Read Mark 12:35—13:13
“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all…For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)
I learned as a little boy the difference between a casual gift and a costly gift. I was playing in the shallows of the beach in the stifling heat of a Florida Summer. My family was on our vacation with a sizable leg of our trek in the minivan through the Southern states still ahead of us. The waves were breaking atypically close to the shoreline, and I was typically unconcerned about them. An unusually strong wave (or so it seemed to me) swept me under without any warning. One moment I was breathing the warm air under the radiant warmth of the Florida sun; the next moment, which seemed like one of the longest I have experienced, I felt like a sock at the bottom of the washing machine. I tumbled around I know not how many times; my eyes burned from the saltwater as I strained wide-eyed to discern which way was up; my lungs felt about to burst. Just then, a hand grasped my shoulder and pulled me up out of the breaking surf. My father had apparently seen me go under and quickly came to the rescue. In his haste, however, he lost his glasses in the waves. The rescue was a gift; the loss of the glasses made it a costly one. My father spent the rest of the vacation—day and night—in an old pair of prescription sunglasses. He looked great; he just couldn’t see very well, especially at night.
Those glasses are a small loss in retrospect, but they weighed heavily on my mind at the time. I scoured the shoreline up until the moment we left that beach in hopes catching a glint of reflected sunlight wash up in the sand. Being the recipient of a costly gift causes one to feel an oddly heavy combination of sheepishness and obligation, guilt and gratitude. I would have all too gladly found those glasses and made a return on the gift, in order to rid myself of the feeling. I think the feeling comes from recognizing the pain of sacrifice in the giver of a costly gift and knowing that pain is on your account.
A costly gift cuts into the substance of the giver (in every sense of the word ‘substance’—being, wealth, and the stuff we are made of). Christianity is bravely built on the recognition of the high moral worth of the costly gift. Indeed, Christmas is a celebration of a Costly Gift.
In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus and his disciples sit watching the worshipers at the Temple make their contributions to the treasury. Many rich people, we are told, give large sums of money but always in amounts that they can spare–casual gifts, we might say. Eventually, Jesus sees a poor widow drop in two copper coins—the smallest coins available. Jesus calls his disciples over to witness what Jesus considers an act of extravagant generosity. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” According to Jesus’ calculations, she has given “more.” She has given a costly gift to her Lord God, a gift that cuts deeply into her meager livelihood. I can’t help but imagine her, despite her grinding poverty, as a joyous person, because (and few know this) only joyous people are so generous.
The widow gave all she had to live on. In this she has a beautiful kinship with our Lord. He took on flesh and blood precisely so that he could give his life. This costly gift culminates on Good Friday, but at Christmastide we celebrate the first stage of that costly giving, when in the incarnation and birth he took on the flesh that would be killed and the blood that would be shed. What was it that Paul said? “For you know the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
This Christmas amidst all the good and proper joys of gift-giving and gift-unwrapping, of feasting and singing, let us remember the Costly Gift of Jesus Christ, our incarnate Lord. Let us remember Him who lost not glasses but His Life, not so that we feel sheepish and guilty, but profoundly and life-changingly grateful. I promise that this won’t dampen your joy and your Christmas spirit. If anything, it will deepen them.