TITLE: Radical Faith
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: Each of us must choose whether we shall be like the corrupt scribe, someone whose life misses the mark -- or like the widow, a person of radical faith.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 12:38-44
VERSES 38-44: AN OVERVIEW
Note where this story fits in Mark's Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem
to the acclaim of the crowds (11:1-11). He has cleansed the temple
(11:15-19) and concluded a series of disputes with Pharisees, Herodians,
and scribes (11:27 -- 12:37). He is teaching in the temple (12:35). Holy
Week has begun. All that remains is this last opportunity to teach the
disciples (chap. 13), the passion narrative (chap. 14-15), and the
resurrection (chap. 16).
Our Gospel lesson consists of two complementary stories tied together by
the mention of widows. The stories contrast the pride and greed of the
scribes with the humility and generosity of a widow.
VERSES 38-40: BEWARE OF THE SCRIBES
38As 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, 39and
to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!
40They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long
prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
"Beware of the scribes" (v. 38). Jesus points to men entrusted with
religious leadership who have turned their positions of trust into selfish
sinecures. They focus on what they can get rather than what they can
give. Their long robes, impractical for manual labor, identify them as
professionals. They relish the public honors that accompany their
positions. In the marketplace, people rise respectfully when they
approach. In the synagogue, scribes sit in seats of honor on the dais --
seeing, but more importantly, being seen.
These are temptations for every age. Who does not like red carpet
treatment? Who does not enjoy wearing finely tailored clothes? Who does
not enjoy finding a mint on one's pillow? Who does not enjoy being
addressed by honorific title? All of these can be innocent or corrosive,
depending on how they affect our relationships.
We should not assume that all scribes are guilty. Jesus just had a
conversation with a scribe whom he pronounced to be not far from the
kingdom (12:34). People who hold honored positions often serve honorably.
"But places of honor tend to attract persons who are not honorable, and
regrettably, this applies also to the field of religion" (Craddock, 465)
Jesus taught the disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all
and servant of all" (9:35; see also 10:31, 43-44). He taught, "the Son of
Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for
many." His life contrasts dramatically with the scribes whom he is
criticizing. Unlike them, he dresses modestly and serves the needs of
humble people along the way. He warned a would-be follower, "Foxes have
holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to
lay his head" (Matt 8:20). Luccock asks, "What would an edition of Who's
Who be like if it were published, not in Chicago or London, but in
heaven?" He answers, "It would be a servants' directory" (Luccock, 852)
"They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long
prayers." Widows are especially vulnerable in a patriarchal society.
Scribes act both as lawyers and theologians, assisting people with
financial as well as spiritual affairs. In some cases, they actually
manage people's money for them (Lane, 441). While scribes are not
permitted to charge for their services, nothing prohibits them from
soliciting contributions for their personal support. Their long prayers
give them a reputation for piety, which makes it easy for them to take
advantage of unsophisticated people.
Josephus reports shocking behavior on the part of some religious leaders,
some of whom used henchmen to extort funds from subordinate priests. He
also reports that, in 66 A.D., rebels burned the high priest's house, in
part, to destroy records of debt (Evans, 284).
"They will receive the greater condemnation." Their guilt is multiplied
by their position of trust. When they fail as stewards, God will hold
them accountable. In another context, Jesus says, "From everyone to whom
much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much
has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48).
These same sins were probably beginning to emerge in the church of Mark's
time. Some church leaders are always more concerned with personal
privilege than with faithful service.
Christians are always caught on the horns of a dilemma. When do beautiful
buildings and expensive vestments stop glorifying God and start glorifying
clergy and congregation? That is not a matter that can be judged by the
cost of the buildings or vestments, but is a secret hidden within our
hearts -- but God knows our hearts!
In considering the preaching possibilities of this text, we need to
remember that stewardship over the lives of vulnerable people is an issue,
not only for synagogues and churches, but for everyone:
-- Business executives are tempted to treat customers and employees as
cogs in the moneymaking machine.
-- Government officials are tempted to sell policy and privilege for
-- Military leaders are tempted to put personal promotions above the
welfare of subordinates.
-- Teachers are tempted to put salaries above students.
-- Mechanics are tempted to recommend unneeded repairs.
-- And it is not necessary to be rich or powerful to victimize vulnerable
people, and it is not only people at the bottom who are vulnerable. An
embezzler victimizes his/her employer. A person who falsely accuses a
supervisor of discrimination or sexual harassment becomes the harasser.
