Giving: How Much is Enough?

Many believers feel guilty about their giving. They assume the tithe (ten percent) is the gold standard, and they try to work themselves up to that, but they often fail. Research concludes American churchgoers give 3-5 percent of their income.

But is there a different standard? Luke 21:1-4 reveals surprising insights about giving.

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’
 "The Widow's Mite" by James Christensen

"The Widow's Mite" by James Christensen

This incident took place in the Jerusalem temple treasury. Secured in the wall were 13 collection receptacles shaped like trumpets, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top—making it impossible for a passerby to steal.

And here Jesus was sitting—and watching. He saw the rich and he saw the widow put their gifts into the trumpets. That the widow gave anything is noteworthy. She could have excused herself because of her poverty. Or Jesus could have rushed in and stopped her—but He didn’t.

How can Jesus say the widow put in more than the rich? If He had taken the trumpets off the wall and poured the coins tinkling onto the temple floor, those given by the rich would have out-numbered the widow’s two lepta—Israel’s smallest coin.

Jesus measures giving by a different standard. The rich gave out of their surplus—money not needed for day-to-day living, money they would never miss. The widow gave out of her poverty—money she needed for day-to-day living. By Jesus’ accounting, she gave more.

This passage is often misunderstood. Is Jesus commending the woman for giving all her assets?  How then could she care for herself (or her children)? The common understanding—that she gave her last penny—doesn’t make sense.

Perhaps it happened this way: Leviticus 19:13 says, “The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning.” Accordingly, Jewish landlords paid their workers on the same day they worked—before nightfall.

Having been paid that day or the previous day, the widow went to the temple and gave out of her daily cash flow—“the living that she had” (margin NASB). She gave not out of excess, but sacrificially. Her giving cut into her living.

How much should a Christian give? Most believers say, “A tithe, ten percent.” That is what they have been taught. And, if you have a decent job you could tithe and probably should tithe. But Jesus teaches a wider principle.

Think about it. If someone earns $200,000 per year and gives ten percent ($20,000), then he or she must eke out a living on $180,000. Does that capture the spirit of Jesus’ words?

Here is an answer in keeping with Luke 21:

Give in such a way that it makes a difference in your lifestyle.

For the desperately poor, ten percent may be too much. For most, ten percent is too little. Author C.S. Lewis famously said,

I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare…If our charities [our giving standards] do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, like the Father, you see my giving just as you saw the poor widow’s giving in the temple. I’m glad you are watching. I confess I feel guilty if I don’t tithe and I feel proud if I do. Help me to give in such a way that it cuts into my lifestyle—that is scary. But I want to give in ways that honor You. I am willing. Help me learn to give sacrificially. Amen.