need to give. Should the widow have done what she did? Give everything? She must have thought so. A gift, even a widow's two pennies, is a symbol of the giving of ourselves.

Do you think Jesus was holding the lady up as a stewardship standard? The answer is both yes and no. Yes...the amount she put in was not much as anyone measures MUCH, but it reflected her uncompromising trust in the provision of a loving God. She gave 100%. She trusted God to meet her needs. But the answer is also NO. The biblical standard is ten percent, not 100. Both the Old and New Testaments say the first ten-percent belongs to God (and Jesus affirmed it)(4) - no if's, and's, or but's; we are left with the other 90% to do with as we choose. To be sure the 90% should be used intelligently, but God entrusts it to our discretion. Granted, 100% does BELONG to God, and God can take it all back in a heartbeat...literally. Meanwhile, God trusts us to be good managers, faithfully setting aside the ten percent that is called for.

A priest once asked one of his parishioners to serve as financial chairman of his parish. The man, manager of a grain elevator, agreed on two conditions: no report would be due for a year, and no one would ask any questions during the year. At the end of the year he made his report. He had paid off the church debt of $200,000. He had redecorated the church. He had sent money to missions. He had $5,000 in the bank. Needless to say, everyone wanted to know how. The man quietly explained, "You people bring your grain to my elevator. As you did business with me, I simply withheld 10 percent and gave it to the church. You never missed it."(5)

No, that is not a model I would hold up as appropriate, but the truth of not missing the tithe is unavoidable. I have never met anyone who faithfully tithed who regretted it. Never. I have said it before and I say it again: to me, one of the genuine miracles of our faith is how we end up with more in our pocketbook AFTER we tithe than BEFORE. That is one I will never understand, but I do know it is true. As has been said so often, you cannot outgive God.

"In God We Trust"...our national motto, and it is found most prominently on our currency. Ironic? No. What better place could there be to remind us that our security, our ultimate well-being, can never be a coin or piece of paper?

A poor widow...two small copper coins..."I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in everything, all she had to live on."

One of my cyberfriends has written,(6)

"When I read this text, I remember a woman I spent 30 minutes with seven years ago. I was serving an inner city church, and a woman walked in with two young children just as the service was ending. One of the members came up to me a few minutes later and told me that this woman wanted to talk to the pastor and pay her tithe. The woman and I sat down in the front pew to talk, and my daughter and her two young sons played together under the piano as we talked. (That may be my most vivid memory of that morning--the children playing together under the piano).

"The woman had walked over to church from the battered women's shelter, and was quite distressed to find that she had missed the worship service. She was going to be getting on a bus the following morning and heading to a new life in a city 1,000 miles away. The shelter had made arrangements for her to stay in a shelter in the new city while she searched for a job and housing and got herself on her feet. She had come to the church because she wanted to pay her tithe and have the pastor pray for her before she set out to build a new life for her sons.

"She talked about how difficult it would be, moving to this new city, and how she was going to have to trust God if she was going to make it. She had no church home, and knew that was something she was going to have to change when she reached this new city. It was the first of the month, and she had just received her welfare check. She very carefully counted out exactly 10% of it and handed it to me. I wanted to refuse her money. As much as the church struggled financially, she and her two young sons needed it more. I opened my mouth to tell her to keep her money, but something stopped me. I realized that the money (about $33) would not make the difference between her making it in the new town and not making it, but that her giving it, and thus putting God first and living out her trust in God, might very well make the difference. So, I took the money. I delivered it to the counters in the office, and found her a Bible. I wrote down some passages she might find helpful in the front of the Bible. I had a prayer with her. I sent her out the door and on her way to a new life.

"I have no idea what became of that woman, and don't even remember her name. I do remember her determination that if she was going to make a success of her new life, she had to put God first and live out her trust in God. I suspect she and the widow had a whole lot in common."

The view from Jesus' pew: "He sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury." As I said at the beginning of this, if I had my druthers, I would not do much preaching about money - the subject intimidates me. But this story is not so much about money as it is about trust, the kind of trust that gives shape to the way we live our lives. Jesus does not demean the big-money gifts, nor does he romanticize the small one. The contrast is between people who had gracious plenty who trusted their own resources and a poor widow with nothing who put her complete trust in God.

The lesson is clear:

  • When the winds and waves threaten to swamp our boat, God can be trusted;
  • When the bottom comes out of our world and we start falling and falling and falling, God can be trusted;
  • When the financial resources we had counted on are suddenly gone, God can be trusted;
  • When we have hit the bottom and are afraid we will never get back up, God can be trusted.

We never hear anymore about the widow in the gospel account. She could have gone home from the temple that day, laid down her weary head on her humble palette, and quietly starved to death. An anonymous tragedy. But I bet not. I would be willing to bet the farm that this poor lady's needs were met...and met and met and met. She knew. God can be trusted.


1. Thanks to Ruge Jones, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #464, 11/8/97 for reminding me of this old gem.

2. Dean Hoge, Patrick McNamara, Charles Zech with a chapter by Loren Mead (Bethesda, MD : Alban Institute, 1997)

3. Quoted by Jack Sharpe, via Ecunet, "Bottom Drawer," #3308, 11/7/97

4. See Matthew 23:23

5. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 460

6. Wendy Pratt, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 11 09," #19, 11/3/97

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