We were headed to our first week of drive-thru church during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our pastor preached online that Sunday morning, and during the afternoon the congregation was invited to drive through the parking lot to take communion from their cars and drop off any tithes and food pantry items.
The tithe checks were already written, scribbled out by habit when my husband and I pay the bills each week. I’d intended to pick up a few extra cans of vegetables and boxes of rice at the store, too, but since it was the early days of the coronavirus, the grocery shelves were mostly empty. We’d found just what we needed, but not more.
“Maybe I can just give money?” I asked my husband as we were about to leave. But as I reached for my wallet, a thought hung heavy over me. What if we need that money in the coming weeks? So far, our jobs were secure, but the unemployment rate was rising, and the daily news was filled with reports of layoffs, closures, and furloughs. Steve’s company had begun suspending some operations, and my own freelance work could dry up any time.
With my wallet in hand, I took a deep breath and grabbed a $20 bill. It wasn’t the only cash I had, but it was more than I would have spent had we picked up extra items like I’d planned.
“Is $20 okay?” I asked. Steve shrugged, leaving the decision up to me. Before I could change my mind, I tucked the cash and tithe check in my coat pocket, and we headed out.
In these days of scarcity and need, I’ve found it harder than ever to give generously and cheerfully. It’s not that I don’t want to share; it’s that I worry more about not having enough for ourselves. Usually, an empty space in my own kitchen cabinets doesn’t represent a real need. We have money in the bank and well-stocked stores nearby. Giving money to our church or to those in need rarely creates a strain on our budget in normal weeks. But when everyone is facing the same shortages, my normal tendency to share and give feels threatened. Which is why, when I reached into my wallet that day, there was more at stake than just 20 bucks.
What if the true measure of our generosity is not in giving from our abundance but giving from what we lack?
In Mark 12, we find Jesus in Jerusalem in the last days before his crucifixion. He arrived in town to an overwhelming display of support, on what’s now known as Palm Sunday, though his popularity waned throughout the week, primarily because of the influence of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. He returned to the comfort of Bethany each night that week, likely to the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but each morning Jesus walked back into Jerusalem, visiting the temple and spending his final hours teaching his disciples and confronting the religious leaders.
After one such wrangle with the scribes, Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury, watching people bring their offerings. Several rich people came along, throwing in large sums of money. If they’d hoped to garner attention, they failed. Rich people brought offerings all day long. Certainly Jesus didn’t comment on the amounts or mention their sacrifices.
But he did notice one person. When Jesus lifted a hand, beckoning his disciples over and pointing toward the temple, they expected to see something awesome: the wealthiest man in Jerusalem or a local celebrity coming to make their offering. Instead, they saw an old widow, with just two copper coins―small coins, Mark tells us. They looked up just in time to see her throw them into the coffer, and to see Jesus shake his head in wonder.
What are we missing here, the disciples must have asked themselves. And knowing as much, Jesus explained: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).
It’s a hard teaching Jesus offers here, not unlike in Luke 17 when he tells us that if we want to keep our life we must lose it, or in Luke 13 when he says the last will be first, and first will be last. His remarks about the widow set up another such paradox, the paradox of generosity: she who has the least has the most to give.
I don’t think we should assume from this parable that Jesus is calling all of us to give all we have. In another passage, in fact, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tithing and giving to the temple when they were neglecting to care for their aging parents. Rather, I think Jesus is contrasting the sacrifice of the widow with the pomp and circumstance of the religious leaders he’d just encountered.
“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12:38-40).
Their lives were all about appearances, dressing and praying for show, taking more than they gave, and even then, dropping in great sums only to impress and outdo. When Jesus saw the widow give her offering, he saw the opposite. He saw humility, sacrifice, and true generosity―giving measured by its sacrifice not by its size.
I wonder if my own giving would hold up to this standard? Have I been a generous giver only because I had more than enough to spare? Have I given for appearances, trying to impress and outdo? Will this new era of uncertainty and instability reveal a stingy heart that hoards and hides from the needs of others?
Or will I allow the increased needs of my own family to engender greater gratitude for God’s provision and greater compassion for those whose needs are also greater? Will I continue to bring my tithe, though it may shrink in size, and my gifts, though their impact may be reduced to little, even though to give will cost me more? Like the widow, will my giving capture the attention of our Lord for its sacrifice rather than its size?
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and while our financial situation is still holding steady at present, things could change at any time. What I hope doesn’t change, however, is our generosity. I pray that even when resources are sparse and money is tight, in Christ we’ll find the courage and the humility to give even more.