When you consider the holy martyrs of Christ, or the veterans of our country who have died in battle, it does not matter at all how rich or poor they were, because they have given, not a gift or a token, but themselves, their very lives. There is no more that anyone can give, than to lay down his life, and then it makes no difference whether he has got a million bucks or barely a few cents.
But even to make the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life is not necessarily noble, just, or right. It really depends upon the motive, the cause, and the purpose for which one dies. Some causes are sinful, no matter how sincerely committed the one who serves them may be. It can also happen that good and worthy causes are served by sinful hearts, for selfish and self-serving reasons.
Some give all in the worship of false gods. Others do so in despair of any god, which is another kind of idolatry. Some would go so far as to give their lives in the hopes of saving themselves, so to speak, by personal fame and glory — because they love the praises of men more than God — as though the memories of the mortals who come after them would preserve their life after death.
But now, what about these two widows whom the Lord has set before you from His Scriptures? Neither of them loses her life, but each of them gives up all of her remaining possessions. What is the heart of the matter in these two cases? What motive, cause, and purpose are found in the widow of Zarephath, and in the poor widow who puts her last two coins into the Temple treasury?
The widow of Zarephath obeys the Word of the Lord, as it is spoken to her by the Prophet Elijah. Her cupboard is almost bare, but she prepares the last of what she has to serve the man of God. She evidently trusts the promise that her bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall her jar of oil be emptied, despite the drought and famine that persist. Her faith is not misplaced, for the Lord provides all her needs, exactly as He promised. Yet, the widow’s heart is divided between both faith and fear, as we discover in the story that follows. For when her son becomes sick and dies, she rails at the Prophet that he has come to bring her iniquity to light and to put her son to death. Only after he has raised the boy to life again does she confess that God’s Word is in his mouth.
As for the widow who puts her two small copper coins into the Temple treasury, we are not told her motivation, but only the extent of her gift. It is extraordinary, that she would give up all that she has. But is it out of faith, or out of fear, or out of fiercely competing attitudes inside of her?
The Law of the Lord forbids the affliction of widows and orphans. But the scribes, or many of them anyway, “devour widows’ houses.” How so? With their culture of appearances, whereby they establish a climate of comparing and competing for the praise and honor of the people.
So, is this poor widow prompted by faith and trust in the providence of God, to give her last two cents? Or is she driven by fear and desperation to keep up and compete with the religious elite?
And what about you? What do you give and do to support the Church and Ministry, and to care for your neighbors? And what do you hold back for yourself, for your own family and friends?
Whether you give big donations out of your surplus, or sacrifice what little you have to live on, what is your motivation, your purpose, and your cause? Is it to be seen by other people, to position yourself among the pious or the prudent? Or do you presume to impress the Lord God Himself?
That same Lord God already knows the answers to all of these questions. He observes your giving, and not only what you give, but how. That is to say, He sees and knows your heart. But do you?
Examine yourself before the Lord your God, according to His Word, and do not pretend that you don’t care what anyone else thinks of you and your actions. Whether you are bold and outgoing, or timid and withdrawn; whether you are self-assured and sophisticated, or shy and self-conscious; whether you love and seek the spotlight, or you prefer to be a wallflower and hide in the shadows, you also are concerned with appearances, and with your reputation in the opinion of others.
To have no care and concern for your neighbors would be inhuman, and to have no regard for your good name and reputation would surely be lawless and wild. What a frightening psycho maniac you would be, if you really didn’t care about anyone else or their opinions of you! But neither is your care for others purely that of love. Instead, your prideful ego competes for the affections and the accolades of the whole wide world around you. You long to be admired and applauded, if not for your loud extravagance and flare, then for your simplicity and quiet modesty. Either way, you do hope to be awarded some kind of prize and recognition for your efforts and accomplishments.
Here’s the rub: All men die, including you, and then comes the judgment. There are no second chances. And where you stand in the public eye, in the popular opinion of the world, won’t make any difference. Whether you die a hero or a bum will be irrelevant when you stand before God.
Already now you live before Him. Whatever you do in this body and life is done in His presence. Whatever you give, it is given unto Him. And whatever you withhold, it is withheld from Him.
How then shall you live (and die) before the Lord your God? That should be your chief concern, at all times and in all places. Not simply out of self-concern and self-preservation, though your life really does depend on Him, on where you stand in His judgment. But you should chiefly be concerned with where you stand before Him, because He is the Lord, the true and only God.
Now, precisely because He is God, and you are not, the question is not, How shall you go to Him? Nor, What shall you give to Him or do for Him? You cannot save yourself, nor are you able to set yourself right before the Lord your God. You cannot find Him on your own. You cannot reach Him by your own power. You cannot give Him anything that is not already His in the first place!
The question, rather, is this: How shall you wait upon the Lord? And again: How shall you receive the Lord who comes to you in peace and freely gives Himself and all His gifts to you by grace?
For this, indeed, is what God does for you and gives to you in Christ Jesus. It is His true character, His great strength, His glory, and His grace to do so. He is under no compulsion, nor under any delusions, but He acts freely in divine and holy love, in order to give you Life with Himself.
