As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth," he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:1-4, NIV)
One of the most difficult challenges facing the church is the challenge of communicating the gospel of Christ in a way that is relevant to our culture without accommodating the message to the ungodly assumptions and values of that culture. Since God is gathering a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language" to worship before his throne (Revelation 7:9), we can expect that the culture-transcending truths of God's Word will evoke in believers a response of faith and obedience appropriate to each of our cultures. On the other hand, since every human culture is stained by our sin, God's truth brings his counter-cultural critique to the values and practices to which we are accustomed. It is precisely where God's Word critiques our culture that we are most in danger of accommodation, of conforming our message to our cultural comfort zone. This temptation to accommodation comes in a variety of forms, and I would invite you to think with me about one of the more subtle and most dangerous ways in which we are tempted to be conformed to this present age, as it is expressed in our own culture.
Several weeks ago my wife and I attended the Ligonier Conference in San Diego and heard newspaper columnist Cal Thomas speak. The title of his talk was a pun reminiscent of the biology class Petri dish: “Culture Is Also a Virus." He began his remarks contrasting our culture's view of personal significance with the view of personal significance in the Kingdom of God. What makes your life count? In our culture, significance is conveyed to us by the nature of our work, achievements, reputation, and influence. If we fulfill functions that other people consider valuable, important, necessary, then we are significant. If we wield power, we are significant. If we are in positions of visibility and wide influence so that others notice and admire us, then we are significant. By contrast, in the Kingdom of God personal significance is not conveyed by others as a perk of our usefulness or achievement; significance is imparted to us as a gift, lavished on us by the God who created us in his image, the God who redeemed us from the devaluation we won in our quest for self-sufficient significance, the God who is recreating us as reflections of his own glory.
Cal Thomas was not talking about roles of women and men in the church; but his observation crystallized for me something that I had been thinking over for several weeks. Our daughter, a sophomore on a university campus, believes (as we do) that God calls women to many roles in the church, but not to the offices of pastor and elder. She is not surprised when her classmates and professors consider her odd, repressed, and brainwashed because she holds these convictions. What bothers her more is the assumption of many of her Christian friends that a denomination that does not ordain women as pastors and elders is denying women the personal significance that is rightfully theirs. As I have reflected on the expressions of those who advocate egalitarianism in the church,(1) I have become convinced that there is an underlying issue that we need to think about, maybe even before we consider the biblical texts that speak explicitly to the qualifications for pastoral office or the role of women in the church. The issue is this: What makes a child of God “significant" to him? And related to it: What makes the service of a child of God “significant" to our heavenly Father?
My hunch is that many so-called “biblical feminists" have believed the line fed to them by our culture – and, I fear, all too often by male leaders in the church – namely, the false idea that children of God are “significant", their lives really “count", to the extent that they are achieving “great goals" for the Lord; to the extent they have a position to influence many others toward faith and godliness; to the extent that what they are doing “counts". And my hunch is that this attitude is rooted very deeply in every one of us. Don't you think that, whatever we may say about this issue, many of us actually relate to others as though the people with office, influence, visibility, power in the church are the people who really count?
Of course the New Testament calls us to honor leaders in the church for the sake of their office and accountability, since their role (when they fulfill it faithfully) is a reflection of the loving and authoritative guidance of our Good Shepherd. But in terms of the value we attribute to persons, the New Testament warns us repeatedly against making the respect and love we show to people directly proportional to their usefulness to us or to the positions of prominence and power that they occupy.
This brings us to our text and its context. Jesus' comment on the widow's mite is recorded in Mark's gospel as well as in Luke. But the context of Luke's gospel casts a special light on this little incident. New Testament scholars often observe that it is Luke of all the evangelists who seems particularly alert to Jesus' attention to the devalued people in the society of his day: the poor, women, children, disreputable tax collectors, shepherds, and other assorted "sinners." It is no accident that Luke's gospel opens with portraits of two women – Elizabeth and Mary – who believe the promises of God and praise him for his faithfulness, and one man – Zechariah – who spends months in silence for having doubted God's promises. It is no accident that as Luke's gospel draws to a close we hear two angels announcing to women that Jesus has risen from the dead – and that when the women report this to the apostles, “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense" (24:11).
