Uniform 12.27.2015: A Generous Gift

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Matthew 23:2-12; Mark 12:38-44

I have a confession to make.

There was a time when I thought Christmas was about me.

Now, don’t think I was worse than I was. I knew that Christmas was really about the birth of Jesus. I enjoyed reading the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. I marveled over the nativity scenes. I loved singing the Christmas hymns. I was amazed by the great grace and love that God exhibited in sending Jesus to our world.

But I was a child. I wanted presents. And I got presents. I was an only child. I got lots of presents. And why shouldn’t I have gotten lots of presents? I was a good child.

I remember the first time I sort of questioned the way I looked at things. The beloved church of my growing up years had an annual Christmas shindig on the Wednesday night before Christmas. We had it right there in the sanctuary. Santa Claus always made an appearance as we sang “Jingle Bells.” There was a big, wonderfully and tackily decorated (globs of icicles—what city folk called “tinsel”—and those lights with colored water that bubbled as the bulb got hot) tree. Under it were presents—it looked to me like there were hundreds. Maybe thousands! And I, being a good boy who was always at church, could count on getting my share.

At one such celebration—I must have been eight or nine—a boy I knew from school was sitting in front of me. I wondered what he was doing there. His family didn’t attend the church. In fact, I don’t think I had ever seen him there before that night. I knew it would be all right, though. The church always had extra gifts for any children who might not receive one.

Sure enough, somebody handed him a gift. He opened it. It was a jigsaw puzzle. He was happy to get it. He kept turning around to show it to me. If he showed it to me once, he showed it to me a dozen times.

I sat there with my pile of presents, wondering why I was just sort of happy with my bounty while he was thrilled with his lone gift. Like the Grinch, I puzzled ‘til my puzzler was sore. Unlike the Grinch, I received no great revelation.

Many, many years later it dawned on me that the difference might have been that I got what I expected because I deserved it, while he was genuinely surprised because he had no such expectation. It’s the difference between those religious leaders Jesus talked about who got all the honor they’d worked so hard to achieve and the little old lady who was probably amazed and grateful that she had two coins to rub together.

At the time, though, I pushed my puzzlement to the back of my brain and got back to wondering if I’d left anything off my Christmas wish list.

Somewhere along the way, though, I became much more interested in what I could give than in what I would receive.

Maybe generosity is a sign of maturity.

Maybe it’s a sign of Christianity.

Discussion

1. Do you suppose anybody other than Jesus noticed the woman putting her gift in the treasury? What do you think caused Jesus to notice her?
2. Why did Jesus say that the scribes would “receive the greater condemnation” (Mk 12:40)?
3. Do we give out of our abundance or out of our poverty (Mk 12:44)? What’s the difference? What difference does it make? How can we give everything we have and still live in the real world?
4. Why do you think Jesus was so hard on the scribes and Pharisees? What do we need to learn from his criticism of them?
5. Read Matthew 6:2-4. What does “Christian giving” look like?

Reference Shelf

Jesus’ pronouncement may be understood either as a commendation of the widow for her giving with no thought for herself or as a keen observation of what has just taken place—and perhaps it is both. Jesus does not explicitly commend the widow or say that she is blessed. Instead, he points out that measured by what one has left after making an offering, she gave far more than the wealthy who made large gifts. She gave all she had. They gave out of their abundance, excess, or overflow. She gave out of her lack or need. Jesus describes her gift in two ways: “everything she had,” and, literally, “her whole livelihood/life.” The term bios can have both meanings. Francis Moloney comments, “The double meaning is intended, for in doing one she had done the other.” In contrast to the disciples who have been seeking personal gain (9:34; 10:23-31, 35-45), the widow has fulfilled Jesus’ teachings on discipleship (8:35-37; 10:45). Like other minor characters in Mark (the paralytic’s friends, the woman with the hemorrhage, the father of the epileptic boy, and Bartimaeus), the widow is an exemplary figure.

She is also a tragic figure. In her devotion, she has left herself destitute. Seen from this perspective, she is the final witness in the case against the temple. The chief priests and the Jerusalem scribes “devour widows’ houses” (12:40). They have made the temple a “den of robbers” (11:17; cf. 11:18). Now, God will destroy their “house.”

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 429-30.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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