This is the message I gave on November 11, 2012.
“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, 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 the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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. 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.”
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 12:38–13:2 NRSV)
When I was in college I learned that I had an Aunt who lived in the same town as me, who I’d never heard of let alone met, that wanted to help me with college. I thought this was strange. For one thing, I was sure no one in my family had money, and secondly I wondered how she knew I was in need of help?
I am not sure how she found out but in any case, my mom encouraged me to go and visit my Aunt S. This was an awkward thing. I was going to go meet an aunt I’d never met, under the pretense of getting some help for school. For awhile, I just put the whole thing off. It felt kind of weird to do. But necessity beat me on this one, and with funds running very low, I went to talk to my aunt S.. [In college, I was able to go not because we had money but because we were poor enough. I got a lot of loans and some grants and the rest I paid for out of the money I made working as a waiter, on campus and at my family's donut shop.]
We finally met and hit it off really well. S. was a wonderful, if frail, elderly woman pretty in her 90s by the time I met her.
Not only did she give a monthly check to my school to help pay for tuition, but she let me move into her basement to help defray the unwieldy cost of living on campus. S. was an extremely generous woman. And it wasn’t like she was rolling in money, she lived in a small 2 bedroom bungalow in Canton, Ohio. It was cute, but it was quaint.
We had a lot of fun living together for about 6 months – maybe a year? She loved Regis and Kathy, so we watched that together every morning. But there was one sad thing about the situation too. Her kids lived all over the country and barely spoke to her. I also kind of felt like she had been forgotten. I don’t know if that’s really what happened, but as a 22 year-old, that was my impression. S.’s main Friends at the end of her life were me and one of her 15 aging siblings – who would come over every day and play scrabble. For a woman who was so happy, so loving and generous, I had a hard time knowing why she had been so easily disregarded.
I think this was the first that I really began to see what the Bible specifically meant about caring for widows who are some of the most vulnerable in society. S. was a lovely old woman died alone – I had moved out to marry Emily. But it was also a lesson for me in recognizing that sometimes people’s gifts aren’t noticed or welcomed. That it is easy to disregard people and see them only as a nuisance, or an object for us to manipulate in one way or another.
_A Desire that Devours
When we turn to the story of Jesus and the widow at the end of Mark 12 we enter the story after Jesus has been on a bit of a rampage. Like an angry prophet, or demonstrator, dismayed by the state of things, Jesus has been camped out at the temple in Jerusalem. Just the day or two before he cleansed the temple because the leaders made “the house of prayer a den of thieves.”
He has been engaged in theological debates over authority, baptism, resurrection and the greatest commandments. And has told some of his most doom and gloom parables expressing his disgust at the hypocrisy the temple has become symbolic of.
He then turns his furry on the scribes – who were from rich landowning families whose own power and prestige was in decline during this time. These scribes were a part of the problem, grasping at whatever they could to maintain their status.
Jesus reveals them to be people controlled by their “desire:”
Who like [Desire] to walk around in long robes,
and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
to have the best seats in the synagogues
and places of honor at banquets!
He says “beware” of such dangerous religious people. Or as Ched Myers puts it:
Mark unsparingly caricatures the scribe as one who at every stage of social life wishes to be endowed with special privilege and status (320).
The Scribes were some of the key figures in controlling and benefiting from the temple. So when Jesus challenges the scribes, within this broader context of hailing criticisms on the temple leadership, Jesus is making a break from a harmful way of practicing of religion.
He says that they “devour the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers.” Under the pretext of being orthodox, religious, God-like, “saying long winded prayers” their desire devours all the inheritance and resources these women have left to live on. Mark then gives us an illustration of what this looks like.
Jesus then takes part in an important practice – he sits down to “observe” – to notice, to pay attention – to see what was happening at the treasury. This is what he say.
The rich gave out of their leftovers, their surplus, while there was this one widow who gave her last two leptas – which was basically worth less than even pennies are today.
They gave out of their leftovers, she gave out of her lack.
