Right Down To My Last Lepta

When I was growing up, the conservative, evangelical churches that we attended all had this thing about “tithing.” Apparently, as near as I could gather, Tithing was inexplicably connected to Salvation in the churches of my childhood. If you were among the saved, you tithed. If you were bound for an eternity doing laps in the Lake of Fire, you didn’t tithe. And tithing meant giving 10 per cent of your income, more or less. The ten per cent thing was a doctrine that appeared to be connected to the Old Testament and to stoning. I grew up believing that if I didn’t give God ten cents on every dollar from my allowance, I ran the risk of being taken out behind the church to be stoned, and then I would go to Hell.  
After awhile, I figured out that no one in church ever really got stoned for not tithing. I also realized that there were other signs that indicated someone was a Christian---like showing love, acting with mercy, sharing grace, and not telling people they weren’t saved because they didn’t tithe. So after I had this revelation, I just stopped tithing my allowance to the churches we went to, and decided my money would be better spent on the most important charity I could think of: me.
This was pretty much my philosophy until about ten years ago when my wife and I decided that the time had come to start giving more regularly to the church. But I was still not quite ready to just hand over a monthly check for the church leaders to do with it as they pleased. Quite frankly, I didn’t really trust them to do right by my gift, and I saw plenty of things that they church should be doing, and decided to do something about it. Instead of merely giving a tithe to the church, my wife and I decided that we would give our money to areas in the church that we felt good about supporting. Since I happened to be a youth director, we gave to the youth ministry. Most churches underfund their youth ministry anyway, I told myself, so I was just correcting a mistake. This was the way I tithed for a little over five years---funding my own ministry, really. When the youth room needed a new TV or DVD player, we bought it and gave the receipt to the church as a donation. When we wanted to take the youth on a mission trip, we funded it. There were people who lauded us for our generosity, and we took that as affirmation. I was feeling pretty good about myself because I had stepped over a hurdle---I’d gone from being completely selfish with my money to being very generous with my money.
Funny thing, though... The one constant throughout all of these phases of my life was my view of the money I thought I had earned. When I was a kid, I gave my money out of fear and compulsion. When I got older I kept my money to do with as I pleased. When I got involved in church when my wife and I were first married, I took my money and used it to fund my pet projects in the church. All along I was believing and acting like the money I happened to have was not only my money, but that I also deserved all of it. After all, I worked hard, my wife worked hard, we had sacrificed to have material blessings and we were darn well going to spend them how we wanted to spend them. True, we found ways to be generous, but we were always in control of how our generosity was expressed---and ostensibly still in control of money that we assumed was our own.
About five years ago, things changed rather dramatically. My wife announced to me that she had been “convicted” over our lack of tithing and that we were going to start doing so immediately. I started to argue that we had been tithing, and were more than generous with our money, but she had “that look” on her face and I kept my mouth shut. I love my wife deeply, and I also know better than to argue with her when she gets “that look” on her face---her eyebrows go up and her lips are sort of set tight. I hover between intense attraction and fear when she gets that look, to be honest. She had the look on her face that day ten years ago when she declared that we were going to start giving at least ten per cent of our income to the church we happened to be attending---no strings attached. Naturally, I agreed. She looked hot, what can I say?
I have to be honest. It was not always easy to keep that ten per cent tithe promise, especially without attaching our usual strings. We also found that ten per cent of our income was a bit more than we were used to giving, a fact which sobered us a bit. There were times when it would have been a lot easier to just forget the whole thing and pay some bills, or go out to dinner once in a while.
A few years ago I was team preaching a sermon series on stewardship at the church I was serving. The senior pastor and I had worked hard to create a sermon series that was engaging and inspiring. One of our parishoners approached me one day. “I sure am glad that you preach about tithing the way you do,” he said. “How’s that?” I asked. “You don’t guilt trip us into that whole tithing ten per cent garbage,” he replied. “I got so sick of that in the churches I used to go to. It’s an Old Testament thing,” he added. “You never hear about giving ten per cent in the New Testament.” I halfheartedly agreed and definitely commiserated with him, but something bothered me about our entire conversation. It was almost as if he was glad that I was letting him off the hook about giving. On the one hand, I was glad that he wasn’t feeling guilty or pressured into ten per cent tithing, but on the other hand I wondered if he was just glad that he didn’t have to give a whole lot if he didn’t feel like it.
Here’s the thing. It’s true there’s really nothing explicit in the New Testament about ten per cent tithing. But technically Jesus declared that he did not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it. Even in the cases where he was accused of breaking Hebrew religious law, he always seemed to mount a Scriptural defense for his actions. So you could easily assume that Jesus was not advocating that people give less than ten per cent of their blessings to God.
Jesus actually advocated giving a whole lot more than ten per cent to God. He told a rich, young man to give away all of his wealth and follow him. He lauded the sacrificial act of a poor widow who gave her last two pennies to the temple. He praised a young woman who poured out some nearly priceless perfume on his feet---offering up her very future. Peter indicated the level of commitment that it had taken to be a follower of Christ when he said, “Master, we have left everything to follow you.”
