A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
8 Nov 2015
Based on Mark 12:38-44
This morning our gospel reading is Mark 12:34-44. This story is part of a series of stories about Jesus teaching. Part of his teaching is a public debate with Jewish leaders: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. All of these stories take place in Jerusalem, between the parade-like entry on Palm Sunday and the arrest and crucifixion later that week. Listen this morning to how Jesus warns the disciples against the Scribes in this passage, and how the public displays of religion by the scribes are contrasted with the simple piety of a widow.
38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” (Common English Bible)
Jesus gets a lot of press talking about love – but scholars who are much better at languages than I (and typically have graduate students to which they can assign such work) have analyzed the words attributed to Jesus and concluded Jesus talks more about money than he talks about love. So it is obvious Jesus paid attention to how people gave their offerings.
The collection of offering in the Temple at the time of Jesus is very different than the way we American Protestants collect offering in our weekly worship service. Offering was done publicly, and Jesus has deliberately sat down where he can see the activities of the treasury.
The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem can be described as a pair of walled courtyards that were entered through a gateway. Inside the first courtyard, to the right, was the Temple Treasury – a small building in the corner of the courtyard. People went into this building to make their offerings. Priests were inside to record the offerings. The offering went into one of 12 different chests, depending on what kind of offering a person was making – and the reason for making the offering. A priest would read aloud the religious obligations of the giver and the offerings brought to fulfill those obligations.
I know that may sound strange to Protestants for whom offering is a secret act but in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day it was important to demonstrate one’s religious identity publicly so that others knew you were keeping up with your responsibilities. In the world of Jesus, the acts of faith are communal activities.
The way the doors were set in the walls of the treasury, one could stand in the main courtyard and watch everything going on inside the treasury. In fact, certain religious leaders took advantage of this. It seems that priests sometimes used people’s offerings as a time for praise and commendation and to shame and humiliate other people. It is not difficult to imagine whoever brought a large offering would be praised – and that others would be able to see both the act of giving and the act of being praised for giving. Any shrewd person could make sure that they were seen giving their offering and receiving praises for giving their offering.
Often this story is interpreted as one of humility, contrasting the rich who are having their offering announced and the widow offering that receive no proclamation. But that may not be the lesson Jesus is means.
In Jewish society, the widow does not have many religious obligations. Because she does not have much obligation, she is not required to give much. Her one small coin would have been enough. But Jesus points out that this widow puts in 2 coins – twice as much as she was obligated to give, and probably just about all the resources this widow had. The point of the lesson may be that Jesus is asking, “What would the world be like if faithful people gave twice as much as they felt they had to give?”
This is a masterful piece of storytelling. We’re meant to perceive the widow as an exemplar of faith, as one whose life experience has translated into wisdom. Although we’re in the gospel of Mark, a version of this same story appears in Luke. One of the themes in Luke’s writing is that God’s kingdom is being revealed more fully to those who are on the margins of society, those who society has cast out and tried to ignore.
That was the status of widows in Jewish society at the time of Jesus. The family of the deceased husband did not have any obligations to care for the widow. Her adult children were obligated to care for their children first before caring for their mother. As a woman, there were restrictions on her for owning a business – restrictions from her religious world as a Jew and restrictions from the Greek world of business. There’s even two Jewish idioms to describe widows: one meaning is “leftover pieces,” like the pieces of grain that are left in a field after a harvest for the poor to harvest; another is the “silenced ones.”
And yet, this is whom Jesus watches in the temple giving their offering as a model for generosity – for God’s realm is more at work in her reality than in the reality of those whose religious obligations involve lengthy declarations.
When I read the gospels, I often ask “How would I feel if I were with Jesus when this happened?” Jesus sat in the courtyard of the temple in a place where he could watch people giving their offering; it was obviously something he was curious about. I’m not sure that I would want to sit with Jesus watching people go into the temple treasury to make their offerings. And yet, here it is, an obvious and deliberate act: Jesus goes to the Temple and sits in a place where he can watch how people give their money to their religion. While he is sitting in that spot, he compares two different ways of giving.
I’m not sure that Jesus would try to compare us to either the widow or the Scribe. I’m not sure that if Jesus watched us make our offerings that we would fit either of the two options, giving from abundance and giving from poverty, giving from obligation or giving more than obligated. I think if Jesus sat and watched us present our offering, Jesus would tell a new parable. I’m not sure what that parable would be, and I’m not even ready to take a guess. But I am learning that if I want to sit with Jesus, I have to become more comfortable the patterns of church-related giving.
Since Jesus watches how we use our money, what’s the story Jesus would tell about you? I don’t ask that question only of you; I ask it of myself.
Since Jesus watches how we use our money, what’s the story Jesus would tell about you? That’s a good question to ask of ourselves as individuals, as families who share finances, as a congregation who has received a proposed budget that will be adjusted according to your pledges. Since Jesus watches how we use our money, what’s the story Jesus would tell about you?
That is not a question you or I will be able to answer in the next 2 minutes, or five minutes, or maybe even the next 5 days or 5 weeks. It is a good question to keep asking as we continue in these weeks of stewardship, in this holiday of Thanksgiving and even the season of Advent. For now, we continue our worship.