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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Art of Devotion

Mark 12:41-44

Every now and then the Bible gives us the picture of the art of devotion. I define the art of devotion as the art of living extravagantly for God. Today’s passage is short, but filled with devotion:

(Mark 12:41-44 NIV) Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. {42} But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. {43} Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. {44} They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on."

The temptation in this passage is to launch immediately into the subject of giving. The point is worth considering, of course, but what strikes me about this woman is the nature of devotion. Most commentaries will focus on what a large percentage (namely, all) of her money was given. This ignores the more obvious point: of how little practical value was the gift.

Indeed, the gift is of very little value. The Greek word is lepton, which was later picked up by physicists to signify “light” particles such as electrons. The coin in question was so small in value that the Roman Empire had no equivalent. It was a Greek coin, and four of them made up the equivalent of the Roman penny. In today’s terms it would be approximately one fortieth of a day’s wages, or perhaps a dollar. This in a wealthy nation; in a third world nation the amount would be so small as to be completely insignificant. But the amount was extremely significant to her; it was all she had.

These two things define an act of devotion, therefore. It is the giving of a gift or performing a service which

·         Has little or no practical value. From the world’s point of view, the widow’s two coins were of no significance.

·         Has enormous cost to the giver. From her point of view this was all she had, and therefore the price was as much as she could bear.

Now, the curious thing is that Christ commends her. The point is not just mathematical, how much more than a tithe she has given. The point is that she is worthy of praise for such an act which had no practical value. Why did Christ commend her?

May I suggest that it is because she has shown a pure imitation of God himself. God is extravagant – in love! Paul puts it this way:

(Rom 5:6-10 NIV) You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. {7} Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. {8} But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. {9} Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! {10} For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

We see here the extravagance of God: for the unworthy sinners (that’s me) he sent his Son, in the flesh, to pay the price of our sins. But beyond that we have the hope of heaven, the “well done” of the Father and so much more. Extravagance? Beyond all measure. The motive could only be love.

Some examples

The woman is not unique; devotion is a characteristic of many of the great names in the Bible. We recall Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, for example. Here’s another one:

(1 Chr 29:3-4 NIV) Besides, in my devotion to the temple of my God I now give my personal treasures of gold and silver for the temple of my God, over and above everything I have provided for this holy temple: {4} three thousand talents of gold (gold of Ophir) and seven thousand talents of refined silver, for the overlaying of the walls of the buildings,

This is King David’s personal contribution to the building of Solomon’s temple. Just how big is this? Well, a talent is about 75 pounds. At about $400 per ounce (I’ll save you the math) that’s about $1.44 billion dollars worth of gold! But notice something: “over and above everything I have provided…” That means David had already contributed something:

(1 Chr 22:14 NIV) "I have taken great pains to provide for the temple of the LORD a hundred thousand talents of gold, a million talents of silver, quantities of bronze and iron too great to be weighed, and wood and stone. And you may add to them.

Just the gold alone is $48 billion! That’s over a hundred tons of gold. And what did they use it for? To line the walls of the Temple! We have lost this sense of devotion. No one could build a cathedral like Notre Dame in Paris today; they’d quibble about the cost. But as a side note, the architect who designed that cathedral is unknown to us, for the work was to be to the glory of God, not the architect.

But devotion is not found just in money:

(Luke 7:37-38 NIV) When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, {38} and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

The jar of perfume was indeed expensive (some commentators suggest it would have been a year’s wages for an ordinary working man), but the hair and the tears are not priced in money. They are priced in the sacrifice of pride. Again, there is no practical benefit – a basin of hot water would have done better for cleanliness. The price to her is incredible; the benefit to the practical world nil – but the extravagance is right from the heart of God.

Mother Teresa no doubt could have built more buildings and bought more medicine had she devoted her time to running telethons. But if she had, she would not have been Mother Teresa. This is extravagance; this is devotion.

Once in a while the Bible gives us the key to devotion along with the act:

(2 Cor 8:1-5 NIV) And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. {2} Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. {3} For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, {4} they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. {5} And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will.

Note the last verse: “they gave themselves first to the Lord.” It is the root cause of devotion.

The Causes of Devotion

What causes such devotion in a person? We have seen it already in that love is the prime mover, and this moves a person to give himself to the Lord first. How does this happen? There are many ways to approach this. The monks of the Middle Ages would show you devotional exercises, but the 20th Century looks for logical reasons for devotion. Here are three:

The pearl of great price

(Mat 13:45-46 NIV) "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. {46} When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Most of us want to hedge our bets. We believe that security is found in spreading the risk. The merchant here looked for the main chance, and when he found it, he acted. Do we recognize Christ as the pearl for which all else must be sold? If we do, he will reward such devotion:

(Mark 10:29-30 NIV) "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel {30} will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.

Faith, not sight

(2 Cor 5:7 NIV) We live by faith, not by sight.

This is a core principle also. How can one be extravagant in devotion without it? We so often miss the fact that the faith must come first, but when it does, the reward is sure:

(Heb 11:6 NIV) And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Joy

May I submit to you that there are three forms of the phrase, “I have to?”

·         “I have to do it because someone is holding a gun to my head.” If this is your view of God (I better do this or I will go to hell), then there will be neither love nor joy in your relationship.

·         “I have to do this because it’s my duty. It’s in the rules.” If this is your view then your duty will be unpleasant. There may be love, but it will be grim.

·         “I have to do this because I just can’t help myself – I love doing it.” In this circumstance you have found joy, and joy gives rise to devotion.

God rewards such joy by bringing you into the most joyful of families, the family of God.

Sidebar: a Monk’s Eye View

Just in case you’re interested, the monks did have a different perspective. Here, very briefly summarized, is what Thomas à Kempis might have taught you:

·         Meditation – the kingdom of God is within you

·         Humility – your pride prevents devotion, your humility compels it.

·         Purity of mind – a distracted mind cannot love to the fullest

·         Unity of purpose – another way of stating the pearl of great price

·         Loving Jesus above all things – the starting point of it all.

What can I do?

Very well, then, it’s great that David was so rich with gold – but I’m not. Nor am I the prostitute. And I do have a family to feed. What act of devotion could I possibly perform?

I give you one possibility:

(Mat 5:43-48 NIV) "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' {44} But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, {45} that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. {46} If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? {47} And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? {48} Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Consider that this example meets our criteria of devotion: extravagant living toward God. It is of no practical value, at least from the world’s point of view. It is of great cost to the giver, for it gives up the revenge, or even justice, to which the giver feels entitled. But it is the perfect imitation of our God – the extravagant God.

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