"You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.
In the midst of a long list of supplies and an elaborate blueprint for the construction of the tabernacle, Israel is instructed to donate the simplest and most common of household resources for the worship of the Lord. An oil lamp would be built, and kept burning before the Lord’s presence. And Israel would provide the olive oil to fill its reservoir. This was a contribution any Israelite could make to the worship of the Lord.
God delights in both the common sacrifice, and the wildly generous gift. Gold and silver are nice. Exotic skins for the tabernacle tent and highly crafted textiles for the curtains were only one part of the supply list. Other materials were readily available in the home of any family among the camp. And the olive oil was the simplest and most available for ready supply (though perhaps only through trade at the time of the desert wanderings).
I like the thought that individual families could all donate some olive oil, and that this was kept in a common supply. Did the oily gifts of all the different families mingle into one common supply jar, or did individuals drop off a daily ration so that it was always fresh? Either way, each family could have contributed their own part of what became the flame the burned before the Lord. There are no insignificant gifts. Poor families might think, “Maybe I have no gold, but I do have cooking oil. I can give that!” And God will be worshiped with that.
In a time of economic thrift, Joni and I have begun to feel huge sacrifices with our increasingly smaller gifts. There was a time in my life (about a decade ago) when we could routinely give away nearly a quarter of our income and not feel challenged by it. But the kids have grown into really hungry teenagers, inflation has grown, cost of living increases (it never decreases), and unanticipated medical expenses have shown up as we have aged, even as salary has shrunk. And now to give even the simplest of gifts to the work of the Lord is felt. To give over and above a simple amount feels impossible (even though I know it is what we should do if God has asked it of us).
The lesson of the olive oil is that there are no small gifts. And I take comfort in that. In the past we have easily been able to provide much larger gifts. But for whatever reasons, God has placed us in the olive oil category for now. I know that we can provide those sort of things, and as we sacrifice further, we can find God helping us to be generous in many small ways with what we have been blessed to share. And that is really the whole point of the matter. It humbles my pride. If all I have left is olive oil, will I see it as an item with which I have been blessed in order to share in ministry and worship God? The choice is mine. I can see the present circumstances as an economic downtown and lock away my chances to serve God with what we do have. Or I can see it as a challenge to find new ways to be generous in my worship of the Lord. I really believe God is asking me to grow during this time to practice the “olive oil” alternative.