“Through the Eyes of Faith”
Texts: NUMBERS 13: 1-3, 17-20, 23-28
LUKE 21: 1-4
By: David D. McDonald
July 12, 2020
NRSV NUMBERS 13: 1-3, 17-20, 23-28
13 The LORD said to Moses, 2“Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.” 3 So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, according to the command of the LORD, all of them leading men among the Israelites.
17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, 18 and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19 and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, 20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.” Now it was the season of the first ripe grapes.
23 And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Wadi Eshcol, because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down from there.
25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of
Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 Yet the people who live
in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the
descendants of Anak there.
NRSV LUKE 21:1-4
21 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
The Old Testament Book of Numbers takes its name from the many numbers that make up its text. There are two censuses of the people in chapters 1 and 26 and they are like two foundation stones upon which the text rests. It is perhaps worthy to note that the New Testament lesson for this morning is taken from the Gospel of Luke. Luke introduces us to the tradition that Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem by reason of a census that was underway. They went to be enrolled because they were of the line and lineage of David.
The Bible affirms the power of God evidenced in human events. Even matters such as standing in line to be counted for a census or the size of a cluster of grapes are viewed as evidence of God’s presence in the scriptures – Old and New Testaments. That gave me only a little comfort this week as I listened to the news reports. Regardless of where one stood politically, almost all the media personalities were interested in the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The price of a barrel of crude was being followed with great intensity as well as every aspect of the housing and financial markets. Numbers have risen in prominence and one could argue that they have become our gods. In whom do we trust? Where is the focus of our heart’s desire?
Our story from the book of Numbers this morning, and our story from Luke are both stories about trust and numbers. Faith is a sacred trust. In the book of Numbers, God has taken a slave people out of Egypt. They left with few possessions and ventured into the Sinai by faith. They had followed a cloud and by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Lord had provided them with manna, quail, and water which sometimes sprung from bone dry rocks. Their thirst had been quenched even in the driest stretches of the desert. They had never been deserted. Neither their clothes nor their sandals had worn out.
As the people come to the land of promise, Moses was instructed by God to send spies into the land to determine if it was as abundant as the Lord had promised. Every tribe was given an opportunity to send its own witnesses to the land of promise. They were allowed to see for themselves through the eyes of their representatives the abundance of the land and how its inhabitants had flourished. It is also abundantly clear from the text that it was inhabited by strong and powerful peoples. Although the Israelites had numbers on their side, some 600,000 were lined up on the borders of the Promised Land, they were afraid of the reports of large people. However, as history so often points out, giants do not necessarily make the best warriors.
When the spies returned they reported all the abundance they had seen. A great bunch of fine grapes, the first of the season were hung on a pole. The bunch of grapes was so large and so heavy that it was carried by two men. This confirmed that the land was everything that was promised. It was a good and fruitful land where the Lord had brought them. Wouldn’t that be exciting news after all those days in the wilderness? How short and small were the peoples memories and present vision. God had defeated Pharaoh’s armies, why not these warriors? It was a matter of the heart. They were operating out of a theology of scarcity with little confidence in God. They were afraid that they were not great enough to defeat these adversaries. They were afraid to take the next step of faith. They were afraid to trust the Lord.
If the scriptures speak most often about money, then consider what comes on its heels, “Be not afraid.” Angelic voices charge shepherds feeding their flocks by night, “Be not afraid!” Jesus tells frightened disciples, when he appears after the resurrection, “Do not fear!” In the face of God’s promise of abundance they are afraid of scarcity.
By stark contrast, Luke tells us a story of a poor widow who has only two coins left and comes to the temple to worship. If anyone had reason for anxiety about the future it was this widow. If anyone had experienced poverty, it was this widow. If there was anyone whose financial security was bleak it surely was this widow. Yet, of all those who worshipped in the synagogue that Sabbath, it was this widow who was recognized and praised by Jesus. She had the heart of a spiritual giant!
Picture the scene for a moment. Jesus is in the temple where he came to worship. He participates in the religious life of the community even though and perhaps in spite of the fact that he has had serious differences with the synagogue leadership. He comes to worship as a man among the people. He is one of them and does not lift himself above anyone else. He has brought the disciples with him and thus sets the pattern by which His Church will live in the future. He has prayed and heard the scriptures read. Yet, the service is not complete without the people’s response to God’s gracious covenant– the offering of gifts and tithes.
Moreover, Jesus was an astute observer of the religious practices of the day. There are great horn shaped receptacles for the offerings of the people. Many wealthy people came giving large gifts that made a great impression as they resonated clanging and clanking loudly in a Shofar. The reaction of many, and I would imagine we would have felt the same, was this:
“My what a generous person.”
