I once heard a story about a strong man in a circus show. He had very powerful hands, and would use his muscles to squeeze every bit of juice out of an orange. He would then challenge anyone in the audience to squeeze even one more drop of juice out of that orange. Big men would come down from the audience and try to get one more drop out, but no one could. Then one day, a skinny, little man came down and squeezed that orange, and to everyone's surprise a drop of juice dripped to the floor. The strong man was astonished and asked, "How did you do that?" The skinny man answered, "Oh, it was easy. I'm the treasurer at the local church. If I can squeeze money out of that stingy congregation, I can sure do this!"
It's unfortunate that so many churches feel they must squeeze money out of people in the name of stewardship. Churches think they must beg and plead and hit folks over the head to get their offering. They offer chicken dinners and fashion shows in order to squeeze out the last drop. They can barely break even because their congregation is so reluctant to give. This shows that something is drastically wrong in the heart. Something is wrong when we don't give money, time, or service to the God who has been so good to us.
In my ministry, I have committed to teach and preach about stewardship, not squeeze money out of people. But the reality is that unless the church members understand they are stewards of God's kingdom, the ministry of the kingdom greatly suffers. Stewardship is a matter of the heart. Jesus drives this point home in Mark 12 when He discusses the motivation behind stewardship.
Mark 12:41 says Jesus went to church with His disciples, "and He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury." Jesus' watch was very intimate. He intentionally went to where the offering was taken. He knew that how the people gave their money said something about their hearts. It's important to note that God is not interested in your money, but He is interested in how you use your money because that is a clear indicator of where your heart is.
The temple Jesus visited in this passage, Herod's temple, was quite impressive. Approximately 15,000 people could pack themselves into the temple court, and it was truly an amazing place. Even the disciples were astounded by this majestic place: "One of Jesus' disciples said to Him, 'Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!' " (Mark 13:1). It was a place to behold.
Jesus was in the midst of all these people, watching them give their offerings. In this plush place, the rich were obvious. Verse 41 says: "Many rich people were putting in large sums." Jesus was so close to the offering receptacle He could tell the amount the people were contributing.
Not only were the rich obvious, there was a woman there who was obvious to Jesus. "A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent" (v. 42). This widow had no human means of support. Her husband was gone and she was alone. She put in two small coins, lepta, that made a little "ting, ting" sound as they hit the bottom. A lepta was less than one of our pennies, and we all know you can't do much with a penny. A lepta was the smallest currency in Palestine at the time. And Jesus watched her put two lepta in the offering. He must have been pretty close to see those tiny coins! He sits opposite the treasury and watches this take place, and it tells Him volumes about this woman's heart.
Jesus saw what everyone gave, and how they gave, and He analyzed what He saw. He watched critically, going beyond the obvious and looking into the heart of each giver. He wanted to know what was behind what they gave. Then, "calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, 'Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury' " (v. 43). Jesus was so taken by the widow's actions, He called the disciples over for a life lesson. He didn't want His disciples to miss what had taken place.
Is that what you and I would have done? We probably would have been more impressed with the huge donations made by the rich men. We would have said, "Did you see Rabbi Levi put in $1,000? And Rabbi Ruben, he put in $5,000! Let's name a building after him! What a great guy!" But that's not what Jesus said, and that's not what He wanted the disciples to see. He called them over to see the humble sight of a poor widow putting in some measly change. This somebody was a nobody in the world's eyes, but she was a sight to behold in the eyes of Christ.
Jesus focused on this widow because she gave more than those rich men. How can that be? She only gave two lepta, two parts of a penny. How can that compare with the rich who gave hundreds or thousands of dollars to God? Jesus tells us: "For they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on" (v. 44). That was the difference: The widow gave all she had, while the rich gave what they had left over. In today's terms, after the car note was paid, after the rent was paid, after their credit cards were paid, they gave what was left over. Well, this widow didn't have anything to give, but God looked at her heart. God measured her gift by her motive. This is the question concerning stewardship: Is the offering given with a motivation that honors God, or with a motivation to give Him what is left over?
The widow woman had many reasons not to give an offering. She had an economic excuse: She was poor. All she had to live on was two lepta, verse 44 tells us. She didn't have more money at home or in the bank; that was it. She had a religious reason not to give because at this time there were crooks running the church. Jesus warned: "Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows' houses, and for appearance's sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation" (Mark 12:38-40). The temple's leaders were corrupt and were actually taking advantage of widows. She had reason to keep her money from these evil people. The widow also had a motivational reason. She could have asked, "What good will two lepta do?" Her small contribution would not have made much difference in the great amount of funds the temple brought in. But the widow didn't worry about these things. She was giving to God. She went to the temple to meet with God, and it was to Him she made her offering. Her sole motivation was God.
Do you share the same motivation? When the offering plate comes around, do you sit there and think in terms of giving to God? Or do you think in terms of how much you have left over in your wallet after the bills are paid? God isn't interested in how much you give, He wants to know why you give it.
I heard about a preacher who tested one of his rich members. He asked the man, "John, if you had 100 pigs, would you give 25 to God?” John answered, "Sure, preacher." The preacher asked, "John, if you had 20 pigs, would you give 5 to God?" John answered, "Sure, preacher." The preacher asked, "John, if you had two pigs, would you give one to God?" John said, "Preacher, cut that out. You know I have two pigs."
See, as long as we're being hypothetical, it is easy to be generous. But when God asks what we're going to do right now, we hold back.
God watches your act of offering intimately, and critically, but at the heart of it all, God watches your offering spiritually. When you give to the kingdom of God, it's different than giving to any other organization. No other organization cares why you give money; they just want your money. But God asks why you are giving that money; He looks at the heart behind the offering. Is it a heart motivated to give God the first fruits, or to give God the leftovers?
Your love for God is measured and tested by the hold you have on your wallet. There is no way around it. What you do with your money is an indicator of how you feel about Him. God wants your love for Him to be reflected in your sacrifice, not because of the good way He makes you feel or the good He does for you, but because when the rubber hits the road, He is worthy of your sacrifice.
The widow gave all she had, so she had nothing left. She entrusted herself to God to meet her needs. She was banking on God, and she threw herself on Him. She needed Him and she knew there was no better place for her to be than in His hands. The widow gave more than the rich men, not in portion, but in proportion. Where she gave 100 percent, they just gave the leftovers.
There is a great story of sacrifice in the book of 1 Kings 17. The widow of Zarephath was down to her last meal, and God told her to give it to the prophet Elijah. She trusted God and did as He said, preparing the last of her food for Elijah. The widow and her son prepared to die because they knew they would have nothing left to eat. But God intervened and provided unending amounts of flour and oil, and they were able to eat for many more days. She put God first, trusted His Word, and obeyed Him, and He rewarded her beyond what she could have imagined.
It's time for us to start putting God first, because He is God. Every day we experience God's provision, so shouldn't we trust Him to provide when we give Him the first fruits, the best of our offering instead of the leftovers? The amount of your offering is insignificant to God because it is the state of your heart that matters. If you are giving a million dollars, but it's a leftover million, it shows that God is a leftover God to you.