A reflection on Jesus’ warning about religious institutions,
the spiritual significance of our offerings,
and the life to which we are called.
For Sunday, November 8, 2015
The texts for the day are: 1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, and Mark 12:38-44. An introduction to them can be found at my “Watching for the Morning” blog, as well as a reflection on the children’s message and the message of the day.
The central text for the sermon was the Gospel reading from Mark where Jesus, having arrived in Jerusalem in open conflict with the Judean authorities, warns his followers about them:
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
Many of us have heard sermons that lift up this widow giving her last two cents as an example of sacrificial giving in the church: “See what generosity she has. See how profoundly she trusts herself into God’s promise that God will provide.”
I suspect the reason we have heard sermons like this is because very few of our pastors are poor widows.
Some, to be sure, have been poor pastors – but even still, not this poor.
When I was in college I used to go to a midweek evening service, and I would usually put everything I had into the offering plate. It was an important gesture for me at that time. But I didn’t actually put “all I had” in the plate; it was just all that I had on me – which was some pocket change. And the sacrifice it entailed was that I might not be able to buy a soda from the machine in the dormitory basement later that night, because this was in the days before such machines would take a dollar bill.
But I will say this: that gesture of reaching into my pocket and putting it all into the offering plate did for me what the offering is supposed to do, it symbolized that I wanted to yield myself wholly to God. I wanted to give my self to God. I wanted to trust myself to God. I wanted God to be the center of my existence.
I have told you this before – but it’s worth saying again – that when the offering plate comes before you, a whole lot more is supposed to be happening than the gathering of donations to help pay the staff, the heat and lights. That offering plate is asking you a question: “To whom does your life belong? Who will you serve with your life? How will you respond to the loving-kindness of God?”
This offering plate, of course, is not the only place this question is asked of you – or that you will answer it. There are many times and places in daily life in which you have the opportunity to give your self, your time, and your possessions to the work of God in the world. There are continual opportunities in life to express the kindness, compassion, truth, justice and generosity of God. But the offering plate is a weekly opportunity for the symbolic act of giving ourselves to God.
But to go back to the widow in our text – while the act of giving is deeply important to the life of the spirit, what is happening in this narrative is not simply a generous gift by a poor woman who by her faith shames all those who have made much gifts of greater monetary value. Jesus is attacking a form of religious life that is bleeding the poor rather than feeding them.
I don’t know exactly what Mark and his congregation hear in this story of the widow with the two copper coins. Perhaps that’s part of what makes the story so engaging. Is she angry at God and throwing her last two pennies into the pot? The word in the text that is translated as ‘putting’ her offering into the treasury is the Greek word to ‘throw’ or ‘cast’. Is she in despair and knows these two pennies mean nothing and she is essentially throwing them away: “Here, God, you take these; they won’t do me any good.”? Is she bargaining with God: “I am going to give you all I have. Now give me what I need”? Or is it a sincere act of faith: “Here God. This is all I have. You are my only hope.”?
The story is rich with possibilities. And they are worth thinking about inasmuch as those thoughts might tell us something about our own attitude towards life and towards God and towards our giving.
But the story isn’t about what the woman is thinking. It is about what is happening to the woman. The temple has taken her life.
The word in the text that is translated as ‘all she had to live on’ is the Greek word ‘bios’ that comes into English in such words as biology and bioengineering. It is the Greek word for ‘life’. And yes, it can mean – and probably means here – one’s livelihood, one’s possessions. But it means more than that. It represents one’s life in the world. This woman is giving more than her possessions; she is entrusting to God her life. Her existence is now in the hands of God.
This, of course, is why this text is used for stewardship sermons. We are made in the image of God – as Jesus has just argued when he was attacked with the question about paying taxes. His remark “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is not just a witticism to dodge the question; it is profound declaration meant to challenge his opponents, for they know that the scripture teaches that we are created in the image of God. Jesus is declaring that their lives – and all they possess – belongs to God and must be rendered to him.
