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 Reprinted from Adventist Review. All rights reserved.

BY GORDON BIETZ

T WILL PROBABLY NEVER SHOW UP IN THE Los Angeles Times, nor will it be "ripped from the headlines" and reenacted on television. But a routine robbery is being carried out with precision across the United States (and every other country) every payday. It's a white-collar crime; it's slippery, and it's rampant.

Police departments refuse to get involved. And although they would probably classify it as grand larceny—unlawful taking of personal property—no one has ever been booked. Enforcement would require all of each precinct's resources, and they apparently have more important cases to crack.

If the police arrested people for this crime, would you be in jail?

"'Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,' says the Lord Almighty.

"'But you ask, "How are we to return?"

"'Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.

"'But you ask, "How do we rob you?"

"'In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me'" (Mal. 3:7-9, NIV).

There it is—robbery.

But isn't that a little strong? Granted, withholding tithe and offerings is looked down upon, and the Bible is clear that bringing our gifts into the storehouse results in abundant outpouring of heavenly blessings.

The Scene of a Crime
It was Tuesday afternoon, three days before Jesus would be crucified. He had just given what would be His last public address, and this was His last day in the Temple. Walking toward the women's court, He came upon 13 offering coffers with large horns extending from them. Inscriptions designating the purpose of the offerings were posted above each one—church budget, building fund, ADRA, tithe, etc.

The richest supporters passed in grand procession, pouring in abundant contributions. The keepers of the treasury smiled, shook hands with the donors, and copiously thanked them for their generosity. Plans were made to name buildings and post plaques.

The Pharisees observed aloud how God had abundantly blessed: "He certainly is good to Israel. The numbers are up this year."

Middle-income Israelites must have stood in awe of the extravagant donations. They all loved a parade—bystanders watching people give. Since riches were believed to be the reward of the good, it was a procession of the righteous in Israel, as well.

But what did the Pharisees think of Jesus with His ragtag band of disciples? Jesus had a following of sorts, but they had the rich and the powerful.

"How does your balance sheet look, Jesus?"

"Hey, Jesus, what does your year-end statement show?"

Unobserved in the mass of celebrated benefactors stood the widow of a man whose company did not have a death-benefit plan. They didn't have a life insurance policy, and she didn't qualify for Social Security. She was a workingwoman by necessity, maybe a housekeeper—possibly for one of the righteous well-to-do individuals who preceded her to the offering coffers. She lived a hand-to-mouth existence, working today so she could eat tomorrow.

With her hair wrapped in a tattered scarf, a wisp escaping from under the twists of the cloth, she awaited her chance to give. The lines in her face betrayed the burden of outliving a loved one, and she waited until she could give without being noticed.

The rule, no doubt created by rich Pharisees who didn't think about low-income widows, was that no one could give an offering smaller than two leptons—the smallest Jewish coin in circulation. It amounted to about one tenth of today's penny—about 25 cents in terms of daily wages.

She saw an opening when a major donor had passed and was being recognized by the Pharisees. Slipping her small offering into the receptacle closest to the exit, she then hurried toward the door without looking up. But she sensed the gaze of Jesus fastened upon her, and when she glanced back, He caught her eye. "I tell you the truth," He said to no one in particular. "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, NIV).

The one who could least afford to give gave the most.

Excuses and Alibis
This poor widow could have used many excuses for not giving her offering that day:

"It isn't much."
The widow might have reasoned that this rich church wouldn't miss her modest contribution. Her two mites wouldn't even buy an offering of grain or pay for the priest's breakfast. If this widow came—food stamps in hand—asking my advice, I might want to say, "It isn't much. You need it more. The Lord will understand." And I would have been wrong. For the widow was not just giving an offering; she was giving herself.

"What about corruption?"
She might have suspected that the money she put into the treasury could be misused. The word on the street was that some of the priests had Swiss bank accounts and they skimmed the top off the offering plate. They'd also invested church funds in companies that had gone bankrupt.

Jesus had just publicly criticized the leaders who persuaded well-to-do widows to donate their property to the Temple, and then used it to their own personal advantage (see Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 614). She easily could have quoted Jesus to support not giving to the Temple.

"I need it more."
She might have worried about what to live on tomorrow. Wouldn't it have been more responsible to save for a rainy day? She could have started an IRA in preparation for retirement. The Lord helps those who help themselves.

