The Rev. Amy Spagna
Pentecost 24B (Proper 27) – November 8, 2015 Mark 12:38-44
Would this not have made a fantastic Gospel reading for the stewardship campaign? Seriously! One could not ask for a more wonderful scene than this to undergird the idea that all of us have something to contribute, no matter how small. The Temple treasury is having a red-letter day. Rich and poor alike are walking up to the donation box in to put in their contributions. However, all is not as rosy as it seems. Mark makes clear that this crowd contains a lot of wealthy people, and they are putting a lot of money into the collection box. They may even be making a show out of it, so they can’t help but be noticed by anyone who might be watching. Jesus, who’s standing off to the side somewhere and watching all this, looks right past them, and notices someone else sticking out from the crowd like a sore thumb: a poor widow, who has come by herself and put into the box the very last of her material resources. She, and her motivations, could not be any more different from the rest of the people there. Jesus hammers that difference home by pointing her out to the disciples as the one who has truly given the most. (How lovely.)
However, there is a great deal more going on here than just a story about someone who gives up everything she has for the good of the community, and with the undertone of, “That’s what WE should be like, too.” This is NOT a story about how the most vulnerable are yet again asked to give up the most, or even about offering something as an act of devotion to God.1 Instead, it’s sandwiched among Jesus’ harshest criticisms of the religious establishment of his day – an establishment which seems to have gotten so full of itself that it ignores its own basic rules for how people are to interact with God and with one another. That criticism is meant to point out how backward the world was - and still is! - compared with how it OUGHT to be. We OUGHT to be able to see, and to treat with care and respect, even the most invisible people in the world... and yet, we still have trouble doing so. We tend to get so caught up with our own stuff, our own status, our own whatever it is that we can’t see any farther than the boundaries which our stuff has made for us.
For better or for worse, this kind of short-sightedness is the human way. Not much has changed in that regard in the past 2000 years, which is why this part of Mark is still relevant for us now. Jesus draws our attention to it through his harsh criticism of those in positions of privilege within the religious establishment. He follows that up by going out of his way to point out one individual who embodies everything “the establishment” is not. This one poor widow is a symbol of Jesus’ – and God’s - upside-down way of putting people first who would otherwise remain invisible. That Jesus notices her, one of the invisible people of her day, at all is remarkable, perhaps even more so than what she has done. By putting her last two cents into the donation box, she’s given up everything she has to support an institution which, despite the best intentions of its founders, has grown corrupt.
1 Emilie Townes, “Theological Perspective: Mark 12:38-44.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 286.
In the process, its leaders have also lost the ability to look beyond their own self-interests toward those of the wider community – including widows, orphans, and anyone else lacking a male blood relative to provide for them.
Standing in direct contrast to this widow we have a group of scribes, who only seem to be in it to be seen wearing their long robes and to get the best seats at dinner. In other words, it’s become all about them, and maintaining their privileged positions, and not about what they have to serve others like the poor widow. Whatever word we might want to use to describe them, whether it’s narcissistic, self-centered, self-serving, stuck up, or just plain ignorant, these scribes are decidedly not ideal role models. Instead, they’ve become hypocrites, leaders whose failure to put their money where their mouths are opens them up to the harshest criticism Jesus has to offer. Because they are so well-educated, they of all people ought to know what the Law requires of them. Yet, they still choose to act in ways intended to draw attention in the public arena, instead of using their knowledge and power to set a positive example for the people watching them. What’s worse, they’re greedy for power in the religious arena. When it’s given to them, they turn around and use that power and status to, “devour widows’ houses” instead of obeying the mandates in the Torah to ensure those widows are provided for.2
In pointing out the scribes’ bad habits at the end of a chapter where he’s spent quite a lot of time arguing with them already, Jesus turns things upside down yet again. As a symbol of the “down and out,” it’s the widow who demands our attention, and not the scribes in all their self-important and swishy robes. The Old Testament is very clear on this count. The law codes lump together widows, orphans, and strangers into a category as people who must not be abused, lest God’s wrath be kindled against the abusers (Exodus 22:21-24, NRSV). Psalm 94 goes a step further in describing those who do so as “evildoers.” The prophet Isaiah even gets in on the action:
“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?
For all this, his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.” (Isaiah 10:1-4, NRSV)
2 Robert A. Brant, “Exegetical Perspective: Mark 12:38-44.” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 286.
Again, the scribes of all people SHOULD know this better than most. Yet, they’ve chosen not to act like it. No matter what excuses they might have given for their behavior, it raises the question of what has gotten in their way: is it the seductive trap of being liked and respected both inside and outside of their “usual” circles, and the material rewards that respect commands, or is it something else?
Since they’re human, the answer to that is probably, “all of the above.” I would bet we all know someone like that – and have acted that way ourselves from time to time. Fortunately for us, we are blessed with a whole community of people here to tell us when we’ve gotten to that point. Hopefully those people will also help us begin to make the changes we need to make so we can pull our heads – and our hands – out from underneath our robes. Unfortunately for the scribes, they don’t seem to have that kind of support as readily available as we do. Jesus tries to get them to stop and look in the mirror, seemingly to no avail. At least, Mark never tells if he succeeded at that task or not. Regardless, Mark’s – and Jesus’ – point is that to see the upside down way of things in God’s Kingdom is what matters. Period. Instead of desperately trying to get others to complement us on our finery, we should be paying attention to the widows, orphans, and strangers – all the people we might not even notice otherwise. THAT is how to turn things upside down by the world’s reckoning. The great thing is, that’s right side up when it comes to God’s way of doing things. Michael Curry, the new Presiding Bishop, in the sermon preached at his installation last Sunday, puts it this way: “Yes, the way of God’s love turns our world upside down. But that’s really right side up. And in that way, the nightmare of this world will be transfigured into the very dream of God for humanity and all creation. My brothers and sisters, God has not given up on God’s world. And God is not finished with The Episcopal Church yet. God has work for us to do. Jesus has work for us to do and it’s the Jesus Movement. So don’t worry. Be happy!”3
My friends, we’ve been given a job to do, and that’s to go out and serve the people in our town who most need what we have to offer. Everyone’s got something to contribute. Whether it’s material resources, time, or the embarrassing wealth of talent I see sitting in front of me this morning, we need it all. Our very survival depends on taking it and dropping it into God’s collection box. And just as we will do later in the service with the offering of bread and wine in the Eucharist, we will give thanks, ask God to bless it, and marvel in what God will do with it.
3 “A Sermon Preached by the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry: The Installation of the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church.” Delivered at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, Washington, D.C. November 1, 2015. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/11/01/video-currys-sermon-at- installation-of-the-27th-presiding-bishop/.