Formations 10.17.2021: Inconspicuous Giving

Luke 20:39–21:4

James Tissot, The Widow’s Mite, c. 1886–1894

We love to be recognized for our good deeds, don’t we? A thank you is always appreciated, and often the only encouragement we need to keep up the good work.

That’s fine as far as it goes. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be appreciated. The problem is when we do good to help others but so that we will be praised by those who see us do it.

A few weeks ago, we talked about how honor and shame were major aspects of Jesus’ culture. An honorable person does all the right things—and makes sure to be seen doing them! One of the most countercultural things Jesus ever did was to challenge this mindset. In today’s passage, while Jesus teaches in the temple, he warns his followers against the scribes because they always seek the commendation of others. They practice their religiosity “for the sake of appearance” while at the same time depriving widows of their livelihood (v. 47).

We see something similar to what Jesus is talking about in Acts 5, where Ananias and Sapphira make a show of giving, not because they care for the poor but because they saw how Barnabas’s generous gift earned him the apostles’ commendation. Their gift was calculated to bring them praise.

Some people today give for similar reasons. We know we’ll get our name on a plaque or on the wing of a building. If we give enough, we can have an entire charitable foundation named after us. At the very least, we’ll get a tax write-off.

Is that any different from the scribes of Jesus’ day? Conspicuous giving is an easy way to gain a reputation for goodness, in our world no less than his. Of course, the only way to really give conspicuously is to have an abundance in the first place. If you are of modest means, this game—and the acclamation it brings—is not for you.

So Jesus warns us to check our attitudes and make sure we aren’t giving because we expect to get something in return. Then, as if on cue, he looks up to see two classes of people giving their gifts at the temple: rich people making a great show of their offerings and a lone widow with her two copper coins. He commends the widow, not for the size of her offering but for the spirit in which she gives it.

What would you give if no one ever knew?

Discussion

• When have you observed people giving for the wrong reasons?
• When have you observed people responding to another’s giving with undue praise?
• What would it look like for the average churchgoer to give at the widow’s level?
• How might this story relate to other passages Jesus teaches about money and what to do with it?
• Religious hucksters are notorious for cheating older people out of their life savings. How can we guard against guilting people into giving more than they can afford?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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