He saw some people giving and playing the game the Scribes wanted them to play. Going along with the respect and honor and fancy banquets they so desired. It was the rich giving out of their leftover that made the Scribe’s “honorable” life even possible. But the “desire” of the scribes had become insatiable. Now devoured every last penny of widows and others who were the most vulnerable in that society. They had become Robin Hood’s evil twin – they were robbing the poor to give to the rich.
The desire for status turned into a devouring of the resources of those for whom the scribes should have given the most concern. The widows should have been the recipients of the Scribes’ love for God, but instead they became victims of their hypocrisy. You can imagine how Jesus felt about this. Not only does Jesus say that the scribes “will receive the greater condemnation,” but he condemns the temple in the next two verses saying that just like the coins have been thrown into the treasury, so too will all the stones of the temple be thrown down.
_The Most Vulnerable
Often we have heard a quite different perspective on this passage. If we pull this passage out of the context of Jesus prophetic words against the greed and exploitation of the temple system, we can make it more spiritualized and pious story about Jesus comparing the ill-aimed piety of the scribes, with the true piety of the widow.
I have heard countless preachers use this passage to discuss why those in their pews should give all they have, every last penny, to the church. Missing, of course, the irony that Jesus is not only not supporting the giving of gifts to the temple, he is saying that it is because of things like taking the widow’s last two coins, instead of caring for her in her hour of need, that it will be destroyed.
I guess this explains why we see so temples supported by “Christian Scribes” fall today.
The widow was generous. Her faith in giving the gift was impressive and is a challenge for all of us. Jesus recognizes the gift she gave. But, as one author puts it:
This is not a passage about measuring the gift thrown into the treasury, it is a lament…(321).
Jesus is heartbroken that the widow’s gift and participation is overshadowed by greed, hypocrisy and corruption.
Another example: This past week some of us experienced the befuddlement that our presidential candidate lost, while others of us the elation of having our candidate, while still others the bewilderment that for so much air-time and money spent on this campaign many true isS.s were never explored by any of the candidates.
For instance, the topic of poverty was nearly invisible in the media coverage of the presidential race. A study of the campaign by the “Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting” media watchdog found that just “17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied—that’s 0.2 percent—addressed poverty in any substantive way.”
Christian Theology professor Cornel West commenting on this state on Democracy Now said this:
Well, one, I think that it’s morally obscene and spiritually profane to spend $6 billion on an election, $2 billion on a presidential election, and not have any serious discussion—poverty, trade unions being pushed against the wall dealing with stagnating and declining wages when profits are still up and the 1 percent are doing very well, no talk about drones dropping bombs on innocent people… So it’s very sad.
Whether in the church, or in the larger society, there is a desire that continues to devour the most vulnerable. Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and temple should be ringing in every Christian’s ears.
When I think back to my Aunt S., I am reminded by the beautiful gift of love and generosity she shared with me as a young college student, helping me to achieve my dream of having a college degree and the sadness that for some her gift as an elderly person and widow seemed to have expired.
I am drawn to the prophetic words of Jesus that challenge corrupt religious and political systems that exploit the most vulnerable in our midst, modeling for his followers, then and now, a prophetic practice that challenges these problems.
When I think about the widow, I think of her faith in a system that was broken – she knew that the temple was to care for her, while it took the last two pennies she owned – and yet it wasn’t the size of her gift that made the difference, so much as it was the act of giving, the participatory response to her faith.
As we close – let us consider whether we feel what we have to give or contribute is not good enough?
Consider what Jesus thinks is enough?
Maybe you feel that someday, when you have everything in order, then you will finally be able to truly participate in God’s work.
Consider the gift of the widow.
Maybe you have been treated in a way that your gifts are not received in kindness or with gratitude. Maybe you’re like my Aunt whose gift seem overlooked or worse disregarded.
Maybe we have been the victims of exploitation. Or maybe we have benefitted from a system that devour’s the resources of the most vulnerable. Or maybe both are true for you.
Consider Jesus’ words to the scribes.
Today we are invited to hear Jesus’ words and not measure what one another gives, but rather celebrate the widow’s gift, and lament the hypocrisy of so many who are blinded by their own desires just like the scribes.
Consider the temple’s faithlessness.
Let us together identify the vulnerable and welcome all acts of participation.
*Image thanks to JoshuaDavisPhotography