Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Self-Giving Life

There once was a Rabbi who went to preach to his synagogue for Purim. He planned to preach about the obligation to care for the poor and oppressed. When he returned home his wife asked him how his sermon went.
“Well,” he replied, “it was 50-50.”
“What do you mean?” his wife queried.
“It's like this," he replied, "I convinced the poor to receive, but I couldn’t convince the rich to give.”

The book of Mark, if anything, is a book about giving--self-giving. It was written to Roman Christians who were facing persecution from Nero. Mark evidently wrote the book to explain what it meant to be a Christ-follower. It meant to live like Jesus, who gave up everything: his time, his energy, his comfort, even his very life.

Last week we discussed Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that would happen in 70 A.D. That text is found in Mark 13. The destruction of Jerusalem represented a lot of things. One clear thing it represented was a generation who was using power to save their lives—to establish a kingdom of their own making. The insurgents were not good men. Several hundred thousand innocent Jews lost their lives in Jerusalem. They were caught between fanatics and the Roman legions. It reminds me of Jesus’ statement to a very patriotic group of men in Mark 8: Whoever wants to save his life will lose it…

I find it significant Jesus’ discussion of 70 A.D. is juxtaposed with two incidents: one in Mark 12:41-44 and the other in Mark 14:1-10. These two stories form bookends to Jesus’ discourse. In Mark 12, Jesus is sitting across from the place where charitable offerings were made in the Temple. He observed several rich people tossing in large amounts of money. Then a widow—a lady living in poverty places two small coins in the treasury—not even worth a penny. He calls his disciples and points the woman out. “Truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” This woman, out of her love for God, gave up her daily security—her daily bread.

In Mark 14 there is the familiar story of the woman in Bethany. Jesus and his disciples are reclining at the table of Simon the Leper when a woman comes in with an alabaster jar of incredibly expensive perfume. This was worth someone’s annual salary. In those days it represented an investment for retirement. The perfume would keep for long periods of time and could be sold later. This was obviously her life’s savings. She broke it open and poured its contents all over Jesus. The disciples rebuked her harshly and Jesus, in turn, rebuked them.

Although she probably didn’t realize it, this was an appropriate preparation for Jesus’ burial. He was going to pour out his blood for Israel and the world just as she poured out this perfume. This woman, out of her love for Jesus, gave up her future security. This was an act of incredible sacrifice that foreshadowed his ultimate sacrifice. How fitting.

For many Christ-followers, every Sunday there is the opportunity to make a step in self-giving through the weekly offering. Others make contributions to people-helping organizations like Christian Relief Fund or World Vision. Each day, opportunities present themselves for us to help someone out, either through our finances or our time and energy.

To be honest, I don’t think for most of us these gifts are close to the gifts given by the widow or the woman with the alabaster jar. For some of you, it may be. But I know I haven’t emptied out my IRA or my bank account recently. But yet, these steps we take are steps toward a life of self-giving love. These small acts of giving are baby-steps to increase our faith into maturity. As we give, we find it easier to give. And as we receive opportunity, we may discover ourselves giving more and more. More money, more energy, more time, more of ourselves. And is it possible, that one day we may find ourselves giving like these two women—like Jesus—our comfort and security, our very lives for others and for him.

As we approach the holiday season of giving (giving thanks and giving gifts)—may you experience the heart of Jesus. May you come to understand what it means to truly give yourself up for the benefit of others. May you experience the self-giving love of Jesus and may it move you to love others just as he does.

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