I find it interesting identifying the origin of popular words and phrases. No less so that the phrase many of us have often used, “But, that’s just my two cents.” Where did that phrase come from? Depending upon where one searches for the answer, we would discover that the English language contains many specific terms for goods or services that cost two cents (or twopenny, two-pence), some of them very old. We also might discover that over time two cent or twopenny also became descriptors of items that weren’t worth much, if anything. Finally, somewhere in the mid-1920’s, we discover the phrase became attached to the practice of offering unsolicited advice. But, the earliest reference to anything analogous to “two cents” appears in the lesson of the widow’s mite in the Gospel of Mark. In that earliest reference, the “two cents worth” has a totally different meaning than how we’ve come to us it. For the widow, the “two cents” was everything. For the wealthy who stood around her it didn’t mean much. I’m afraid we still take our “two cents” to be worth just that—two cents.
You know the scene. Jesus sits and watches as people put their offerings in the offering boxes around the Temple. There were 13 of them, in fact lined along the outside of one of the Temple courtyards. They looked like trumpets, and it was quite the show to watch persons go by and toss their coins into the horns. The noise would be predicated upon the type and number of coins a person dropped into the box (demonstrate with bucket and coins). There were even some who would make a show of their offerings. That might be why Jesus said in the verses just prior to the example of the widow:
38 Jesus also taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. 39 And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. 40 Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.” (Mark 12: 38 – 40 NLT)
Remember that “the teachers of religious law” were the experts in the Law of Moses. They were teachers of the Law in schools and synagogues. They expounded on the Scriptures and preserved them. They were also referred to as lawyers and served as judges in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. Jesus warns His disciples “beware of these teachers of religious law.” He gives several reasons for His warning, but note one in particular: “they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property” (verse 40). They exploited widows. Jews and Christians have always been charged with a ministry of caring for widows. The Apostle James, in his letter says: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). So, Jesus charges them with cheating widows rather than visiting them in their distress.
As Jesus sits watching at the Temple, condemning those “teachers” or “judges,” he notices who is putting what in the Treasury, and he notices who makes the show of it. Then, enter the “poor” widow who puts in her “two cents.”
Just how poor was the widow? The word “poor” suggests she was “utterly helpless, completely destitute, living in such absolute poverty that perhaps even needed necessities for survival such as food and shelter were lacking.” It was highly probable that she did not have another male relative to provide for her needs—no father, son, brother, or even a brother-in-law. Basically, there was no social safety net to capture this poor widow. No social security. No husband’s estate or pension. No pension of her own. She was not like Christy Walton. I actually read this headline this week: “The WalMart heir everyone believed was one of the richest women in America is actually poorer that people thought.” Christy Walton is John Walton’s widow, and she was originally believed to be worth $32 billion dollars. Turns out she’s only worth $5 billion. What a shame. Poorer than people thought, indeed! Definitely not the widow Jesus was referencing. No, I’m afraid we don’t know the value of the two pennies the widow placed in the Temple treasury.
We can’t fully grasp what it meant for her to put in her two cents worth. Jesus calls his disciples together and says ‘truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty, she put in everything, all she had to live on.’
Jesus knew that these are not just two coins, but the woman’s last two. According to the text, it was all she had to live on. The original Greek word used is ‘bios’ from which we get biology, the study of life. This widow put her whole life into the temple treasury that day. The widow gave 100% of her money. She is down to two worthless little coins and she trusts it all to God, she laid her whole self before God. For the widow, it wasn’t just a matter of giving. It was a matter of going “all-in.” It seems almost reckless to us. It sounds so much like a poor person sending in the last two dollars they have to a television evangelist. We scratch our head and wonder, “Why would they do that?” But, I might suggest it is reckless—reckless trust, and that’s just the type of trust God honors and Christ commends. Her two cents represents total abandon to the Kingdom of God. The widow could easily have retained one of the coins for herself (and we would have called it justifiable). It wouldn’t have been much but it would have been something. Instead, she gave her life. And the call of Jesus to us is the give all we have. That’s a reckless thing to do because we never know where it will lead us, never know what we might be called to do.
For the woman the giving was sacrificial. It’s never the amount given that matters, but the cost to the giver. It’s not the size of the gift but the sacrifice of the gift. I might even suggest that her giving was never about money. It was always about her heart. That’s what she put in the Temple treasury that day—she put her heart. She was totally committed.
A pig and a chicken were walking down the road. As they pass a church, they notice that a potluck charity breakfast was under way. Caught up in the spirit, the pig suggests to the chicken that they each make a contribution.
“Great Idea!” the chicken cried. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!”
“Not so fast.” said the pig. “For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment.”
Jesus contrasted two different types of people. Those who put a lot in, but their heart wasn’t in the right place. It was more about themselves than about the Kingdom. Then, there was the widow who put all in that day. What a difference!
Today a lot of people categorize church into one of two categories. The first category would be those who ask, “What do I get out of church?” Or, they might ask, “What does the church provide me?” Or, “Does the worship service give me strength and encourage me?” Maybe, “What am I getting when I attend church?”
The second category would be those who ask, “What do I give to church?” I give praise to God in worship. I lead and teach children and youth and adult classes. I serve others whenever I have an opportunity. I use my gifts and talents to organize and plan ministries. I give my financial resources to the local church. I join in a partnership with the larger connection of United Methodist churches around the world. I share my story about what Christ has done for me, and so I’m witnessing my faith to lead others to Christ.
We must be careful which question we find ourselves asking, for therein lies the key to understanding the value of our “two cents.” When we only ask the “what am I getting” question, we come perilously close to being the former in today’s text. Sure, they put in much from their abundance, but there wasn’t much heart in the offering. When we ask the “what am I giving” question, it reflects a heart tuned to the heart of God and to the needs of the world around us.
The truth is: When we’re not getting much out of church, it is most likely we’re not giving much to church. The life of a disciple is one whose heart is “all-in.” The widows “two cents” were everything. I trust my “two cents” will be everything, too.
Someone may ask, “Well what good can I do? I am too old, or too young. I am too poor, or too sick. I have too many children to care for. I am a widow. I am too busy. I am too weak. The job is impossible for me to do. It’s asking too much. What can one person do?”
Martha Berry was a lady with a vision to help children. She had a dream to start a school for poor children in Georgia. When she started she had no books, nor building. More importantly, she had no money. What she did have was a vision of how things could be, and she had a desire to go out and live out that dream. She went to Henry Ford to ask for a donation. Mr. Ford reached into his pocket and gave Martha Berry a dime.
Most people would have been insulted. Seriously, a multi-millionaire, and all he could give her was a dime? But, Martha Berry took that dime and bought a packet of seeds, and she took the seeds and planted a garden, and she raised the crop and sold it and bought more seeds. After three or four harvests she had enough money to purchase an old building for the children. She returned to Mr. Ford and said, “Look what your dime has done.”
Mr. Ford was so impressed that he donated a million dollars to the Martha Berry School for Children.
What is “two cents” worth? Everything. But, then again, that’s just MY two cents worth!
Until next time, keep looking up…