In those situations, the employer or supervisor can be vulnerable --
ruinously vulnerable -- just like a widow is vulnerable.
It is possible for nearly any of us to injure vulnerable people. Of those
who do so, Jesus says, "They will receive the greater condemnation" (v.
VERSES 41-44: SHE PUT IN EVERYTHING SHE HAD
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money
into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came
and put in two small copper coins (Greek: lepta), which are worth a penny
(Greek: kodrantes). 43Then 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. 44For 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."
In the Women's Court, along the wall, there are thirteen large, metal,
trumpet-shaped receptacles to receive offerings for various purposes.
People who might not donate out of a spirit of generosity are tempted to
do so to be noticed by other people.
"Many rich people put in large sums." The receptacles sit in plain view,
and their clinking and clanking advertise the size of individual
offerings. The donor is tempted to consider the clink/clank value of
his/her offerings. Would a few loud clanks be most impressive -- or a
prolonged shower of smaller clinks? Perhaps, like a fireworks display,
the best show would be a number of small clinks followed by a rousing
finale of several great clanks.
The use of checks, paper money, and offering envelopes has removed this
particular temptation from church offerings today, but temptation remains
in other venues. Many substantial donations are given, at least in part,
for their public relations value. Jesus says that such donors have already
received their reward (Matt. 6:1-2).
"A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins (Greek: lepta), which
are worth a penny" (kodrantes -- a word borrowed from the Latin for the
sake of Mark's Roman readership). Lepta are small coins, but not so
worthless as a present-day penny. Each lepta would be worth about ten
percent of a worker's hourly wage -- perhaps the equivalent of a dollar or
two in today's currency (if you live outside the U.S., use prevailing
wages to calculate the value in local currency). They are too small to
sustain the woman for long, but large enough to matter -- two lepta would
buy a modest meal. Small coins, they hardly make a sound as she drops
them into the metal receptacles. Only Jesus notices the two small clinks
and understands their significance.
"Then he called his disciples and said to them" -- this familiar Marcan
formula announces an important teaching. "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." Jesus
does not condemn the large gifts of wealthy people, but says that this
woman's offering is even larger. He bases his calculation, not on what
she gives, but on what she has left. He knows how tempting it would be
for her to think, "This little bit won't matter, so I will let the rich
people fill the coffers." He knows how much easier it would be for her to
give one coin rather than two.
The gifts of the rich people "were probably calculated gifts, guided by
the law of the tithe and a long tradition of how it was to be figured" --
thus contrasting dramatically with the widow's gift which "surely was not:
She might have kept one of the two coins but did not. Instead, 'she out
of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living'"
In recent years, several scholars have proposed that Jesus is lamenting
this woman's contribution rather than praising it. They note that Jesus
puts human need above religiosity, condemns the scribes for their avarice
(vv. 38-40), and foretells the destruction of the temple (13:1-8). They
conclude that Jesus is distressed at this poor woman's sacrifice in behalf
of undeserving religious leaders and a doomed temple.
However, Jesus' words in vv. 43-44 are clearly words of praise rather than
lament. While he might be inwardly dismayed at the prospect of religious
leaders misusing this woman's offering, he admires her faith in God and
her sacrificial gift. Her gift reminds us of the widow of Zarephath, who
gave the last of her food to the prophet Elijah, and who was rewarded by
God with a jar of meal that was not emptied and a jug of oil that did not
fail (1 Kings 17:8-16).
"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" (v.
44). "For Jesus, the value of a gift is not the amount given, but the
cost to the giver" (Edwards, 381). In chapter 9, the disciples argued
among themselves about who was greatest (9:33-37). In chapter 10, James
and John requested positions of greatness in Jesus' kingdom (10:35-45).
Now, in chapter 12, Jesus shows them the meaning of true greatness.
This is not an example story in the sense that Jesus tells us to go and do
likewise. He does not demand that we drop every last penny in the
offering tray. However, we should listen carefully to ascertain Christ's
specific call to us with regard to stewardship. It is clearly not
satisfactory to give God a bit of what is left over after we have paid the
bills. Christ expects us to put God first, not last. A tithe is the
clearest Biblical standard for stewardship -- and God often calls
particular people to give much more.
Soon Mark will tell the story of the woman who anoints Jesus' head with
precious ointment (14:3-9). In that instance, Jesus will link the
anointing with his coming death and will give her a blessing (14:8-9).