It is not cheap or easy for Him. Though He was rich, yet for your sake He made Himself poor, so that you, by His poverty, are now made rich with all the treasures of His Kingdom. This is the divine Charity of God Himself, who became man and suffered death that you might rise and live with Him in His Resurrection from the dead, and thereby share His divine Life forever and ever. He is the Veteran of that one decisive battle between life and death, and it is by the Victory of His Sacrifice that you are rescued from sin, death, and hell, and brought into the presence of God for everlasting life and perfect health in body and soul, for true and lasting Peace and Sabbath Rest.
Consequently, before God, there is nothing for you to give but thanks. For all things come from Him by grace, and He needs nothing at all from anyone. But the sacrifice of thanksgiving is truly meet, right, and salutary, by which you honor and confess His holy Name and His glorious grace.
The sacrifice of thanksgiving is offered to God in repentant faith. That is to fear, love, and trust in Him, which is the right attitude and posture of your heart and mind, body and soul, before Him.
At the same time, you also give thanks to God by loving your neighbor in His Name and for His sake, with your words, and with your actions, and with your alms, which are your gifts of charity. Not as though placing yourself above your neighbor, but as living under the Lord alongside your neighbor in humility and peace. That is to live for your neighbor as Christ Jesus lives for you.
You bear the Cross for your neighbor by using your strength to serve him, and by forgiving him his trespasses against you. You are ready, willing, and able to die for your neighbor, because God, who has given Himself for you and died for you, is your life and your salvation forever and ever.
Truly, you have much to give and share, because of what the Lord your God has done for you and given to you. Your sacrifice of love for your neighbor is made possible, and it means something, it makes a difference, because of the sacrifice of Christ for you, and because you are raised up with Him in His Resurrection from the dead. So it is that, whenever Christians lay down their lives in love for others, whether as martyrs or as soldiers, or in whatever capacity they are called to serve, it is in Christ Jesus that they do so — not unto eternal death, but unto the Life everlasting in Him.
So, how do you know what you should do and give? Given your finitude and frailty, your limited capacities and resources, how shall you set your priorities and make good choices and decisions?
You have but one life to live, one life to give — whether for your country, or for what, for whom?
Shall you put your last two cents in the offering plate? Or cash in your savings and give it as alms for the poor and needy, in order to follow Christ? But how shall you serve some neighbors at the expense of all the others? Is it really down to “random acts of kindness,” or what is your plan?
As a Christian, act according to the Word of the Lord, your God. That is the answer to these good questions. Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and then you will know what God would have you do and give, and where and how He would have you serve and sacrifice. Realize that He speaks to you through your pastors and teachers, your parents and other authorities, whom He places over you in love. Honor your father and your mother, therefore, and sanctify unto yourself the preaching of God’s Word by gladly hearing it and learning from it.
The key remains that, even in love for your neighbor, you live your life at all times before God. Serve and support the Prophet of the Lord, therefore, that he may continue to preach and teach the Word of God to you and to your neighbor. Contribute to the Church and Ministry, and do your part, that this, your congregation, may be a place of peace and hope in the preaching of the Gospel and in the Sacraments of Christ Jesus. Then also serve and care for your own home and family with whatever the Lord daily and richly provides for you, be it bread and water or meat and mead.
Do not be afraid to do what the Lord has commanded you to do, and do not worry and fret about where you stand, whether you are giving too much or too little. Have no fear of sin or death! For though you fall far short, and you are frequently more fearful than faithful; and though you have not laid down your life, but are too often absent without leave from where the Lord has stationed you; and even though all men hate you, criticize and despise you, not only for your many faults, but also for your limited faithfulness — even so, the dear Lord Jesus has given Himself for you.
Consider how He greets you in grace and mercy and forgiveness with His Gospel. See how He clothes you with Himself, in the long white robes of His Righteousness. He covers your nakedness and shame with His purity and peace, and He adorns you in real beauty as His holy and beloved Bride. For you are no longer a poor widow, but Christ is your Bridegroom. And you are not an orphan, an alien or outcast, but God is your own dear Father in Christ Jesus, and you belong to His household and family forever, wherein the flour is not spent, and the jar of oil does not run dry.
He sets you in the place of honor in His Synagogue, that is to say, in the great congregation of His Holy Church, so that you may hear His Word and live by the preaching of His free forgiveness. And He seats you in the place of honor at His Table, while He, who is the first and the best, girds Himself to serve you. He removes His royal robes for this good work of His, in order to cleanse you, to wash your dirty feet with Holy Absolution. And then He also waits on you and feeds you, not with simple bread and water only, nor even with perishing delicacies of cake and champagne, but with the choicest Meat and finest Wine of His own holy Body and precious Blood. Here, then, with all the riches of heaven, with His own Body and Life, He makes you wealthy by His grace.
And as He comes and gives Himself to you here and now, He also appears, both now and forever, in the presence of God for you. He lives before God as your great High Priest. So that is where you and your life are now, and where you shall abide forever. Even now, in the midst of the great tribulation, your life is already hidden with Christ in God. And when He appears at the last, in Glory, He will bring you without sin, body and soul, into the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.