Last week we compared the story of the widow of Zarephath with the story of the widow in the New Testament who put all she had to live in on in the offering. We saw that rather than being parallels, these stories show truth in tension.
Giving Out Of Extreme Poverty
The widow of Zarephath gave out of extreme poverty, and by doing so she experienced supernatural provision. Yet Jesus was upset when he saw the widow in the temple give her last mite in the offering. He said the Pharisees would be judged most severely for devouring widow’s houses. What was the difference? Let’s look at some other people who gave generously out of extreme poverty:
2 Corinthians 8:1-5, 9 (NIV) And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us…For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Verse nine is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It shows God’s generous heart. Jesus became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. Notice that the Macedonians gave “entirely on their own” and “pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.” They gave because they participated in God’s heart.
Nobody had to ask them for an offering. There was no coercion. It sounds like Paul was probably reluctant to accept their gift because they were so poor, which was why they had to beg to be allowed to participate!
2 Corinthians 8:12-15 (NIV) For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”
This is why the stories of the two widows are actually quite different. The widow of Zarephath gave out of her need to help another person in need. She had one meal left, but Elijah had nothing left! The context of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is collecting an offering to meet the needs of impoverished Judean Christians in a time of famine.
People are what God’s cares about. People are God’s temple.
Give To Meet People’s Need’s
Take Paul’s words about “equality” and supplying each other’s needs and apply it to the story of the widow who fed Elijah. It fits perfectly. Then try applying it to the story of the widow in the New Testament who put the last she had to live on in the offering. It doesn’t fit.
The widow who gave her last mite in the New Testament didn’t give to help anybody in need. Neither did she give “entirely on her own.” She was shamed into giving by the boasting and large public offerings of the rich. Contributions were a status symbol. Her offering went not to help people, but to adorn a temple that was about to be destroyed. She gave all she had to live on for the cause of the religious leaders’ pride. Those leaders loved the seats of honor, but God would not honor them!
To the widow who gave her last mite, she was nothing if she gave nothing! She could never measure up to those rich people who gave great gifts and had the seats of honor, but at least if she gave a little she wouldn’t be “nothing.”
If you are going to give out of need, give to meet people’s needs! Don’t give because you feel your worth depends on it. Don’t give as an attempt to “measure up.”
Let’s continue to examine Paul’s teaching on giving:
2 Corinthians 9:6-12 (NIV) Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever.”
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.
I think we can’t repeat this part enough: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion.”
If we are giving because someone told us to instead of giving according to what we have desired in our heart, we are violating Paul’s New Testament command on giving. This includes where we give. Are you giving what and where you desire (in your born again, God-filled new heart) to give, or according to what someone has told you?
Giving can never be measured in God’s kingdom by an amount of money, a number, or a percentage. It can only be measured according to participation with God’s generous heart. It’s all about sharing God’s nature.
God had already commanded the widow of Zarephath to feed Elijah. That’s why he could go and ask her for food. The widow who gave her last mite wasn’t giving because God told her to. I can guarantee it. According to the law and scripture, they were actually supposed to be giving to care for her needs. She was giving out of compulsion.
Friends, God wants us to prosper. There are so many needs in this world that we need to prosper in order to be able to help people! God has supernatural provision for us. As many people are offended by the “prosperity gospel,” scripture has some wonderful passages about God’s blessing prospering us.
We just read some of those promises in 2nd Corinthians 9. But remember that the context is taking an offering for the poor and giving freely, not under compulsion. The quote in 2nd Corinthians 9 is from Psalm 112. The context is also caring for the poor.
Psalm 112:2-3 (NIV) …the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.
When should you give out of need? When you desire to do so and you are meeting another person’s need. And when God speaks to your heart to do so.
Give As You Purpose In Your Heart
As a young guy, I remember how much I always wanted to give more towards groups that were digging wells in remote areas so people didn’t have to walk 5 hours a day to get water. I wanted to give towards people helping the homeless in Russia. Or others doing amazing work with alleviating poverty, making a huge impact for a relatively small amount. Some Christians doing such work are making more of a difference than huge government programs with much funding that gets wasted.
Yet I never gave as much as I wanted to those things because I was giving under compulsion. I was being told where and how to give. Yet these things I wanted to give to are the very things that are top priority in the scriptural teachings on giving.
I keep pointing out that the context of promises like we read in 2nd Corinthians 9 and Psalm 112 is helping the poor and meeting human needs. That’s not to say “don’t give to other things.” Again, give as you purpose in your heart, because you have been born again and your heart has been joined to God’s heart.
But if you are really giving as you purpose in your heart and not under compulsion, you will probably find that you are giving most to these areas that scripture emphasizes. God has given you stewardship of your money. You are responsible for investing your “talents” wisely. Nobody else is. Be honest. Wherever you are giving, are you giving because you’re trying to make the best use of what you have for the kingdom of heaven to advance on this earth?
Next week we will talk about those testimonies of “I gave $5000 and got a financial miracle.” Are such stories true? I believe many of them are. How should we respond to them? How can we step into a supernatural grace of giving, experience miracles of provision, and leave the control, condemnation, and other baggage behind? Stay tuned, and I’d love to hear your comments so far…