08 November 2015

Without Reserve

Mark 12: 38-44 (13:1-3)

Mission Sunday

8th November 2015

We know little about her.[1]  We don’t know her name.  We don’t know her age.  We don’t know where she was born, the name of her husband, whether they had any children.  Maybe they had children, but they predeceased her.  We know little about her.  We know that she is a widow.  And we know that she is poor.  Really poor, with only two small coins to her name—and they were tiny—worth very little.  We don’t know what happened in her life, what trauma, what hardship left her almost penniless.  That’s all the text says.

What we do know is that she gave her last two coins to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem.  This is something for which to be commended, I guess.  That’s how she’s often portrayed in countless sermons: the widow who gave in her poverty, the woman who gave all she had, we’re told, as if to shame the wealthy who gave in their abundance, costing them little. It’s no wonder that this text has been used in countless stewardship sermons over the centuries.  But before we praise her for sacrificial stewardship, there are several things we need to know. 

We must not romanticize this story.  We must not sentimentalize this story.  There’s nothing sentimental about it!  And don’t praise her unless you’re willing to walk in her sandals, if she had sandals.  To be a widow at that time was scary.  And it was a frightening thing to be both a widow and poor in Jesus’ time. 

She has two small coins, basically nothing.  And she puts them in the offering box of the Temple treasury.  Why would she do this?  She would have nothing left to survive on.  And there was no safety net for her.  She was living on the margin of society, powerless, of little or no value to society, invisible.  No husband.  No family.  No pension.  No social status. No social security. Nothing. 

Why would she do this?  Perhaps she didn’t need the coins.  Perhaps she knew that her life was close to an end.  Perhaps she was sick, dying.  We don’t know.  She probably didn’t live long after she placed the coins in the box.

The leaders of the Temple certainly didn’t care about her.  That’s clear.  That’s why Jesus warns his disciples about the scribes.  The scribes are not really scribes as we think of them, they’re not taking notes, they’re not secretaries.  The scribes are leaders that made up the religious, economic, and political establishment that, together, formed the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple was not just a building where people worshipped God.  It was a religious, economic, and political organization.  It was an old, powerful, wealthy institution that was also, at the time, in collaboration with the Roman Empire.  That’s why Jesus warns his followers, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive their condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).

Did you catch that?  “They devour widow’s houses.”  We know that scribes, these officers of the religious establishment, were allowed to handle the financial affairs of deceased men because their widows were considered incapable of doing so on their own.  The scribes took a percentage of the assets.  As a result, the system was corrupt, subject to abuse and embezzlement.[2]  Even though the Torah—the Torah, that is, the Law, God’s Law— specifically demands the protection of both the orphan and the widow (in other words, the most vulnerable in society)—it’s clear that the Temple was doing neither.  The Temple, according Jesus, had lost its purpose, lost its vision.  The scribes walk about in their robes, taking advantage of their power, privilege, and status, talking about spiritual things, offering beautiful, poetic—and long—prayers, putting on airs, all the while they are spiritually and economically exploiting God’s people. 

This is why Jesus is furious with the Temple, or what the Temple had become in his day, what aspects of the faith had become under Roman occupation.  Jesus wasn’t being anti-Jewish—he wasn’t against himself.  He was against the abuses of religion.  He’s condemning false religion, judging the sinful effect when religion sells its soul to the powers that be for power, status, privilege, when political and economic ideologies pervert and distort the spirit of true faith, which is care for the orphan and the widow and the foreigner and the poor—justice, fairness, wholeness!  That’s what God wants for all God’s children, not just for some. (See Isaiah 1:17 & James 1:27!)  That’s what God demands of us.  That’s what’s at the heart of Judaism and therefore it’s also at the heart of Christianity.  Jesus condemns the Temple.

This is a tough message to hear.  How do we know?  Because the disciples aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them.  They haven’t heard a thing.  They can’t see what’s in front of them because what’s in front of them is the Temple: power and privilege and influence and status and strength.  As soon as Jesus leaves there, walking down from the heights of the Temple precinct, we’re told that one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1).  That’s what they notice!  Large stones.  Large buildings.

The disciple is referring to size of the Temple itself—and it was enormous, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Herod the Great (d. 4 BC), as king of the Jews, was also an ambitious architect and city-planner, who expanded the footprint of the Temple Mount during his reign.  The Temple Mount is about the size of six football fields.   He carted in enormous foundation stones—Herod didn’t do it, he had slaves do that for him.  These stones, known as Ashlars, support the Temple Mount, and they’re enormous.   These “large stones,” as the disciple said, the largest of which measured 39 feet, 4 inches long by 7 feet, 10 inches wide, 43 inches high, weighing as much as 80 tons.  That’s what the disciple notices.  The disciple was obviously impressed by their splendor and all that they represent.  And what does Jesus say?  “Do you see these buildings?” Jesus asks, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).  It will all come tumbling down.  In approximately four days time, the Temple authorities would have a role in Jesus’ death.  In about thirty-seven years after Jesus, the Romans would tear the Temple apart, stone by stone, in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Jesus has harsh words for the Temple.  But the Church must not think we’re exempt from similar judgment.  Jesus condemns and judges the Church when it’s supported by secular structures or too heavily under the sway of secular and political ideologies that refuse to help the orphan and the widow and the foreigner and the poor, when the Church refuses to take some risks in caring for the most vulnerable in our society.  A Church made up of such “scribes” is unfit for discipleship.  This is critical for us.  Our life, the vitality of the Church, the moral integrity of the Church is at stake here. Is the Church—often unknowingly, unintentionally—contributing to the oppression of God’s children by being the Church, worrying about the survival of the institution, managing the organization, concerned too much about status and numbers and influence and privilege in society, too worried about making or keeping people happy, or losing members, that it stifles the work of the Spirit in its midst?