I think that if anyone had actually asked Jesus what he thought about ten per cent giving, he would have told them, “Ten per cent is a good place to start.” For those that followed Jesus their sacrifice was somewhere between ten per cent and everything.
In Luke’s gospel we find the short story that I mentioned earlier---where Jesus praises the widow who gave her last two pennies. Interestingly, the passage that precedes this story contains a rant by Jesus against the scribes and religious leaders of his day. “You act as though you are so religious on the outside,” Jesus essentially tells them. “But in your everyday life you do things like cheat and foreclose on widows---stealing their houses.” What Jesus was referring to was a practice by unscrupulous businessmen to offer loans to poor widows, using their homes as collateral. When they couldn’t pay the loans, they would foreclose and kick them out on the street. For all we know, the widow Jesus points out at the temple may have been a victim of this practice.
As Luke tells it, Jesus and his disciples are in an area of the temple known as the Court of Women. The Temple was divided into areas where certain people were allowed to go, but others were excluded. Gentiles (non-Jews), and Jews who were ceremonially unclean were only allowed in the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. Jewish women were only allowed to go as far as the next boundary, the Court of Women. Only Jewish men were allowed to worship in the inner parts of the Temple. But it was in the Court of Women where there were 13 receptacles shaped like horns that were placed there for people to present their monetary offerings.
The widow Jesus pointed out would have had no real legal status in her culture. She had lost her husband and unless she had family to care for her, she most likely would have had to depend on charity to survive. Jesus watches all of the rich Jewish men on their way in to worship. They drop their offerings into the horn-shaped receptacles, probably thrilling to the sound their coins made as they hit the bottom. Everyone would have heard their generosity. This scene would have been all the more impressive because so many Jews were coming to the Temple as a result of the Feast of the Passover, which was nearing. The word that Luke uses to describe the reason for the offerings is gazophulakion - which essentially means “the guarding of the treasure.” You can tell what Luke thinks of the purpose of this offering by the way he speaks of it. It’s almost as if he is saying the gifts that the people were giving was already earmarked to pay for the guarding of the temple treasury. Rather than using the money to pour it out to the needy, the religious leaders were using it to build more lavish buildings, pay for elaborate decorations and line their own pockets.
So Jesus stands there watching all of the rich folk give what he later qualifies as trifling gifts that will be used to perpetuate an unfair and unjust religious system. But then there’s this widow who follows the rich people, and she gives everything she has.
The coins that the widow dropped into the receptacle were called lepta. A lepton was the smallest coin of the realm at that time. It literally means “the thinnest one.” It took almost 150 lepta to make up a denarii, which was a day’s wage for a laborer. It was a miniscule amount of money, but it was all she had.
Jesus uses the moment to teach his followers. He tells them, “Those rich people gave out of their abundance---they won’t even miss the money that they poured into the horns. But this woman, she gave everything to God. Everything.” Jesus wasn’t lifting up the widow’s gift because she impoverished herself even more by giving it, that wasn’t the point. In fact, he had decried the exploitation of people just like her moments before. What Jesus wanted his disciples to see was that she had taken her gift, which may or may not have been used by the temple leaders for good, and she gave it willingly and joyfully to a God that she loved deeply. She gave “from her poverty” Jesus told his followers. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Can you believe this? Look at her, she’s demonstrating some seriously defiant gratitude.”
How many of us could say the same thing about our own giving? Do we really miss the gifts that we give to our local church, or favorite Christian charity? Or are they pre-planned donations that we can easily write off on our taxes and that don’t ever really threaten our bottom line?
I don’t think for a minute that we are all called to give all that we own to the church. Some people are and they do. I don’t think I am one of those people. I do know that I am called to give somewhere between 10 per cent and everything. That’s my calling. But I am also aware that might not be everyone’s calling. The Apostle Paul once wrote, “Decide ahead of time what you are going to give, and then give it cheerfully. The Lord loves those who give from their heart.” If we start quibbling about percentages and amounts we miss the point completely. We should begin every conversation about financial stewardship with two questions: “Whose money is it anyway?” and “What is an appropriate gift to give to the One who has given me everything?” These are difficult questions to answer truthfully. Many of us choose not to address them at all for fear of what we might be called to do or to commit. But if we can begin to reframe our understanding of what is ours and what belongs to God, then we will suddenly find that we are unafraid to answer the second question. If I come to realization that all of my money belongs to God, then does it stand to reason that the way I spend it might change as a result? Perhaps then, instead of giving God the leftovers, the small portion that doesn’t affect me all that much, I might find a new level of generosity---a defiant gratitude of my own.

Comments

  1. Hey Leon, I've been meaning to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. Sounds like you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. Keep persevering.
    Love, Dave

    ReplyDelete

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