Jesus; however, noted that a poor woman had put into the treasury “two small copper coins.” The coins were called in the Greek, lepta (λεπτα). It would take 128 of these to make a day’s wage. In the view of many and no doubt we would, too, this was a pittance. It was so small the question might be raised as to whether it was even worth the effort.
A number of years ago, when Beth was small and David Jr. was home from college, we were all out in the yard. Our son was in a hurry to clean out the car before going out. Beth and I were walking near by and suddenly she stooped to look at something. It was a penny. In fact there were a number of pennies on the driveway. I said:
“David, why are these pennies on the ground?’
“Oh Dad!” He said, “They’re not even worth putting in my pocket. They just make noise and get in the way.”
Elizabeth was busy stuffing them into her pockets. “Well,” I said, “You’ve made your sister very happy!”
The next day we were in the food store and David Jr. was in front of us and bought a candy bar. He needed another penny to pay for the tax. His sister reached in her pocket and gave him a penny. I couldn’t resist saying though I probably should have kept quiet:
“Well, I guess a penny can be important.”
Two copper coins, two lepta (λεπτα), are important to Jesus because they reflect an important part of his teaching. The size of the offering was of less importance then what it said about the commitment it represented. It is a matter of the heart. For those who were wealthy even a large offering was but a tiny portion of their abundance. They had ample resources to care for themselves and their families. There would be enough for tomorrow and more besides. They could go to bed and rest easy that evening knowing that tomorrow would come and they could conduct business, go to the marketplace, hire servants to go into the field, and whatever was needed for the day’s work would be provided. There would be plenty to cover their leisure activities as well.
However, for this poor widow there would be no comfort in her wealth that evening. All coins in her possession were gone. There was nothing for tomorrow. There was no working capital for the future. I find myself protesting that this is an irresponsible act. She ought to provide for her needs, don’t you think? Will she just become a burden on others? All such questions miss the point. For Jesus the point is that “but she out of her poverty has put in all….” Her offering holds nothing back. We know where the desire of her heart resides. There can be no greater gift. Her faith has looked into her heart and said:
“Lord, all that I have is yours.”
During this time, when we worship at home due to the pandemic, we need to reflect on our commitment to Christ our Lord and His ministry. It is important for us to consider the way we use our possessions. It is a tangible reflection of what we value. In this story, Jesus was not depreciating the rich. Jesus was not condemning those who brought large gifts. Nor was Jesus condemning those who brought small offerings or lived in poverty. Rather, Jesus was lifting up the commitment that he saw in this widow leaving the temple and called upon his disciples to look at the world through her field of vision.. It is obvious that she was a regular attendee. Sabbath worship was woven into the very fabric of her soul. As she left worship it was her response to God’s grace to give and give as generously as she was able. She appears to have no fear of the future. She was confident of God’s presence. She was deeply convinced that she would provide for ministries of God as God had provided for her. It was part of her life and routine.
When the love of God abides in a person’s heart, it shows so that even a stranger passing by on the other side of the temple court can see it. Jesus was drawing the attention of his followers and through, them countless generations including ourselves, to the simple and poignant reality that giving is good for the soul. Whether you understand theologically the day of worship as the first day of the week and therefore the way every week should be dedicated to God or whether you understand theologically the day of worship as the last day of the week and the culmination of all your efforts to serve God, really makes little difference. They are both matters of the heart.
You may have heard the story that Clara Null tells: “For years we lived in a small town with one bank and three churches. Early one Monday morning, the bank called all three churches with the same request: ’Could you bring in Sunday’s collection right away? We’re out of $1.00 bills.’” (From 1001 Quotes, Illustrations & Humorous Stories, Edited by Edward K. Rowell, p. 460.)
I think the work of the Lord’s church deserves more then just our $1.00 bills, don’t you?
As we contemplate the wonder of God in our lives, let us stride forth into life without fear, confident that God has and will provide. The promises of God are sure. With boldness, let us offer regularly, generously, and in full measure from the first fruits. One of the first and no doubt the hardest steps in faithful living that the Israelites learned before entering the Promised Land was to give of the first fruits. Israel would come to understand that the tithe of the first fruits made for a glad and joyful heart. God would take care of their security and bless their laborers. The widow’s offering was more then mites. It was the amazing story of a faithful servant of God living each day in His presence, not afraid in the least of the claims that made on the contents of her purse. Let us pray as we respond to God with our gifts and tithes.