"Giving to God"

Scripture:  Genesis 28:10-22; Mark 12:38-44

Giving is an Act of Worship

Offering our gifts to God, whether financial or otherwise, is an expectation that God has of all of God’s people, and we encounter this expectation throughout scripture – in both the Old and New Testaments.  From the very beginning of the Bible, the act of offering one’s gifts was seen as a way to express thanksgiving and to offer ourselves fully and wholly in worship to God.

One of my favorite Old Testament stories having to do with giving an offering to God is the story of Jacob and his dream.  Our reading finds Jacob in the midst of upheaval in his life – he is literally running for his life – and he is unsure of what his journey will hold.  He stops and rests for the night, and as he sleeps he dreams a dream and receives the assurance of God’s promise of blessing. 

When he wakes up, he is overcome by the feeling of God’s presence.  Right then and there, he set up a stone as a pillar to mark the place as holy, and declares:

“If God is with me and protects me on this journey, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.  This stone that I’ve set up as a sacred pillar will mark this place as God’s house, and of everything you give me I will give back a tenth to you.”

OT Standard:  The Tithe

Everything you give me, I will give back a tenth to you.  We’ve probably all heard that standard of giving from the Old Testament:  One tenth of one’s income.  There’s a specific word that is used to refer to the one-tenth offering.  Does anybody know what it is?  [Tithe.]

The first mention of the tithe as biblical law comes from the book of Leviticus.  It reads, “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. […] All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord.”[1]

It seems simple enough, right?  I picture a shepherd bringing his flock in from grazing, and he’s counting them off…  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…  And 10.  Nope – You, little guy, are for God.  And pulls that sheep to the side and sets it aside in a specific pen, where he keeps the sheep that he offers in service to God.

You may have noticed these apples sitting up here on the altar railing this morning.  There are 10 apples here, which represent the total gift of income and other gifts that we receive from God.  Imagine that God has given you these apples.  God tells us that nine of these apples are ours to enjoy.  We are to use some to care for ourselves and for our families, some to save for retirement, and some to spend on your friends.  You can even use some of it to go on vacation. 

But the tenth apple – this one is holy to God.  God says, “I want you to use this one to express your praise and love and thanksgiving to me.  I want you to give this apple to me to help you remember that I gave you all ten of the apples.  This apple is to be used to accomplish my mission and ministry in the world through my Church.  This apple is to be used in service to my people.”

NT Standard:  Generous, Heartfelt Stewardship

The tithe is a high standard.  And while it was the consistent standard throughout the Old Testament, it is never actually directly referenced in the New Testament.

Instead, the New Testament presents different standards of giving – a few of which we have encountered over the past few weeks of our Stewardship Campaign.  New Testament teachings on giving don’t focus on the tithe, but on generosity, on giving to care for the needs of others, on being good stewards of all of the gifts we have been given, and on giving from the heart.  The focus remains, however, on giving being first and foremost an act of worship and devotion to God.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we encounter Jesus and his disciples sitting near one of the thirteen collection plates located along the walls of the temple in Jerusalem.  As they sit and watch, a number of wealthy people came through, loudly throwing in their coins, the crowd turning their heads at the sound of the wave of clinking change.  [Place green apples in the bowl]

Then, in the midst of the extravagant gifts given by the wealthy, a poor widow steps forward, and she gives just two small coins of very little value – a tiny fraction of what the wealthy people gave.  There is no downpour of clinking when she gives her gift, just the sound of two single coins.  Ping.  Ping.  [Place two apple slices into the bowl]

The gift of the widow wouldn’t have even been noticed if Jesus didn’t call over his disciples.  “Did you guys see what just happened?”  Of course they saw – the wealthy people had given huge gifts!  What a blessing!  “No.  I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who has been putting money in the treasury.  All of them are giving out of their spare change.  But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

It’s not about the size of the gift.  It’s about the love and devotion that drives the person to give.  It’s about giving yourself rather than simply giving your things.  The Greek is clear here – the word for what the rich people gave is gift, while the word for the widow’s offering was her life or livelihood.  The gift of the rich was a gift from their overflowing pockets, whereas the gift of the widow was from the very center of her being.

All In

Compared to the New Testament standard, the tithe was simple and straightforward.  While the previous standard was, “Give 10%,” Jesus’ standard is, “Give all you can.”

One of John Wesley’s most famous sermons is about stewardship, and it is simply titled, “The Use of Money.”  If I was him, I probably would have given it a more catchy title – something like, “The Sermon on the Amounts” or “Blessed Be the Tithe That Binds.”  Even though his title may have been lacking, his sermon made lasting impact on the way that Methodists think about giving – he gives financial advice that has had a profound impact on the way that people think about money and spending ever since.

The first thing he says is to earn all you can.  Well, that seems simple enough.  We all live in a Capitalist society, so we can probably agree that earning all that we can is sound advice to make sure that we’re able to provide for the livelihood of ourselves and our families.

The second thing he says is to save all you can.  That makes sense, too.  It’s important to set aside funds for emergencies and for retirement.  We should be mindful of how our money is spent, and not be wasteful.

The third and final thing is to spend all you can.  Just kidding!  The last one is to give all you can.  Notice that it isn’t give what’s left over.  Give all you can - this, he said, is the most important of all, and is the very purpose of both earning and saving all that we can.  When we earn and save responsibly, we are given the freedom to give to God with a worshipful heart of extravagant generosity.

Wesley writes,                       

‘Give all you can.’  In order to see the grounds and reason for this, consider, when the Possessor of heaven and earth brought you into being, and placed you in this world, he placed you here not as a proprietor, but as a steward.  As such [God] has entrusted you for a season, with goods of various kinds; but the sole property of these [gifts] still resides with God, not can it be alienated from Him.  [Therefore,] ‘render unto God,’ not a tenth, not a third, not [even] half, but all that is God’s, be it more or less; by employing all that [God has given to you] on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and on all mankind.[2]

Give all you can.  It’s not a cut and dry demand, and it will look different to each of us.  Jesus lifts up the poor widow as an example for each of us, showing that it’s not about the dollar amount of our gift or our pledge, but about the act of love, worship, and generosity that we offer to God. 

I’m reminded once again of Paul’s words from 2nd Corinthians:  “A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what they can’t afford, so long as the gift is given willingly.”[3]

For some of us, that looks like this apple. [Place apple on altar]  Others are able to give less.  [Place lime on altar]  And others are able to give more.  [Place pummelo on altar]  But Jesus assures us that God sees all of our gifts and sees none as more precious than the other when they are given from the heart. 

Each and every one of your gifts is precious to God and to this church.  Each of these gifts will help tremendously with the ministry of this church as we seek to live out God’s call to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to love, serve, and work to transform our community.

[1] Leviticus 27:30, 32 (NRSV)

[2] John Wesley, “Sermon 50: The Use of Money.”  Emphasis mine.

[3] 2 Corinthians 8:12, my paraphrase.