No less than half a dozen times in the past ten days, I have come across a comparison of Bible stories. At some point, I can't help but start to notice there's a theme. The stories all center around this: what are you willing to give to God?
It starts, of course, with the rich young ruler. This is a young man who came to God to ask what more he must do to achieve righteousness and the promise of God. He pridefully declares he has already followed the commandments, as if following the Law was such an easy thing for a man like him. And Jesus responds to the man, "Go. Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. Then, follow me." (Luke 18)
It's a double parting for a wealthy man. Jesus doesn't ask him to give his things directly to the poor, and thus only separate himself from his stuff. No. Jesus tells him to sell his stuff (a departure from things) and then to give all the money away (a departure from means). As if getting rid of everything you have isn't bad enough, get rid of it again. This is the very thing we are afraid of, that we must become destitute to become God's. And most of us, like the rich young ruler, are not willing to make that trade.
The stories I've been reading don't leave me with the rich young ruler, though. They take me next to the story of the corrupt tax collector, Zacchaeus. We all know Zacchaeus for being the enthusiastic Jesus-seeker who climbed a tree to get a better look at the passing Lord. We all know that Jesus then asked to have dinner at the sinner's home, sending shockwaves through the religious elite. What we often forget is how that encounter changed Zacchaeus. At the end of the evening, the corrupt man declares, "I will give away half of my belongings, and whatever I have cheated anyone out of, I will pay back times four!" (Luke 19)
He certainly didn't give everything. He didn't even offer to. He made a tremendous concession, but he also demonstrated that there were things he wanted to hold onto. That he didn't have it in his heart to completely empty himself. At least, that's what he says. (I don't believe him. Keep reading; I'll tell you why.) But Jesus responds favorably to this offer, affirming what Zacchaeus has pledged to do as a very good thing.
In this case, Jesus doesn't require all. He takes what is offered out of faith and devotion and is pleased by it. He does not reject what the tax collector offers just because the man can do more.
And He treasures the gift of a widow who could not possibly do more.
Jesus was hanging out at the temple because, well, what else is a promised prophet going to do with His time? A widow enters and drops two coins into the offering box. No one else notices what a magnitude this gift is. This widow, having not been asked for anything, is giving everything. She is one of the protected class, one of those that Jesus tells everyone else to take care of. Here she is trusting more than two mites and giving it all away. Jesus receives it, blesses her, and tells her story in His. (Luke 21)
To me, this series of stories is a developing revelation. Although most of us get no further than the rich young ruler, the story does not stop there. God asks for our all, yes, but He blesses our less.
The rich young ruler couldn't make that sacrifice and chose to walk away. Jesus did not go after him. We don't know what the response would have been if the young man had followed through. I'm not sure it would have been encouraging. He would have found himself in the same place most of us find ourselves - having given up all we could possibly give up and not understanding what the gift of God really is. I think the man would have been discouraged. I think he would have found trial and persecution and such a radically different life that he would have regretted ever asking the question. (This is what happens to us when we jump in too quickly, too fully, expecting an instant perfection and a perfect happiness.)
But then we see Zacchaeus, who was not willing to give it all and wasn't asked to; he only chose to begin to give. He chose to start sacrificing. He chose to start making things right. He gave everything he thought he could spare, maybe a little more or maybe not, and Jesus commended him for it. And you know what? I think once he started making good on this promise, he probably couldn't stop himself. I think the old corrupt tax collector started giving more than he thought he could spare, gave away more than he anticipated parting with. I think once he started giving, he couldn't stop. Becoming untangled from all we have, even just a little bit, does that to us. The more we give away, the more we realize how wrapped up we are in all we have and we just can't take it any more! It's not so hard any more to give it to a better thing.
Which is how we come to the story of the widow. She had hardly anything at all, but she was also in a place to realize she didn't need it. God had an explicit promise that His people were to take care of her and even if she couldn't trust people (just look at our prior examples in this post - who can trust a rich man or a tax collector?), she could trust God. And she did. And that's what we think about when we think about her story. It didn't look like much. Two simple cents. But it was literally everything she had.
That's what God does to us.
He tells us it will cost us everything, but He doesn't bind us to give. Instead, He blesses whatever we offer. He affirms our starting point. He rejoices because we have decided to give. He lets us believe we're doing something good and leaves it to our hearts to figure out the little bit we offer is not enough. He leaves it to our spirit to start understanding how little our little bit is, and how heavy our remaining burden. Before we know it, we are graciously offering everything. Giving all we have to God.
And it's not so bad, really. It's actually pretty incredible.
Because we finally get to decide what we're holding onto...and what's been holding onto us.