"Mark uses these two incidents as bookends around Mark 13; they will help
him make the point that Jesus' discourse concerning the future is not a
'bizarre apocalyptic tract,' as some have called it. Instead, it is a
chapter that teaches the impending doom of one temple and the glorious
destiny of another not make with hands (14:58)" (Geddert, 294).
While Jesus does not say that people will remember this widow forever, her
story is being told all across the world today. Her two small coins show
that even "the humblest and poorest.can make a worthy offering to God"
(Hooker, 296). Her example will bless us until the end of time.
Today may we consider the two choices that are always before us, choices we face regardless of our status, our income, or even our political affiliation. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus draws the attention of his disciples -- and our attention – to someone who otherwise would be overlooked: a poor widow, just one figure in the crowd at the temple, who without ceremony tosses her last two small coins into a metal receptacle intended for offerings. As soon as she does so, she disappears again into the crowd. Jesus draws our attention to her
because otherwise we might never notice her, and he does so to celebrate her faithfulness, her radical trust in God.
But in today's Gospel there are others about whom Jesus chooses to speak. These others are visible enough, but Jesus mentions them to warn his disciples -- and us -- against them. These are a certain kind of scribe, religious professionals gone bad. They like the best seats at banquets, the respectful greetings in public, and the splendor and state of their long robes. Most of all they like the wealth that comes their way because they betray their roles as trustees of estates, using lengthy prayers to cover their theft. They do not conserve these estates, but despoil them.
Jesus offers us the widow as a model of faith. He warns us against the corrupt scribes for their selfishness and crime. In doing so, he presents us with characters of two types. The corrupt scribes are concerned with gaining power over other people in order to enrich themselves. The widow, on the other hand, surrenders power over herself in order that God may work through her.
It would be one thing if we could leave this story as simply character sketches of two types of people. But the story is not so safe as that. Jesus is pointing to two roads that lay in front of each and every one of us, regardless of our place in society, our role in the church, or our
income level. Each of us can become the corrupt scribe, someone whose life misses the mark. Or we can become the widow, a person of radical faith.
The scribes were religious and legal professionals. They were honored because they were supposed to be competent, responsible, and above reproach. They were trustees of the spiritual heritage of their people and of the worldly wealth of certain estates. 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.
The high office of scribe has parallels in our society. There are many people today who are trustees in one form or another. Because of such factors as training, commitment, experience, and election, these people are entrusted with public oversight in various areas of life. Some of them are committed to what they do and those they serve. Others, sadly, are in
it for themselves. Thus there are doctors and lawyers, business executives and public officials, pastors and professors and many others who are zealous to contribute to the common good, and others who are in it simply to improve their own lot. These others may enter their work with high and unselfish aspirations, but along the way they sell out. They betray their profession and they sell their souls, and they cause the rest of us to grow a bit more cynical and untrusting.
But this problem is not restricted to those who are prominent, those with professional training and a name on the office door. So if you consider yourself just an ordinary person, nobody special, not a leader, don't get too comfortable. The devil is an equal opportunity employer. You too can go bad, just as much as the worst scribe Jesus laid eyes on.
Why? Because each of us exercises some responsibility toward other people. These other people may be members of our family, the other students in our school, the other employees at our job, the customers we serve, or neighbors next door. In our relationship with any of these people we can be self-serving, or we can show genuine concern and interest. The choice is ours.
With only a few words, Jesus presents an unforgettable portrait of the corrupt scribes of his time. They love to walk about 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 love this stuff. They enjoy it more than it can be decently enjoyed. Why? Because these trifles constitute a consolation prize! On some level these corrupt scribes know they are corrupt, but they conceal this fact, even from themselves, by the way they present themselves as honorable, and enjoy society's stamp of approval. This hypocrisy enables them to survive, but at a horrible price.
The same thing happens in our society, even though the description is different. Corrupt clergy may still hide behind their long robes, but for others the consolation prize is more likely to include the expensive suit or dress, or the best Nikes money can buy. They crave overmuch the obsequious welcome, their name on exclusive donors lists, their picture in
the paper. These trifles are the payoff for having sold their souls and betrayed their trusteeship, for having hurt their lives and the lives of others.
Yet scribal corruption in our time can be a low budget operation. Our lives may be as plain as sale day at the dollar store, but we can still seek trifles to keep us happy in the face of what we do toward our children, our spouses, our bosses, our friends. Even at unfashionable
addresses and minimum wage jobs, it's possible to enrich oneself at the price of others, or be someone who empowers and ennobles others.
