Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”
Mark 12:41-44 MSG
I think most of us are lucky enough to be able to say that we have received all manner of gifts – good ones, bad ones, just plain bizarre ones. I think most of us also have the dubious distinction of having given good gifts, bad gifts, and bizarre gifts in turn! Very little compares to that feeling of having given a good gift, one you know the other person likes and appreciates – of getting it right, basically. But in the same way, giving someone a plonker is especially dispiriting. No one wants to be the gift giver that gets the fake, slightly too enthusiastic “Thank you!” That kills your good vibes.
Think back to the best gifts you’ve gotten. What made them the best gifts? I’m very happy to say that I’ve gotten a lot of great gifts over the years, certainly more than I deserve. One that stands out is when a few years ago, shortly after I became a reborn Christian, a friend gave me a copy of The Message Bible. Though I’ve since moved on to use other translations, The Message will always be a favourite translation of mine because it was the Bible that helped me to learn to love God’s Word. It’s been a gift that, in a very real way, has kept on giving, because it served as a stepping stone in a journey of getting to know God and Scripture.
Good gifts are rarely about the amount of money they cost. The currency of a good gift is the amount of thought that went into it. Good gifts are given from the heart. Because of that, good gifts are also risky, because in giving them you’re never quite one hundred percent sure how they will be received. But you risk it anyway because it matters enough to you.
In today’s reading, Jesus told his disciples that a poor widow’s gift of two coins – worth very little to anyone but her – was a better gift than the large donations given by the rich people. I don’t think the actual amounts mattered much to Jesus, except in what they tell us about these people’s hearts. We can speculate that these tithes were probably being received in something akin to a donation box, placed in the outer courts of the temple (and it would have to be in the outer courts, because women could not enter past a certain point). This was probably in one of the busiest spots, if Jesus could stand there and people watch. So it’s not hard to imagine some people treating this whole process ostentatiously, knowing that their large donations would be noticed; that’s probably why they gave so much. The widow, on the other hand, would not have made a production of putting in her two coins. She would have been too self-conscious. She wasn’t doing it for spectacle.
So why did she do it? Why would she give out of her poverty, literally more than she could afford? I think because none of us want to give bad gifts. We want our gifts to be well-received. This widow – poor, likely alone, and definitely vulnerable in the patriarchal, family-orientated socio-economic climate of the day – probably thought this was the only way to gift God. After all, this was how everyone else did it: the temple system had become corrupted with money; it was essentially Jerusalem’s biggest bank. This account of the widow’s offering is in the middle of a bunch of rapid-fire episodes from Mark 11 to 13 that all deal with Jesus’ authority as the Messiah, the nature of the kingdom of God, and Jesus’ eventual return, and a central feature is Jesus’ renunciation of this corrupt temple system. Indeed, as Jesus and his disciples left the temple after this encounter with the widow, Jesus told them that the temple – a central part of Jewish religion and culture – would be destroyed. All those gifts tithed at that donation box would, eventually, come to mean nothing, but we can be sure that this widow, with her heart reaching out desperately for God, would have been remembered even though her coins disappeared into rubble.
You see, it’s not about the amount of coins we drop into God’s donation box; it’s about why. It’s not about what we bring to God, but why we bring it to him. With God, there’s no such thing as a bad gift; he accepts the things we give him out of our spiritual poverty and delights in each of them like we’ve beaten some kind of gift giving record! He looks at our hearts, and if we can only manage to give him those, tattered and worthless as they may feel – as worthless as two small coins in a donation box filled with hundreds – that will be enough. With God we don’t need to be afraid to give ourselves, because he will never do the fake, slightly too enthusiastic “Thank you!” To him, we are all good gifts.
For the Lord is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation.
(Psalm 100:5 NLT)