In our culture we have great illusions about life being in our power. We want very much to believe that our fate is in our own hands. We think the meaning of life is found in my choices. But Jesus is telling us that the meaning of life is found in entrusting our lives to God. This doesn’t mean letting go of our responsibility for our lives; it means finding our true humanity, our true life, in the way of God – in the way of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, justice, generosity, and love.
The woman has entrusted her life into the hands of God. And that is why we use this as a stewardship sermon. But, as I’ve said, the story isn’t about the woman; it is about the scribes and the temple.
It is about the scribes who, as Jesus says in our text, “devour widow’s houses.” It is about the temple system that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The religious system that the scribes are advocating doesn’t embody the justice and mercy of God. It doesn’t share bread with the hungry. It doesn’t clothe the naked. It doesn’t shelter the homeless. It doesn’t free those in debtor’s prison. It doesn’t welcome the outcast and the stranger. It doesn’t heal the sick or free those bound by unclean spirits. It doesn’t forgive as we have been forgiven.
It is hard whenever Jesus attacks the religious system of his day, because Jesus isn’t talking about some other people long ago and far away. He is talking to us, to the religious systems of our day. Whenever we hear Jesus talk about scribes and Pharisees we should understand he is talking about pastors and church members.
So Jesus has warned his followers about the temple system that bleeds widows dry – and then points across the courtyard to a widow giving her last two cents. The text says to us simply: “Don’t be that.” Don’t be the Renaissance church selling indulgences to build the papal palace in Rome and assist Prince Albert’s effort to gain greater power in the empire. Don’t be Jim and Tammy Baker bleeding their listeners for gold plated faucets in their bathroom. Don’t be the church of any age, rich in gold while people hunger. Don’t be the church of the self-satisfied and self-righteous. Don’t be the church aligned with the rich and powerful against the poor and dispossessed.
It doesn’t mean we cannot or should not give God our best. It doesn’t mean we cannot and should not have beauty in our worship and our buildings. It does mean that we see the playground we have built out front as something to enrich the community not just ourselves. It means we remember that the building and our worship and our ministries are tools to serve God and our neighbor rather than ourselves.
So we have before us this morning this rich narrative about a poor widow and all that it suggests about our lives belonging to God. And we have the warning of Jesus about not being a religious system that robs people of life, but a faith community that gives life. And there is one more thing in this narrative. And it is, again, about the giving of a life.
Mark has put this story in a very specific place in his Gospel. It is the last story about Jesus before the passion narrative. It is the last event before Jesus lays down his life for the world. All that Jesus has said to us, he is now about to do.
In the arc of the larger narrative of the Gospel, Jesus has appeared declaring the dawning of God’s reign. He has brought the bounty of God to a people who have been denied God’s bounty. He has released people from disease, from hunger, from shame, from demonic possession, from death. He has confronted the ruling parties in Jerusalem and warned them that God’s judgment is coming – not the judgment as in the day of judgment, but the judgment of disaster to a people who have not lived in keeping with God’s command to do justice and mercy – the judgment that will result in the fall of the city and the destruction of their world-renowned temple.
Jesus has come to Jerusalem, into the viper’s den, and challenged the ruling elite. And, at this consummate point in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus’ public ministry is over and everything moves towards the cross, we have this text about the religious leaders who take life and the widow who gives her life.
Jesus is the widow who gives his life.
Yes, Jesus is the widow devoured by the ruling elite. He is the widow crushed by this religious system who will condemn him for blaspheming the name of God and threatening the social order. But, far more importantly, Jesus is the one who offers his life, who entrusts himself to God, who embodies the way of God.
Jesus is the widow who gives all for us. And with his sacrifice, he calls us into the life of God, into the way of the kingdom, into the grace and mercy and justice and compassion and freedom and joy of God – into the life that will not perish.