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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Metaphorical Mites

Two sides of the same lepton
You remember the widow, right?

I know, I know, there are more than a few widows in the Bible. I mean the one at the temple in Jerusalem in the gospels. The Lord remarked on the gift she deposited in the temple treasury. He specifically drew the attention of his disciples to it when he said that she put in “more than all those who are contributing”.

If you only read Luke you might be forgiven for thinking this incident occurred at random, but Mark makes it clear that the Lord “sat down … and watched the people putting money into the offering box”. That may seem an odd way to occupy your time, but I think he was waiting for a certain poor widow to come along.

So her two mites matter, and maybe not only for the reasons you might think.

The Story

Here’s the actual account, as Mark has it. Neither version is longer than four verses. Both are similarly worded:
“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ ”
I’m quoting from the ESV, in which both Mark and Luke refer to “two small copper coins”.

Pennies and Mites

The old King James used the word “mites” to make the meaning clear back then, which is how the phrase “widow’s mites” entered popular culture for a few hundred years. This may help those of us who don’t know what a lepton is. That is the word the Greek New Testament uses to describe the coins. Both gospels record that the poor widow put two lepta into the offering box. A lepton was the least valuable piece of currency circulated in Judea. At the time of Christ, one lepton would buy you about six minutes of casual labor.

In Canada we have a two dollar coin we refer to colloquially as a ‘toonie’. That’s about the value of the poor widow’s offering.

Now it’s not nothing, is it? You might still buy a can of soup with it (if you find it on sale) or maybe the smallest McDonald’s hamburger. If you’re poor, such an amount could make the grumbling in your stomach subside for a few hours. If you’re fending off starvation, a couple of these at lunch may postpone your demise until dinner time. It was definitely something to the widow; the Lord remarks that it’s “all she had to live on”.

But the poor widow put this tiny amount into the temple treasury, where both Mark and Luke helpfully point out that it was instantly dwarfed by “large sums” the rich were throwing in. In such company, if she had missed the slot in the offering box entirely — if those two coins had bounced away down the temple steps into the crowd and been lost — nothing at all would have changed for anyone.

In our way of thinking, at least.

Giving and Sacrifice

On the surface it’s a lesson about giving, and about financial priorities. It tells us what matters to God is not how much we give, but how much it costs us. The gifts that make a difference to him are the ones offered sacrificially, not the ones we offer out of our abundance.

Below the surface, the story may tell us something about more than tithing.

Impoverishment by Any Other Name …

There are people who are financially poor, but many more of us are impoverished in other less-evident ways. The Lord spoke of those who are “poor in spirit”, that is to say, conscious of their own spiritual poverty and their own inability to do anything pleasing to God in their own strength.

Life, with its inevitable and inexorable revelation of wickedness, incompetence and failure on every side — in society, government, parents, friends and maybe even in those who profess to be knowledgeable about religious truth; along with our own personal sins and dashed hopes — has dealt such people a genuinely serious blow.

Rarely is it the situation that we are crushed on every front simultaneously, but it is extremely common to feel that in one area or life or another, we are completely and utterly destitute:

·         More than one Christian has told me, “I can’t do it, no matter how hard I try”. They seem to themselves to be entirely without self-control and failing (in their own eyes) on a daily basis. The habits they long to conquer won’t go away, and the better choices they kept meaning to replace them with remain in the realm of fond wishes rather than ever being actualized. Where their will is concerned, they are just about broke. Still, I bet they have access to mite or two of self-control that they haven’t used yet.

·         Two very close friends make it very clear that they feel completely worthless. They see no hope on the horizon. They have no expectation of being healthy, employed or living normally and they wonder why they bother even getting out of bed. They are depressed, they have no energy and even their thoughts seem unmanageable and out of control. This too is a kind of poverty. But I cannot bring myself to believe that the Lord has left them with no resources at all. Surely there is a mite or two left somewhere.

·         A friend once said to me about her daughter, “I have no love for her. None at all.” She saw herself as bankrupt in the love department. Now of course it wasn’t completely true, and I know that from observing her behavior toward her daughter despite her professed lack of feeling. She had a couple of mites worth of love left to work with at the time. But that was about it; the daughter in question had been pretty awful.

All Kinds of Poor

There’s all kinds of poor. We are, variously, aging, physically sick, damaged by birth or by life, disillusioned, depressed, beset by varieties of imbalances in brain chemistry, weighted at times with the confluence of multiple horrendous life events, and yes, even broke. But none of us are without at least a “mite” or two. Even Job had a fistful of broken pottery with which to scratch his boils. No believer I know is quite that far down.

Is it impossible, even in the throes of serious sickness, to crawl out of bed for a minute or two to send your sympathies to someone in worse shape? To my mind, if it is done for Christ, that’s the equivalent of throwing your last few coins into the treasury.

Is it impossible, even when beset with a conviction of our own worthlessness and futility, to try to be an encouragement to others in the name of the Lord Jesus when the opportunity arises, even for a moment or two? Hard, certainly, and maybe even painful for some. But impossible? I find it difficult to believe.

Maybe I won’t overcome a particular sin I’m struggling with every single time. Maybe, like the patriarchs in the Old Testament, I’ll do the same stupid things over and over again. But I can conquer it this time, today, when temptation presents itself, can’t I? If I love the Lord, I can throw my two mites of self-control into the treasury and ask him to make something of my will even if I can’t. Let tomorrow’s resolutions take care of themselves.

Sacrifices and Examples

Do such things sound like a bit of a sacrifice? They do to me. But, as with the widow, the person for whom such efforts are hardest is the person for whom our Lord has the greatest compassion — and the greatest appreciation when, even in the smallest of ways, we succeed in pleasing him rather than spending those two mites of time, energy, will, effort, love, desire — or, yes, even money — on ourselves.

Further, the believer for whom such sacrifices seem most impossible is the believer that, like the widow, the Lord wants to use to lift up others; to single out as an example of the sufficiency of his grace. He sat down to wait for the poor widow. He “called his disciples to him” to make his point. He showed this woman off. And he can make a similar example or you or of me, no matter how hard that is to imagine.

Sacrifices matter to him. They really do. And the sacrifices made by the servants of Christ in desperate circumstances are the most precious of all.

2 comments :

  1. One precious thought that I have drawn from this passage is that widow had two coins. As such, she had the option of putting one in the collection, and then kept the other to buy some small amount of food. And who could have blamed her. Giving 50% of all you have is quite admirable. But she gave both coins, and thus presented an example to us for two millennia.

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  2. What an excellent thought, Shawn. Thank you for that.

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