Many times things are not what they seem. Usually, it is because of our perspective; how we think about what is going on around us. A part of our growth as Christians is allowing the Holy Spirit to change how we think.
One of the things Jesus taught is that many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.
29 “Truly I tell you,” 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—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[e] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
There are a lot of things that could be shared using the scriptures above, but basically I wanted to show the teaching on "first will be last and last will be first" in a bit of context. Now let's look at someone Jesus noticed.
41 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 few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, 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.”
This widow did exactly what Jesus spoke about; she "left" all she had for God by giving all she had to live on. What she gave was out of poverty; only a few cents. Her offering made no difference in the care, service, or ministry of the temple (which was called and put in place by God). What she did was not productive in any way. The large amounts put in by the rich people did make a difference. Those offerings supported the care, service, and ministry of the temple. Those offerings were productive. But Jesus elevated the poor widow above the others.
Most Christians I know give out of their abundance. They don't give all they have to live on. I know I don't. I have always tithed but that still leaves me money to live on. And there are a lot of people who share Jesus with others and have various ministries, who are productive. I have ministries I do. But the ministries I do are, like my tithe, given out of my abundance. I still have time to do things I want to do, to relax, have fun, etc. There are others who live in poverty in the natural and in ministry. What they give is small and makes no real difference in what most of us would call the work of the church. But when they give all they have, even when it makes no difference, Jesus honors them above all of us who give only a part. He honors these people above many who have what looks like a great ministry but who are ministering out of their spiritual and natural abundance.
What do you think looks like a successful ministry? There was a time, described in the Book of Daniel, when Israel was taken into captivity in Babylon. The king wanted men to serve in his kingdom.
Daniel 1:3-4, 18-20
3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.
18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.
This is how many Christians would describe a successful church today, a place with people who are well disciplined, quick to understand, and highly intelligent. But our King is not like the king of Babylon. What Jesus is doing looks a bit different.
“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet, he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:25
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
We tend to think that the world needs to see great skill and intelligence so they will "approve" of the church and accept Christ's teachings. And there is nothing wrong with being skilled or talented or anything like that. I'm a musician and I work on my skills. And God uses all of us. He blesses and uses people who are talented and skilled and people who seem to have no talent or skills. My point here is that some of the most honored and powerful acts of service come from people that most folks pay no attention to.
The Kingdom of God is peace, joy, and righteousness in the Holy Spirit, and when we give all we have the Kingdom is operating in full force, whether it looks productive or not. Things are not always what they seem.
Update - February 2020
Recently I was in a church service where the pastor was preaching and, half-way through his message, decided to stop following his notes. He had prepared a message but had something more pressing on his heart that he wanted to talk about. So he tossed his notes in the air, told everyone he felt God wanted him to go in a different direction, and then shared what was on his heart. The notes fell to the floor.
I was sitting near the front. When the service was over I just sat there for a moment. One of the elders who is also a great teacher went up to talk to the pastor on the platform. While they were talking, a young man who had come out of a gang background crawled on the platform, picked up the notes off the floor and placed them on the podium, and then crawled off the platform. I think he crawled just to keep from disturbing the pastor and elder.
As this happened I wondered; if Jesus and his disciples were here who would he draw their attention to? Would he draw their attention to the pastor, who is a great pastor and loves the church? Would he draw their attention to the elder who is diligent in studying God's Word and is faithful in teaching? Or would he point out the young man who crawled on the platform to pick up the papers on the floor, put them on the podium for the pastor, and then crawled off?
I believe that God was with everyone there in that service and was working through those who were ministering in their calling. But I think he noticed the young man who was just being helpful; demonstrating a simple act of service and humility.
In the garden of our Savior, no flower grows unseen
His kindness rains like water on every humble seed
No simple act of mercy escapes His watchful eye
For there is One who loves me
His hand is over mine
and the chorus is
Oh, the deeds forgotten; oh, the works unseen
Every drink of water flowing graciously
Every tender mercy, You're making glorious
This You have asked us
Do little things with great love
Little things with great love
The incredibly awesome thing about all of this is that while the young man was being a servant and being noticed by God, God was also reminding the pastor how much he loves him. When we are servants, when we put others before us, God not only sees our simple acts but he uses those acts to illustrate his love for those we serve. When the widow described above in Mark 12 gave everything she had in the offering, she not only gave more than anyone else; she also demonstrated more love than anyone else. She was basically saying, "you are worth everything."
Be a servant, do little things with great love. The more we let go of our lives, the more we will find them.