Newsweek magazine ran an article a few years ago entitled “The Giving Back Awards: 15 people who make America great.” The issue recognized people “who through bravery or generosity, genius or passion, devote themselves to helping others.” Two undergraduates, Benita Singh and Ruth Degolia, were included in this list. They started a company that raised $600 thousand to send Guatemalan kids to school.

They visited a Guatemalan village as part of the senior year requirements, and met women who had endured the country’s civil war back in the 1980s. They noted that the women weren’t begging for money, but only wanted a market for the goods that they were producing to be sold.

The two Yale undergrads took the goods back to their school and sold them at a 300% markup, and laid the groundwork for a non-profit organization to help poor communities.

It’s important to give back.

This month our church is going through a stewardship emphasis “Cheerful Giving, Joyful Living” which means I am preaching a series of sermons on giving and money. This is not necessarily one of my favorite things to do, but it is important and a viable part of being connected to a family of faith. Sometimes I hear people say, “What I give is private. No one else needs to know.” I can appreciate that sentiment, but the truth is that giving is personal rather than private. The difference being that what you and I give financially impacts the lives of others, and no one else can give for us. Giving often encourages more giving. The opposite can also be true.

The story out of Luke 21 has been a “go to” for pastors who want to inspire their people to give. It’s about the poor widow who gave “two very small copper coins” in comparison to the wealthy who gave out of their “surplus”–meaning it didn’t really cost them anything. Jesus saw both the widow and the wealthy give to the treasury, but it was what the widow did that prompted him to gather his disciples and teach them a valuable lesson.

I’ve often referred to this passage as an example of sacrificial giving, and it is. It shows that our giving is not measured by how much we give, but how much we have left over. However, it is also a reminder about justice. In the preceding chapter, Jesus criticized the teachers of the law for their false piety and hypocrisy. They “devour widows houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Lk 20.27).

It’s easy to refer to the poor as a faceless mass of humanity. Yet, Jesus criticized the religious leaders for being oppressors and puts a face on the problem by pointing out the poor widow. She is a real person who is affected by the injustice of those in leadership. It doesn’t make sense to give large amounts of money yet show little concern for those who are in need, yet that is what the religious leaders were doing. Apparently, the large sums of money they were giving did not translate into compassion to those in need. That’s a difficult truth pill to swallow. They gave to be seen and heard, and were disconnected from the pain that their actions were inflicting upon others.

Another aspect of the story that comes to mind, is that Jesus did not rebuke the widow for giving to a corrupt religious system. Jesus showed indignation at those in the temple: “My house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a ‘den of robbers'” (Lk 19.46). Things were not ideal at the temple, but Jesus recognized the generosity of the widow to the temple rather than the problems that existed in the temple. There are applications to our attitudes about the church and why and how and when we give.

I’m still sorting through the implications of this charming comparison between the wealthy and the widow. Jesus didn’t criticize the wealthy for their giving, but it was the widow’s costly contribution that made him take notice. And, we don’t know the widow’s name. She walks in and out of our lives, leaving a powerful example of giving and a reminder that our actions impact those around us. That is a mighty lesson.