[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
Here’s a bit of trivia: I love vegetable soup. Love it. I especially love it a few days after Ann makes a big pot of it. Two days on, after being cooked and then refrigerated and set on the stove to simmer for a time, vegetable soup hits its stride as a taste treat. Sometimes, leftovers are the very best thing you can set before another person!
But leftovers--the leftovers of our time, our talents, and our treasures--are the worst things we can set before God. Why is that?
One reason is that unless we give God first place in our lives, He’s likely to have no place in our lives.
“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,” God tells us in the Old Testament.
What? Is God jealous like a lover, demanding exclusivity? Yes, that’s exactly what God is like.
In fact, in the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a husband to His people, Israel. When they chase after other gods, their idolatry is seen as a kind of adultery. And when they ignore His will, they’re seen as turning their back on their relationship with Him.*
In the New Testament, the Church is sometimes pictured as “the Bride of Christ” with Jesus as its husband.
It also calls the Church, “the body of Christ,” denoting an almost organic connection to the One Who died and rose to give us everlasting life.
Whatever picture of God in relation to you and me that we like best, it’s clear that God means to have a close, intimate relationship with those who follow Him.
Leftovers can sometimes be a great way to express our love for those we care about. But they’re not the best way for us to express love and gratitude to the God Who, in Jesus, gave Himself on the cross for us.
We were designed to put God and His purposes first, not because God is an egomaniac, but because God made us for a relationship with Him. We are only complete--what our English translations of the Bible unfortunately call perfect--when the holes in all of our souls are filled by God.
Only we can give God permission to do that by putting Him first in our lives.
And it’s only when we let God have first place in our priorities, decisions, relationships, and plans that our lives can reflect His loving design for our lives.
When we do put God first in our lives, it will be clearly seen not only in how we use our time and our abilities, but also in our checkbook registers.
Most of us remember that the first murder in human history happened when one son of Adam and Eve, Cain, killed the other, Abel. What’s less remembered is why Cain killed his brother.
It turns out that Abel had offered the first offspring of his flocks to God. Cain gave God his leftovers.
Their offerings may have been of equal value, but God obviously enjoyed Abel’s offering more. When Abel gave God the very first bit of his wealth, the first ten percent of his income, he was expressing gratitude to God. He was also expressing faith that God would sustain him even if he only had 90% of his wealth left.
Cain was so resentful of the pleasure God took in Abel’s faith that he killed Abel. The first murder occurred because one child of God thought so little of God that he offered God his leftovers. At least for the moment he took to kill his brother, Cain gave no place to God in his life. Unless we give God first place in our lives, He is likely to have no place in our lives.
There’s a second reason it’s dangerous to only give our leftovers to God’s purposes in the world.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus lashes out at a group of supposedly holy people, the scribes. The term for a scribe in the original Greek of the New Testament is grammateus, a word from which we get the word, grammar in our English language. Literally, it means someone with the ability to write. Over time, the term came to be used of a person who was expert in both religious and civil law.
Jesus says that many of the scribes in first-century Judea “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” And then an even worse indictment: “They devour widows’ houses...”
Some suggest that Jesus was accusing the scribes, experts in Biblical law, of figuring out how to get their greedy hands on the meager estates of widows, who usually had no money. Widows who, in that deeply patriarchal society, by some strange happenstance, had an estate or income were deemed incapable of managing on their own. Scribes were appointed to act as their financial managers and often, lined their own pockets with the widows' money while leaving the widows with nothing.
But, at a deeper level, I think that Jesus meant to say that the scribes were perfectly content to let the poor--people like widows--give everything of their small resources to the support of the Temple and priests while they gave their leftovers.
And they did this while courting reputations of religious faithfulness and piety, giving a tiny fraction of their fat wallets, of their more than ample free time, and of their abilities to the purposes of God.
I’m sure you’ve heard or read about the Pareto Principle. It “states that for many events, roughly 80% of the events come from 20% of the causes...” In most businesses, for example, 20% of the people will make 80% of the payroll. And 20% of the people will do 80% of the work and 80% of the people will do 20% of the work.
As Jesus watches the scribes and then the widow in our lesson today, He really is lamenting the injustice which results when a fraction of believers—in this case, the scribes--demand that those with less time and treasure give their all while they give their leftovers.
That’s why Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
It's interesting to note that the Greek New Testament word that's translated as "all she had to live on" in our lesson is the word, bios, which means life. (We get words like biology and biosphere from this word.) Jesus says that in spite of the ingratitude of selfish people, the widow gave her life to God. She foreshadows what Jesus Himself will do on the cross, giving His life for the sake of all of us.
The widow gave everything she had to God. In this, she also foreshadows the early believers. One of the characteristics of the early Christian Church, the Church that began after Jesus rose from the dead and went back to heaven was how it violated the Pareto Principle: 100% of its members did 100% of the work, contributed to the work of the Church and helped one another out. One passage in the New Testament book of Acts, which tells the history of the early Church, says: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
What would happen if something of the spirit of the early Church infected the Church today?
What if it infected Saint Matthew Lutheran Church?
What would happen in the lives of those Jesus describes as "the poor in spirit," people who have no connection to Christ or the Church, if we in the Church were more like that widow and less like the scribes, giving ourselves, our efforts, and our treasures to Christ and His purposes in the world?
I tell you what would happen: Thousands of lives, first ours and then, our neighbors’ lives would be eternally changed for the better!
Our trust in Jesus would deepen and the fire and the passion of our faith would lend power to our invitations to others to come and follow Jesus with us!
In two weeks, we will have our Consecration Sunday. When you receive your time and talent survey and estimate of giving card by mail, please pray about how you will respond to the Savior Who gave His life for you and how you will be part of what God wants to do at Saint Matthew.
Speaking specifically to finances, let me tell you that I know that for many of you, this has been a hard year.
I also understand--and more importantly, God understands--how your time for Saint Matthew's ministries can be limited.
Whether it's our time or our talents or our money, God doesn't ask us to give anything more than we have.
God also knows that Saint Matthew isn't the only place where you can serve God's purposes in the world. There are lots of worthy ways to serve God and neighbor and to glorify Jesus Christ that have nothing to do with the formal ministries of Saint Matthew.
But I urge you, as you approach Consecration Sunday, to ask God, whatever your ability or limitations, to help you put Him first, to ask God to help you discern what you can do...because you know that on the cross, God put you first.
Leftovers are great when it comes to comfort foods like vegetable soup. But the God we know in Jesus Christ deserves our first and best and all. Amen
*Spurned lover though He is, God still wants to restore His relationship with the unfaithful Israel, just as He wants to be in relationship with us when we willfully walk away and abandon God.