It is inconceivable to think that Jesus’ whole life was anything but a demonstration of what it would be like to live in the oasis. It could not have been anything else. Jeremiah spoke of a tree with deep roots whose leaf was always green and that never ceased bearing fruit. Jesus was that kind of tree. Everything he said, did, and thought came out of his life in the oasis. Every decision that he made was designed to ensure that he remained there. He was also skilled at detecting others who, even in rudimentary ways, displayed signs of living in the oasis.
One day, Jesus pointed out to the disciples a woman who lived in the oasis and he explained how he knew this, even from a distance. Watching people drop their offerings into the basket at the Temple, he drew a contrast between the offerings of the rich people and a poor widow.
No doubt, the disciples, upon hearing Jesus say that the “poor widow [had] put in more than all of them,” must have had serious issues with Jesus’ facility with simple economics. Two small copper coins would not have paid for the nails in the Temple door jam! Surely, Jesus knew this. “What do you mean ‘she’s put in more than all of them’? The offerings of the rich are far larger that that of the poor widow, which was nearly worthless.” In response, Jesus, with Jeremiah 17 in mind, observed that by giving the way they did, these two people showed evidence of the land in which they each lived.
I have had conversations over the years about motive. The conclusion always ran something like this: “Doing something with a bad motive is not desirable. In fact, getting your motives straight, first, is of paramount importance, since doing the right thing with a wrong motive is not much different than doing the wrong thing.” Jesus’ observations about people at the Temple throws this out the window.
Even without knowing the motives that lay behind the giving of the two people, Jesus is quite clear, and confident, as he draws conclusions based solely on the manner of their giving. Suppose the poor woman was making a contribution at the Temple because she was afraid that, if she wasn’t generous, God would punish her. Jesus seemed to be saying that, even with that motive, the fact that she gave generously out of her poverty provided unequivocal evidence that she lived in an oasis, where the roots are deep, the leaves are green, and the fruit is plentiful. The underlying motive did not matter. Her sacrifice was possible only because she lived in an oasis. She saw “things above” as having more value than “things below”; the heavenly or other-worldly held more value than the earthly; the things of this life were not as valuable as the things of the next life. The rich people did not see the world this way, because they lived in a desert.
We might be inclined to think that motive is everything, but underlying motive is irrelevant. Actions are everything.1 There are some behaviors that cannot be undertaken except by those living in the oasis. The motive may be questionable (e.g., bad, false, worldly, selfish) but the action betrays a particular view of the world. The woman in the story may have dropped her coins into the basket because “that’s what the Law requires” or because she thought that she could buy God’s favor. But, the extent of her sacrifice, as Jesus pointed out, told the important truth. Since the widow could hardly have afforded her sacrifice, dropping those two coins into the basket revealed what she believed about this world: material goods are worthless and God is everything. This woman had deep roots and green leaves. The behavior of the rich people cast the widow’s action into stark relief, because their giving betrayed, also, what they believed about the world: “I come first.” Their roots were shallow. They lived in an uninhabited salt land.
This story is an illustration of the choice about which Jeremiah wrote in chapter 17. Jeremiah presented a choice between living one way, in a desert, or living another way, in an oasis. Jesus put wheels on this idea, just by watching and commenting on a poor widow’s actions at the Temple. This woman lived in an oasis, making it possible for her to give beyond her means. She knew that sacrificing her material resources would make no difference to her real life. In fact, giving away two coins made her roots sink even deeper.
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I am one of those rich people whom Jesus saw dropping a boatload of money into the proverbial Temple treasury. I give a large sum away every year, but I give out of my abundance. In fact, I could give even more without risk of incurring any pain. I might have to rearrange my budget, but I would lack for nothing. It would be possible to behave like the poor widow, giving away money until I am at or below the poverty line. But I don’t. And I do not know anyone who does. Justifying myself is easy: “Look, I give away thousands of dollars every year. I do it with a good attitude and my goal is to be as generous as I can.” Jesus did not deny the generosity of the rich, but he was not impressed, either. What got his attention was the poor widow, her “two small copper coins,” and the fact that she lived in an oasis.
An important contrast that Jesus did not draw was between the poor widow who gives “all she had to live on” compared to the poor widow who gives nothing. If statistics coming out of the church in the U.S.A. are accurate, most Christians give little or nothing at all. If the rich do not give away money, the poor are even less likely to do so, meaning that there are plenty of people who contrast with both sets of people in the gospel story. Jesus’ observation that day, as he watched activities at the Temple, highlights the fact that it’s not about being rich or poor; and it’s not about the money.
Where a person lives, whether in the desert or in the oasis, has tangible effects in a person’s life, and those effects are most easily discerned in the context of sacrifice and suffering. As a general rule, the rich do not know sacrifice, and hard times are mitigated, even eliminated, with money. What wisdom Jesus revealed when he said, “It is more difficult for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
The land in which I live is revealed for what it is when the charade that I have created with my wealth is stripped away by the “storms of life”: when wealth is lost, when comforts degrade, when grand visions falter, when distractions are unavailable, when freedom is removed, when loved-ones die, when health fails, when dishonor descends, when war is waged, when depression overwhelms, when the strong exploit the weak, when injustice prevails, when wrong pretends to be right, when evil wins. God in His grace continues to send storms across my land, so that I might know with certainty where it is that I live. If I live in the desert, my tree will wither, losing its leaf, ceasing to bear fruit. Life in the oasis, though, remains rich and deep, despite the storms. Every so often, storms make their way across the land where I live. The news is not good, because the storms reveal that I lived in a parched and weary land, where there is no water.
Part of me wants desperately to be the poor widow, whom Jesus Christ, God of heaven and earth, extolled that day. Part of me does not know how. Part of me, like the rich young ruler of Mark 10, is scared to death. God help me. And He will, for with God, all things are possible.
1 In the same way, faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (James 2:17)