Luke's point is not that women are innately spiritual, saintly believers, while men are by nature dull-witted doubting clods. We all stand in need of sotêria – salvation – Luke's central theme throughout his gospel and Acts. No, Luke's point is that God has a way of surprising us in the way he bestows this salvation. He bypasses those whom we might consider the “likely prospects for Kingdom blessing, and instead lavishes his love on people who are almost invisible to the society around them. In his epistle James rebukes our prejudice and contempt for some classes of people: “Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" (James 2:5). So also Luke points us to God's gracious choice, his sovereign initiative to give faith to people whom our society tends to devalue: women, children, the poor, the disreputable and shiftless.
Consider the sequence of events that have accompanied Jesus' final trip to Jerusalem (Luke 18-19): In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells a parable affirming that the righteous God ignores the self-congratulating prayer of a Pharisee and listens instead to the helpless plea of a guilty tax collector, traitor and extortioner of the people of God. Then Jesus welcomes children – useless, squirming, un-influential children – reversing his disciples’ rebuke (18:15-17). By contrast, when a ruler who has power, wealth, and a law-abiding righteousness refuses to part with his riches for the sake of the Kingdom, Jesus makes no attempt to adjust his demands in order to be more seeker-sensitive and hold this potential donor's interest (18:18-25). Doesn't Jesus realize that this was the kind of influential man who could do his cause great good? Then Jesus approaches Jericho, and a useless blind beggar makes a nuisance of himself, yelling out for mercy, demanding the Messiah's attention (18:35-43). The crowds try to shut him up: Doesn't he know his place? But Jesus stops and asks him the sort of question that a servant might ask his master: “What do you want me to do for you?" Why waste his time on such unimportant people? Finally, in Jericho Jesus seeks out a despised tax collector and invites himself over to Zacchaeus' house for a meal (19:1-10)! Has he no sense of who counts?
In the passage just before our text, Jesus warns his disciples about the dangers of imitating the biblical scholars of the day, who loved the trappings of their office, the expressions of respect offered by their students, positions of high visibility and honor – all the while defrauding helpless widows and turning religious devotion into hollow entertainment (20:45-47)!
So in our text we find Jesus sitting in the temple treasury room as wealthy donors bring their gifts to sustain the worship of God in the sanctuary. Now, I must confess that I am grateful for wealthy donors who give sizable gifts for Kingdom causes. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus is not counting the zeroes on their checks as they drop them into the box. He is looking deeper.
He finds what he is looking for in one contributor: a needy widow. In the NIV the word “poor" appears both in vs. 2 and in vs. 3, but it represents different Greek words. “Poor" in vs. 3 is the common word that we have memorized for vocabulary quizzes, ptôchos. But in vs. 2 “poor" is “needy" (penichros). This is the only time that this word appears in the New Testament, but a clue to its connotation can be seen in Exodus 22:25, where the Septuagint uses penichros – “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not charge him interest." This widow’s situation is not the genteel poverty of a standard of living somewhat lower than the average. This is grinding poverty, abject need on the edge of bare survival. But she comes to the temple, and into the treasury box she drops two lepta, worth hardly anything – the two together maybe a quarter of a cent. What good will that do? For all the contribution that this gift could make to the massive expenses of the temple, she might as well have kept it! What an insignificant piece of service to God and his church, don't you agree?
But Jesus does not agree. He couldn't disagree more strongly! “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all the others." What's the matter with Jesus? Has he no sense of the value of money? Is he wearing some sort of “virtual reality" helmet so that he perceives everything in a video-generated dream world?
As a matter of fact, Jesus is looking at things very differently from the way we are inclined to look at things. Earlier his disciples have quibbled over places of prominence in the Messianic Kingdom, but he says that the culture's system of values is turned upside down in the Kingdom: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).
So also in this text. Jesus not only sees leadership in the Kingdom very differently from our culture, but also he values ministry very differently from our culture. This widow has given more than the wealthy who had contributed so much in dollars and shekels. Do you believe that in your heart of hearts? If so little a gift from so needy a giver is, in the King's eyes, so much greater than the great gifts given by great people, perhaps we all need for Jesus to restore our eyesight so that we recognize as significant those things that he regards as significant.