Did you notice that Jesus never praises the poor widow?  It might sound like that to our ears.  He doesn’t celebrate her offering.  Yes, she gave her all, everything she had, but to an institution that refused to adequately care for her!  Perhaps she was even impoverished by the Temple.  Jesus never commends her action.  He simply notices and then invites his disciples—you and me—to do the same, to see things that our affluence and class and power and privilege and class and race and gender prevent us from seeing.  Have you ever noticed that so much of Jesus’ ministry was getting people to open their eyes so that their hearts would break open with compassion, or getting us to open our hearts so that our eyes can see—really see—the suffering of God’s people, see the systemic injustice right before our eyes, help us see the invisible ones, people easy to miss or ignore, easy to see right through as if they don’t even exist? 

As Jesus knew, once you see it’s impossible to not see, to un-see, it’s impossible to be blind again.  That’s what grace does!  “I once was blind but now I see.”  Right?  Grace opens our eyes.  Or, are we so impressed by “large stones” and miss the injustice at the steps of the Temple, of the Church?

Years ago, on my first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, I preached at the Nganza Centrale Presbyterian Church in Kananga.  Prior to my visit, Catonsville Presbyterian Church bought sewing machines for the women of the Nganza Central Church as a way to train women in a useful skill that could bring in additional income for their families.  They made shirts and dresses, which we sold here in Catonsville.  We then used that money to purchase a motorcycle for Pastor Manyai to get around to his large parish, because the roads were in terrible shape.  I was there to present the motorcycle to the pastor and congregation. 

It was a joyous occasion.  The people, very poor, were so full of joy and love and spirit.  When it came time for the offering they danced their gifts down the center aisle as the choir sang and the rich rhythm of the drums thrummed through the church.  Pastor Manyai stood behind the offering box as each worshipper gave what they could.  Most dropped a few coins into the box, some offered food from their gardens or farms, some gave eggs; everyone gave out of their abundance, truly grateful for what they had.  I was sitting behind the pulpit, off to the side, watching all of this before my eyes wondering if we could try this in Catonsville.  How about dancing your offering down the aisle?  I’m not sure what we would do if everyone gave eggs or tomatoes or extra basil from your gardens.  Actually, we prefer checks, cash, and a generous pledge card. 

As I watched people come forward there was one woman carrying a baby who started to place her offering into the box, when Pastor Manyai very slowly, without drawing attention to what he was doing, gently placed her gift back into her hands.  They looked at each other with an eye of mutual understanding and she returned to her bench. That was a holy moment. Wow.  I should have averted my eyes from such holiness.  But I’m grateful that I didn’t miss that moment of grace, grateful for what I was allowed to see.

Sometimes the system is corrupt.  Sometimes institutions do not serve the needs of God’s people.  Sometimes the political and economic oppression is so dehumanizing (as it is in the DRC).  Most of us cannot even begin to understand what that’s like. 

No, Jesus wasn’t praising that woman at the treasury.  He was observing her.  And he invites us to see, to notice her too; to see that generous act, to notice her sacrifice, to notice her commitment, to notice her devotion.  Perhaps she could give without reserve because she knew that she was at the end of her life, she didn’t need those coins any more.  But, what if she was a young widow, then the act is even more preposterous and confusing and wrong (especially if she was forced to give to the Temple).  We don’t know. 

Either way, it’s a costly offering, not unlike the costly offering Jesus was about to make, giving his life without reserve to the larger purpose of God’s justice and grace.  Perhaps that’s what is at work here.  Maybe Jesus sees something of himself in her.  Maybe she mirrors back something true about himself.  Hers is a costly offering to something, someone larger than herself.  Jesus, too, offers himself without reserve to God’s call in his life, to God’s vision of kingdom-justice. 

And at a deep level all of this talk about giving is not rational.  Being this generous often exceeds rationality.  When you’re really generous, when you give to your kids or your spouse or a friend, it’s often not rational.  Right?  You just do it because you want to out of the fullness of your heart; because it gives you joy, because you love your child, because you love your partner, because you love a friend.  It’s not always rational; it might appear a little silly or foolish.  It might even surprise the person you’re being generous to.  You might surprise yourself, surprised that you could be that generous.  You just do it because you see them and you open your heart and then you give.

At the deepest level of our souls, I believe, this is how we all want to live—without reserve.  Toward God.  Toward neighbor.  Toward stranger.  Toward friend.  I also believe there’s something within us that fights and rages and resists against this within us, that wants to hold back, often in fear, when we withhold our hearts, withhold resources, withhold compliments and praise, withhold goodness. But deeper than our reluctance, our selfishness is a desire to be generous with our emotions, generous with our hearts, generous with our time, generous with our resources and gifts, generous with our souls.

Consider CPC’s new Envision Fund.  The use of the Robert Riley bequest in the formation of the Envision Fund reflects this spirit of giving.  This morning in worship we will announce the first grant awards, totaling more than $38,000.  Do you realize just how generous you are?  This is an extremely generous use of the gift.

Or, consider the way this church gives generously, through tithes and gifts and offerings and annual pledge commitments, the way you support this ministry and mission, witnessed in our mission work on display today at the Mission Fair—mission that starts as we walk down our steps and step out into the world.

We give not because we have to, but because we want to, discovering that our lives become richer, fuller, more expansive when we give.  Giving this way expands the reach and depth of this ministry.  In some ways, it’s the only way for us to truly bless and care for the world. That’s our calling.  That’s our mission.

[1] I’m immensely grateful for Debie Thomas’ commentary essay “The Widow Prophet” at Journey With Jesus, from which I’ve borrowed several ideas and insights, insights that inspired my own reading of Mark 12:38-44. 

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