Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018
Year B, Proper 27: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44
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The second part of today’s Gospel is often referred to as “The Widow’s Mite” and is quite often used in relation to stewardship and sacrificial giving. The widow gives of her poverty, putting everything she had into the temple box.
Jesus draws the attention of his disciples and out attention to a woman who might otherwise be overlooked: a poor widow, just one figure in the crowd at the temple, who places her last two small coins into a metal receptacle intended for offerings. As soon as she does so, she disappears again into the crowd.
The widow has certainly given of her poverty, and that is an important part of the story, but it is by no means the only part of this story.
Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem – and having issued a stern condemnation of the scribes, he talks about the widow and her contributions. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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.”[i]
There is a deep contrast between the scribes and the widow in Mark 12. Together, these two sections can be seen as an indictment upon any religious system that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the system’s leaders may continue to live lives of wealth and comfort. If we were to look at this in the context of today’s worlds the scribes may indeed be compared to televangelists who are living in multi-million dollar mansions and flying in $40 million private planes while their donations often come from those least able to give that kind of money.
“Beware of the scribes”.[ii] Jesus is pointing to men entrusted with religious leadership who have turned their positions of trust into selfish positions requiring little work. They focus on what they can get rather than what they can give. They relish the public honors that accompany their positions.
Who does not like red carpet treatment? As an example – I used to run the Columbus Day Parade in Philadelphia. I usually finished about 3:45 p.m. One particular year the parade conflicted with a Philadelphia Eagles’ game. My friend and I had season tickets. How did I get there on time? Transported with sirens running in a Philadelphia Police Department jeep. I liked that special treatment. And believe me, if I could get a police escort between Woodstock and Mt. Jackson on Sunday mornings, I would probably accept! And I certainly enjoyed finding that Andes mint on my turned down bed at the Hilton Richmond at Diocesan Convention.
We have to be careful, however, not to indict all scribes based on these verses. We certainly should not assume that all scribes are guilty. I need to say that this is one of those sections of the Gospels that have been used to justify anti-Semitism over the last two thousand years. It simply isn’t what the text is about.
Remember that just four verses before this section of Mark, Jesus had a conversation with a scribe whom he pronounced to be not far from the kingdom.[iii] People who hold honored positions often serve honorably.
What Jesus is warning about are scribes who are abusing their authority. In the era described in Mark’s gospel, scribes act often as lawyers and theologians, assisting people with financial as well as spiritual affairs. In some cases, they actually manage people’s money for them.[iv] They were honored because they were supposed to be competent, responsible and above reproach. They were thought to be trustworthy. Certainly, many of them were, but some were in it for themselves. These fell victim to the temptations that accompanied their position.
Jesus is speaking about specific practices where some scribes engage in money-making schemes that particularly benefit themselves. While scribes were not permitted to charge for their services, nothing prohibited them from soliciting contributions for their personal support.
It was well-known in that time and place that widows were the most financially imperiled, with precious few possible sources of income, and vulnerable to being cheated or bullied out of whatever assets they may have inherited. Yet this woman maintained her dignity as a member of the community. She took part in the shared responsibility of the community. She gave of what she had. She was devout in the way she lived her life, though those around looked past her, if not down on her. She is contrasted with those who display their wealth, their piety and their smarts in trying to show up Jesus in the temple.
The widow seeks no power over anyone in order to better her situation. By her gift, small as it is, she seeks to serve God. And though its cash value is slight, the gift is enormous, everything she’s got. She’s not looking to fill the emptiness in herself by taking from others.
To me, this section of Mark isn’t rocket science. It’s about the kind of faith that we are supposed to have. It’s a faith that digs deep, a faith which is sacrificial, a faith which bears the cross. It’s about what we give to God. And it’s about the amazing riches that God gives in return.
We are called to be the widow. Loving, living, and giving sacrificially. It’s about living in faith. It’s about simple generosity. Jesus is unimpressed by any competition to be seen as the best—he’s impressed by the simple faith of the widow: living in God’s mercy, simply, humbly, generously; accepting God’s generosity and rejoicing in it.
I have just finished my first year in Beckford Parish. Over the past year, we have walked the path of Jesus together. As we move forward, we will discover more ways in which Beckford will be the community that God wants. We worship together, celebrate together, sing together, learn together, grieve together. We follow Jesus Christ together.
Think of the days that Jesus faced. Fear was all around. There was an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty. His disciples did not know what the future held.
As we think of our future, we always remember our past. Today, we commemorate 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I in 1918 on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year at 11:00 a.m. All those who got to war pay a significant personal price. Undoubtedly, World War I (and all subsequent ones) made us wonder who or what in the world we can trust. People were ever hopeful that the horrors of World War I would end further war and violence. That was not to be the case. Even now, we are living through precarious and dangerous times – more dangerous than we have known for several generations. We must continue to pray and advocate for peace and policies that will promote peace.
What is truly amazing to me is that God can take what seems to us like a small gift like that given by the widow, and when it is given for all the right reasons – from a genuine heart of God, with a grateful spirit and generous attitude – multiply it many times over. May we like the widow express the love of a generous heart, a grateful spirit, and a generous attitude and may love enfold us always. Amen.
[i] Mark 12:42-44, New Revised Standard Version
[ii] Mark 12:38, New Revised Standard Version
[iii] Mark 12:34, New Revised Standard Version
[iv] Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 441.
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