If ever there was a good excuse for not giving, she had it. Yet when she weighed all the pros and cons, she gave "everything—all she had to live on." And while it added up to a smaller monetary amount than any of the other gifts, by Jesus' calculation she gave the most.

How is it that He figured she put more into the treasury than all the rest?

Jesus' Principles of Accounting
Jesus appears to consider the unquantifiable elements of sacrifice and motive in how He determines the worth of a gift.

She gave more in proportion to her possessions.
The rich didn't deny themselves pleasures in order to give. They had no less to eat or wear, and their homes were no less comfortable as the result of their giving. They gave out of excess—out of what they didn't need. The widow gave from poverty.

David McKenne writes in Christianity Today: "Our budgeting begins with our needs and adds our wants. God gets what is left over. If we really believed that we own nothing . . . the process would be reversed" (May 15, 1987).

Once upon a time in Fenton Forest, Freddy the Fox passed Bert the Bear on a morning stroll. Freddy had been skipping along the path carelessly swinging a basket of plump, luscious blueberries, dropping a few here and there without thought. Pausing and turning back to Bert, Freddy got an idea. "Bert, I want to give you all of my berries to show my appreciation for your friendship. You can have all of them, and I won't take a one. Consider them a gift from me."

Bert replied, "Freddy, that's so nice of you to give them all to me, but it would mean even more if you happened to like blueberries."

Giving something away that is of no use to us is hardly an expression of generosity. Giving only what we don't need ourselves is not stewardship. If we budgeted as faithful stewards, our wants would get the leftovers rather than God.

My wife was pleased when I brought her a box of candy—until she found out that someone had given the candy to me. The fact that it cost me nothing undermined the value of the gift. It's not necessarily good stewardship when we give extravagantly out of surplus.

She gave charitably.
Jesus' method of determining the worth of a gift takes into account the motive for giving—apparently without regard to the monetary amount. "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others."

The important question to ask ourselves is not about the amount we give, but whether we give with love—not the sum, but the motive. "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor. 13:3).

The rich gave in the parade for the recognition, for the reward, and for the IRS record. "God designs that the exercise of benevolence shall be purely voluntary, not having recourse even to eloquent appeals to excite sympathy" (Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 413). It might be argued that no one was forcing the rich to give. But they were under some pressure—from their peers, the praise of the Pharisees, a desire to earn favor and power, or the incentive of getting their name on a building or a brick. They were pressured by pride to give out of abundance, but the widow was motivated by love to give out of poverty. The rich received their reward in the adulation of the spectators; the widow gave in secret without thought of receiving anything in return.

So who will be the largest contributor to the church budget this year? Only God knows—not the deacons, not the pastor, not the treasurer.

Nor at the end of that day in Jerusalem, when the treasurers gathered the offerings and the bookkeepers processed the receipts, did they know who had given the most. And they might even have complained that it cost more to write a two-mite receipt than the offering was worth.

The spectators didn't know, when they scattered to their homes and talked about the great parade and all the big givers. The rich men didn't know, when they returned to their plush estates to be served by the attendants and widows they employed—and observed aloud that they had given more than so-and-so, and such and such rich man must have really had a good year. They didn't know it was the housekeeper who cleaned their house, or the servant who was bringing their meal, who gave the largest gift.

Then at the end of the day, as the Pharisees looked over the receipts and planned how they could thank those who gave so much money, they congratulated themselves on still having a hold on the rich while mostly the poor followed Jesus.

And a poor widow made her way down a narrow Jerusalem street. With the compassionate look from Jesus and the words of commendation replaying in her memory, the furthest thing from her mind was who had given the largest offering that day.

Leaving the temple for the last time, just a couple of days before Jesus Himself would give His own life as the ultimate offering for humanity, He alone knew who had given the largest offering that day.

And that is all that matters about offerings and fund-raising drives: that Jesus, who emptied heaven of all its riches so we could be rich, knows. He knows our level of sacrifice; He knows our motivation.

Solving the Crime
When God's children see themselves as a part of the whole of humanity, it leads to a practical demonstration of love—a sense of responsibility for stewardship. And stewardship calls for offerings. So you might say that paying tithe is a very practical manifestation of loving God; and giving offerings, of loving our neighbors as ourselves. If the police arrested people for this crime, where would you be?


_________________________
Gordon Bietz is president of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee.

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