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A generous gift (Dec. 27, 2015)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 23:2-12; Mark 12:38-44

Giving gifts is an important part of the holiday season for many people. Finding just the right Christmas gifts and gathering family and friends to exchange gifts and enjoy a festive dinner keep many of us busy until the night before Christmas.

In the midst of our busyness it is easy to forget the connection between our gift giving and God’s greatest gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Singing “Joy to the World” reminds us that our true happiness comes from what God has given to us in Mary’s child
born in Bethlehem. He is the most generous gift.

Mark 12:41-44 — Jesus praises a generous widow
Religious organizations, like political, educational and cultural institutions, depend on the generosity of their donors. They often use sophisticated means to motivate wealthy people to give them gifts — the larger the better. Major gifts may result in buildings bearing the donor’s name. Often the names of people who gave gifts are prominently displayed or published on lists with the names of the donors organized according to the size of their gifts.

The financial support of the temple in Jerusalem came from wealthy people, some of whom were able to make sizable gifts. Synagogues also relied on generous donors whose philanthropy was acknowledged on plaques affixed to the walls. The Jewish historian Josephus describes an area in the inner court of the temple in Jerusalem where contributions were collected and counted. Jesus and his disciples probably were not allowed to enter this part of the temple.

Other Jewish sources describe trumpet-shaped receptacles placed along a wall of the court of the women, a location more accessible to temple worshippers. If those receptacles were made of metal, the coins dropped into them would make different sounds. Larger coins made of gold or silver would produce a different sound than smaller coins made of baser metals.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples were able to watch as people placed their gifts in the receptacles. They observed wealthy worshippers depositing their large gifts of gold or silver coins. No doubt the temple officials loved to hear the sound of those large coins.

They may have not even noticed when a poor widow dropped in
two small copper coins. Those two Judean coins were equivalent to the smallest Roman coin, called a penny in the NRSV translation. Jesus saw the widow make her gift and realized that she provided him with a very teachable moment. Those two copper coins, he said, were a much more significant contribution than the gold or silver coins dropped in the collection box by wealthy worshippers.

Jesus could say that because he could see that the widow gave money she surely needed. The Greek text literally translated says she gave “her whole life.” The wealthy people who gave their gifts out of their abundance were not giving money they depended on to survive. The poor widow’s sacrificial gift demonstrated her deep faith. Therefore, Jesus said, her gift was the most generous gift.

Mark 12:38-40; Matthew 23:2-12— Jesus rejects hypocritical behavior
In contrast to the poor widow, Mark describes the hypocritical behavior of some Jewish scribes. The scribes and the Pharisees in our Matthew passage were religious leaders, teachers who were trained to interpret the Law of Moses. At least one scribe demonstrated such a good understanding of the law that Jesus said he was not far from the kingdom of God (Mark 12:34).

The harsh, almost vitriolic, condemnation of scribes and Pharisees in the canonical Gospels reflects the struggles of the earliest Christians, many of whom were themselves Jews. Unfortunately, this heated first century sibling rivalry has been generalized by some to support anti-Semitic attitudes and actions by gentile Christians in later centuries up to the present time.

The point Jesus is making in our passage is that the poor widow’s sacrificial gift had far greater value than gifts that were only a relatively small portion of the givers’ financial capability. Her gift demonstrated the integrity of her commitment to God that put to shame the hypocrisy of those who only wanted to look like they had trust in God.

For discussion
Denominational statistics indicate that very few Presbyterians are sacrificial givers like the poor widow in this passage. Do you think it was unrealistic of Jesus to hold up the widow’s generous gift as a model? How can Presbyterians demonstrate good stewardship of God’s generous gifts to us during the Christmas season?