If we are to be liberated by Jesus from accommodation to our culture's scale of values, our culture's system for determining what are or are not important types of service, we need to reflect on the reason Jesus gives for praising the greatness of the widow's gift. Vs. 4: “All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." One commentator sums up Jesus' point: “God measures the gifts of his people not on the basis of their size but on the basis of how much remains, how much one keeps."(2);Close, but not quite right. After all, Paul says, "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing" (I Corinthians 13:3). At the bottom line the issue is not amount, great or small; nor is it proportion given vs. proportion kept. The issue is not amount at all – it is allegiance.
In Luke 10 we read of a lawyer who came to Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus turns the question back to him: "What has God already told you in the Law?" The lawyer knows his Bible: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself' (10:27). Jesus gives him an "A" for memorization, and then assigns some homework: "Just do it!" But this demand seems so extreme, so life-consuming. Aren't there any reasonable limits here? The lawyer, of course, knows that it would not be politically correct to suggest that there might be some loopholes in the first, great command. . . but perhaps the second: "Who is my neighbor?" What are the limits here?
On the other hand, look at this widow. (We wouldn't have noticed her, of course, if Jesus hadn't pointed her out to us.) She loves the Lord with everything in her, she trusts him with all that she is and has. So she gives all, holding nothing back. How different she is from the upright, law-abiding rich ruler in Luke 18, who had echoed the lawyer's question about how to inherit eternal life! He's kept the commandments from his youth, and lacks only one thing: "Give it all to the poor and follow me." Love the Lord with all you have and are, and your neighbor as yourself. And the rich ruler refuses. It costs too much. He's kept plenty of commands, all right. But his heart is far from the heart of God's Law.
But isn't the widow being financially imprudent to abandon herself so unreservedly to the care of her Father, to give all she has? No! You see, she withholds nothing from her God because she loves the God who, in his love for her, withholds nothing. Her utter abandonment in loving service is her grateful and trusting response to the God who would not withhold his own Son, his greatest treasure, but who freely gave him up for us all.
We see, now, how this casts the questions of service in the Kingdom in a new light. What would be the result if we all believed Jesus' surprising evaluation? How would our attitudes toward ourselves and others change if we really believed Jesus when he says, “This widow gave more than them all?" Is there any type of service in the Kingdom that is insignificant to the King?
Men who are training to be pastors, elders, teachers, how would this affect the way you think about, talk with, care for the “average members" in the church you serve-the women, widows, children, teenagers, the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed? How would you view the custodian's job, your secretary's ministry, the nursery workers' task? In fact, even before you get into the pastorate, if you believed Jesus, how would you treat the sisters who sit with you in class, invited by the Master himself to sit at his feet and receive his Spirit's teaching (see Luke 10:38-42)? Do you treat “older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity" (I Timothy 5:2)?
Sisters and brothers who are serving and plan to serve the Lord Jesus in roles other than ordained leadership, how does Jesus' surprising praise for his daughter's service impact your attitude toward ministry in the Kingdom? Among other things, it means that you can relax a bit, realizing that your worth to the Savior doesn't rest on your being allowed to perform a particularly prominent role in his Kingdom. Your worth is secure in the gift of his love. That means, then, that you can explore the question of where and how to serve our God not from the perspective of your "right" to self-fulfillment, a "right" to achieve significance in terms of your function or usefulness to other people or recognition by them. Rather, service in Christ's kingdom becomes a response of self- sacrifice, an offering of love in return for his self-sacrificing love on the Cross. As Anna L. Waring wrote in 1850:
I would not have the restless will that hurries to and fro
Seeking for some great thing to do, or secret thing to know
I would be treated as a child, and guided where I go.
I ask thee for the daily strength, to none that ask denied
A mind to blend with outward life while keeping at thy side
Content to fill a little space if thou be glorified.
In service which they will appoints there are no bonds for me
My secret heart is taught the truth that makes thy children free
A life of self-renouncing love is one of liberty.
1 The statement, "Men, Women & Equality," published in 1989 by Christians for Biblical Equality, laments "the appalling loss to God's kingdom that results when half of the church's members are excluded from positions of responsibility" (Application, 1). Underlying this statement seems to be the assumption that only certain forms of ministry in the church (preaching, pastoral leadership) involve genuine "responsibility."[back to text]
Dennis E. Johnson is academic dean and professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. This reflection was delivered in the seminary's Morning Devotions on November 16, 1993.
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