Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were placed and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.(1) It was a scene made for good people-watching. Perhaps there were some who made a spectacle of their giving. Others gave in guilt or joy or obligation. Many rich people threw in large amounts. A poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. The motives of giving are many, as are the people who give.
In a Wall Street Journal article titled “Charitable Explanation,” Arthur Brooks examined giving in the United States and its patterns through storm and season. In the month of December, for instance, as much as a third of the quarter-trillion dollars Americans give away each year is collected. Eighty-five million Americans participate.
Even so, giving is not a collective national trait. “While 85 million American households give away money each year to nonprofit organizations,” notes Brooks “another 30 million do not.”(2) There is a Giving America and Non-Giving America, he says. And what distinguishes them is not income. In fact, he reports, “America’s working poor give away at least as large a percentage of their incomes as the rich, and a lot more than the middle class. The charity gap is driven not by economics but by values.” Giving is apparently a matter of perspective, and this is true from America to Australia to Asia.
In the middle of his people-watching at the temple treasury, Jesus called his disciples to the scene in front him: a widow had dropped in two copper coins as she passed by the treasury, and it caught the eye of the teacher. Sandwiched between the generous gifts of the affluent, her coins would perhaps not have drawn the attention of anyone else. But Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).
What is it that motivates a destitute woman to give when it is so rational to save? What is it that moves someone to reach toward the family lost in medical bills or the one who has lost her job? If we are merely material subjects of chance, programmed for survival, why would we give at all? What have charity in our vocabulary in the first place? Arthur Brooks offers one more statistic: “Americans who weekly attend a house of worship are 25 percentage points more likely to give than people who go to church rarely or never. These religious folks also give nearly four times more dollars per year than secularists, on average, and volunteer more than twice as frequently.”
When Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us, I don’t think he said it with the kind of despair I sometimes find within me when I look around and see how vast is the need of a poor and hurting world. I don’t think he said it to make us feel guilty or to remind us that there are always others less fortunate than us. I think he said it knowing every face in the immense crowd of nobodiness, knowing every name we might not learn when the pain of others becomes unbearable. I think he said it living in time and yet conscious of eternity, showing us the perspective he longed for us to hold: We give, whether we know it or not, because we are made in the image of one who has given us everything.
Reasons to give will always be surrounding us; and where we will allow ourselves to see, it will be overwhelming. The oppressed and the brokenhearted will continue to call us from comfortable apathy and languid affluence, just as Christ himself calls us to set aside all that entangles and follow. The poor and the downcast are in need of hope and justice; they need mercy, and they need our time, even as Jesus seems to tell us that it is we who need their time: “The poor you will always have with you.” And he said as if it were a promise that he, too, would be near. He spoke knowing that throughout most of history the Son of God would not be with us in the flesh. But in the cup of cold water delivered to the least of these, in the instinct to give to devastated neighbors, he is there among us. He is the hand extended to the one hurting and he is behind the eyes of the one in need, dispelling the notion of nobodiness two faces at a time.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) As reported in Mark 12.
(2) Arthur Brooks, “Charitable Explanation,” Wall Street Journal (November 27, 2006).