During Jesus’ last week, we don’t find many examples of him commending people. The establishment is corrupt. It is proud and pretentious, and has become a farce. Like we who bear God’s image, yet offer but a dim and distorted reflection of His glory and character, the temple was intended to be a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice. Instead, it had become the cash cow of the power brokers in Jerusalem. It was outliving its usefulness. That’s the subject of next week’s text. Yet, in the midst of his message of warning and condemnation, Jesus finds something praiseworthy. Much as Ruth was a shining jewel against the drab dark backdrop of the period of the judges, so the widow stood out as a gleaming example of true piety (Luke 21:1-4), in the face of the pride and predatory pretension of the scribes (Luke 20:45-47).
Having cleansed the temple of the merchants who profaned its message and hindered the approach of gentiles, Jesus was challenged at every turn by the priests, the Sadducees, the scribes and the elders. Again and again, he demonstrated that he is wisdom incarnate, and that, for all their proud posturing, they were mere pretenders. Having humiliated the Sadducees by proving that the resurrection is a biblical doctrine, the scribes offered him congratulation. But Jesus turned his attention to their failure as leaders of Israel. They prided themselves on being the true spiritual leaders of Israel, experts in God’s law. But Jesus, by asking a question that they could not answer without bowing the knee to him, showed that they weren’t the worthy of the great esteem of the crowds (Luke 20:41-43).
Seeking the Wrong Praise
Then he turned his attention to their character. In the hearing of the crowd, he cautioned his disciples about these scribes. Everything they do is for the praise of men. They walk around in scholarly garb so that everyone can see that they are different, better, than others. Jesus isn’t opposed to uniforms. They have their place. But by ‘walking around’ in these robes, they are like college professors who wear their academic robes to the supermarket, or a surgeon who wears his scrubs everywhere, even on his day off. They want recognition … from men. These men love the adulation of men, and the privileges that come with it. They are careful to guard their reputation as super-spiritual men. They make long prayers and sit as close to the torah scroll as possible when they are in the synagogue. All the privileges they receive depend on duping others.
The reputation they garner by a show of piety gets them invitations to dinner, and guarantees them a seat of honor, next to the host. But more importantly, it gives them access and power. They would be regarded as competent and trustworthy managers for the property of widows. But this is when their true character would come through. They would turn their skill and access to their own benefit, at the expense of the vulnerable. They are not pious; they are predators. And they deserve the great condemnation that is coming their way.
It is strange to think that the pains of hell could possibly be on a continuum. Being separated completely from God and all his goodness, even the goodness of his common grace; having all restraint removed from one’s own heart, and from the hearts of others, so that their wickedness knows no bounds; being ever conscious of the great loss of knowing God, yet being equally ever aware that one’s lot would never, ever improve — how could that get worse? It’s unfathomable, but revealed. Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum will have it worse than Tyre and Sidon and Sodom (Matt 11:20–23). Those who do not support their families will have it worse than other unbelievers (1 Tim 5:8). And so will these pretentious scribes (Luke 20:47).
With the condemnation of the proud ringing in their ears, Jesus turns the disciples’ attention to a poor widow. It’s not just Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes that is ringing in their ears, either. All around them, as they stand in the court of women, they hear the clanging of large donations. Huge sums of coins are being dropped down the brass, trumpet-shaped tubes that are there for donations to the treasury. And in the midst of this, a desperately poor widow steps up and drops two tiny coins in. Against the great crashes of donations from the wealthy, her ‘tink’, ‘tink’ seems to demoralize an already deeply abased woman. If she were noticed at all, it would be with pity or even scorn. But against the backdrop of the Lord’s condemnation of the scribes, she receives great commendation.
She gave more than all the others because she gave at great cost. The wealthy were giving out of their abundance. They were giving their left-overs. But her gift did not come from surplus. And that is the true measure of sacrifice. Sacrifice is not measured by what we give, but by what we hold back. Her gift amounts to about 11 minutes of labor for a day-laborer. It would take 5 times her gift to buy one loaf of bread. Yet her contribution dwarfed all those clanging gifts that came before her, because she gave at great cost.
A Picture of Christ
Her gift cost everything she had to live on. Luke expressed this with a word that has, as its basic meaning, ‘life’. She gave all of her life. She held nothing back. And isn’t that what our God did for us. The Father gave up his Son for us. The Son laid aside the glories of heaven and took on our frailty, endured our scorn, and hung until dead from nails on a cross. More than that, he endured rejection from the One with Whom he had enjoyed the deepest loving fellowship from all eternity. He held nothing back.
So how should we give to the Lord? What do we learn from this poor widow? She gave 100%. Should we?
Isn’t that what is due? Isn’t that our only reasonable act of worship (Rom 12:1)? And yet, just as the gift of life is free, so is our response to it. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7) The Old Testament established an amount for us: 10%. That was God’s tithe. Beyond that, people brought their offerings. But the New Testament does not give us a percentage. We might still use the tithe as a guide, but the age of shadow has given way to the age of substance. We now know in fuller detail what it would cost for God to redeem us. It would cost everything. What we must not do, as we examine our giving, is think that we have ever given what is due — unless this widow is our guide. We owe it all. And what we hold back is the measure of our sacrifice.
6 The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:6–7)
Sacrifice is measured by what we hold back. But it is motivated by what we love. The scribes loved the praise of men. The rich loved the sound that their