The corrupt scribes of past or present may be pious folks who know the scriptures forwards and backwards, they may hold office in church or synagogue, but still they are willing to sell somebody down the river in order to enrich themselves. They see the world as a zero sum game: if I win, you lose; if you win, I lose, and they are devoutly committed to winning. They leave no room for grace to rumble through their lives like a locomotive, and so for practical purposes they are atheists, believers in a closed universe, deniers of the God who is not afraid to improve the world he made. Once you've seen one corrupt scribe, you've seen them all, no matter how well dressed some of them appear. Once you're on to their game, the sight of still another one is, more than anything else, tremendously sad.
But now out from the temple crowd there steps a poor widow, and Jesus directs our attention to her. Her outfit is nothing to write home about, but there's an authenticity to this woman. She's her own person. And she's God's person.
The fingers of her fist spread out as she drops something into the metal container. It's an offering, but the clang of coins against container can hardly be heard. It must be a very small sum, since often this area resounds with sound when somebody rich drops in one heavy coin after another. The widow's coins are barely audible to human ears, but you know
that the sound they make is music welcome in heaven.
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 stealing from others. She's looking to fill that emptiness by opening herself to God. She wants no power over others to gain consolation prizes. Instead, with the toss of those coins, she surrenders power over herself in order that God may work through her. She's a person of radical faith.
There are two choices: misuse power over others in order to enrich yourself, or surrender power over yourself so that you may truly serve God. One's the way to death. The other's the way to life.
Jesus not only talked about the way to life, but he followed it through his cross and resurrection, and he invites us to join him and that widow in the temple in being people of radical faith.
The widow gave her last two coins. That reminds me of a story that Ruth
Tucker tells in her book, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. The story is of
Dr. Eleanor Chestnut, who went to China as a Presbyterian medical
missionary in 1893. To build a hospital, she had to use her own money to
buy bricks and mortar. The need for her services was so great that she
performed surgery in the bathroom until the building was complete.
On one occasion, Dr. Chestnut had to amputate a man's leg. When
complications set in, she had to perform skin grafts to save his life.
A few days later, another doctor noticed that Dr. Chestnut was limping,
and asked why. She said simply, "Oh, it's nothing!" But then a nurse
revealed that Dr. Chestnut had taken the skin for the graft from her own
leg, using only local anesthetic.
A few years later, Dr. Chestnut and four other doctors were killed by a
mob that stormed the hospital during the Boxer Rebellion.
ANOTHER TRUE STORY:
In a sermon several years ago at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta,
the late Dr. W. Frank Harrington told of seeing a television program about
a new movie -- he thinks the title of the movie was "The Righteous" -- and
it was a movie about men and women who risked their lives to save Jews
during the Holocaust.
In the television program, they interviewed several elderly Jews who were
saved by these Righteous Gentiles. One man told of learning that the
Gestapo was about to raid his home. He told of going to the home of a
German friend and knocking on the door. When she answered the door, he
asked, "Can you help me and my family? Can you hide us for some time?"
Then, in the television program, there was a long pause as the man's
emotions choked off his ability to speak. Finally, he recovered
sufficiently that he was able to relate her response. She said simply,
"Of course, come in."
Harrington said, "The old man on the screen cried, and sitting in my den,
I cried too.
As Lord Acton observed, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power
corrupts absolutely." In a theocracy, religious leaders represent not
only religious authority, but civil authority as well. In first-century
Israel, religious leaders had considerable civil authority, and that led
to some of the abuses to which Jesus alludes in our Gospel lesson.
No first-world power is a theocracy (that is an interesting fact, isn't
it), so most first-world power-brokers today are governmental and
corporate officials. We have seen examples of great greed and malfeasance
recently in various corporate scandals (Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Global
Crossing, Arthur Andersen, etc.).
The current Reader's Digest has an article in which they award their
"Broken Gavel" award to the three sleaziest, most corrupt judges in
America. They name names (Charles Cope of Clearwater, Florida, C. Hunter
King of New Orleans, and Matt Zepeda of Pearland, Texas) and cite
particulars (see "America's Worst Judges," Reader's Digest, Nov. 2003,
pages 116-121). The charges against these judges are shocking, but all
three continue to serve and be paid as judges.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus spoke against the scribes, because of their
abuse of selfishness and abuse of power, and there are religious figures
in our nation who are guilty of those same offenses. However, we ought
also to highlight governmental and corporate chieftains who are the
primary power-brokers and power-abusers today.
I Surrender All (BH #275; UMH #354)