Teaching in the temple, Jesus 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.” Mark 12:38-44 NRSV
This Gospel passage is always slightly awkward, (especially if you’re in a parish that happens to be observing stewardship season), because Jesus seems to be giving an almost too-convenient message to, “Be like this poor widow and give everything you have to the church. Even if you don’t have much, even if it hurts, pledge, pledge, pledge!” Most pastors are a bit more tasteful than that and simply hold the poor widow up as exemplary, “If she found something to give, surely you can, too…”
So goes the common misunderstanding of this passage, which makes sense if you take it at face value. But how often do you hear preachers discuss the first part about the devouring scribes? Probably not very often, because the scribes are, of course, religious professionals, experts in scripture, teachers and writers–people who sound a lot like modern-day pastors. We avoid Jesus’ criticism of religious authorities, unless it’s super-contextualized, meaning whenever we encounter such a passage, we explain how it’s all about that time long ago and that place far away and it’s not equivalent to our times. But when Jesus says things that we want him to say, things about love or giving to the church, that stuff doesn’t need to be contextualized, that applies to here and now. Well, we can’t have it both ways. You can’t read the first part of this passage about the scribes as a historical criticism of a specific religious group that no longer exists–“scribes,” whoever they are, are surely not relevant to us! But the second part about the widow, oh, that is for us, that’s a timeless lesson about sacrificial giving. Sorry, nice try, but we don’t get to pick and choose the things we like out of scripture and dismiss the things we don’t like. All of scripture was meant for specific people in a specific time and place. And all of it has meaning for us now as well. It may not be the face value meaning, and it may hide under layers of historical and regional context, but there is meaning for us. So rather than contextualizing the negative part and then universalizing some positive message, let’s first contextualize the whole thing, and then hopefully we can arrive at a universal meaning for here and now. So first, the contextual:
In Mark’s Gospel, the scribes are mentioned 21 times (which is a lot especially since this is the shortest Gospel) and they are Jesus’ chief antagonists. They frequently question his teachings and even go so far as to later mock him while he hangs dying on the cross (15:31). More pertinent, just before this passage, Jesus cleanses the temple–you remember, this is when he throws out the moneychangers and says, “You have made my father’s house a den of robbers.” After he does that, the scribes seek to destroy him (11:18). Why? In part because he’s gotten rid of a significant source of their income. They control every transaction that takes place in the temple and make money off every sale, and Jesus is putting a stop to it, because that’s not how sacrifices to God are supposed to work, there shouldn’t be a surcharge! If you read all the rules for sacrifice in Leviticus (1-2), which I don’t recommend, but if you do, you will notice that while it starts with offering a bull without blemish, the most valuable livestock one can have, it goes on to say, “but if you cannot afford” the bull or the next animals, a sheep or goat, or if you can’t afford those, a dove, and goes all the way down to offering just a bit of flour. It’s made extremely clear that the point is not to cause economic hardship, the point is to give something back from whatever you’ve been able to raise or harvest as a symbol that all we have comes from God, and that we are dependent on God. Giving something back to God reminds us of that and not incidentally, supported the religious professionals of that time, the Levites,(thus the name of that book, Leviticus) who were to take from what was left of the offerings to minimally support themselves, not to profit off of it. And this was the way early Judaism worked and largely the way the early church worked into the middle ages, and it’s still the case today with certain small parishes or church plants where pastors have no formal salary and are dependent upon gifts from the congregation. And it is this give and take among financial equals set forth by God that the religious professionals defied and abused, and that, I’m afraid, many still abuse today.
So with that cleansing of the temple, Jesus directly challenged the scribes, hitting them in their pocketbooks. Today’s passage must be viewed in light of that huge, prophetic act especially since Jesus unambiguously criticizes the scribes at the beginning of it. Jesus says these scribes devour widows’ houses, and immediately, along comes a widow who illustrates exactly that, she gives all she has because she has been incorrectly taught by the scribes that she has to make a significant gift to be right with God. So Jesus points this out to his disciples, not in praise of her, but in sympathy with her and uses this as an example of what he has just been talking about–the scribes bleeding the people dry.
So if Jesus is not praising this woman’s reckless generosity but simply acknowledging the sinful reality of the abusive behavior of the religious professionals, it begs the question, why doesn’t Jesus stop her, explain to her how she’s been betrayed and misled and urge her to keep her money? In light of his goal in cleansing the temple, which is to give the people some control back over their spiritual lives, he doesn’t want to take away this woman’s power. Even in her poverty, she still believes she has something to give, even if she has been wrongfully manipulated into that belief. So Jesus makes this a lesson for his disciples, many of whom are future pastors. Every one of the 12 apostles, according to tradition, will go on to found a church. So this teaching moment is not for the woman, but for them. Beware of becoming like the scribes and taking advantage of people, people who trust you and look to you for leadership. But honor the power that is possible in the small acts of even the poorest. This widow is so inspired by God that she is willing to give all she has. Imagine what the people can do with that kind of inspiration. And there is our universal message for today: imagine what the people can do when they are inspired enough to give what they have to a cause that will improve their lives, and I would say any cause like that comes from God because God’s mission is always to improve the lives of the people, especially the poor. The message of this text for any religious leader is, rather than inducing people to give money to support the things you think are important, your agenda, how about you getting on board with their agenda, with the agenda of the poor? What was this woman wanting to support when she gave this money? The scribes’ latest fancy robes? The temple building? No, she believed in the mission of God and she was willing to support that mission. And when people give that level of support, there’s no end to the history you can accomplish. Think of all those during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, who withheld their bus fares and walked to work rather than support the evil system of segregation for one more minute. They brought a city to its knees and lit the spark that led to the end of legal racism in this country. Or the thousands in India led by Gandhi who marched to the sea to harvest salt in opposition to unjust British taxation of the poor which ultimately resulted in independence for the whole nation. When people put their resources together, even with things that seem financially insignificant–a bus fare, a handful of salt–they can accomplish great, even historic things. Seemingly insignificant people like you and I have the power to change the world if we beware of giving our resources to false leaders and empty causes and instead give them to those causes which empower the people of God to be free. What could be a greater use of our resources than that?
In this time when many of us are in stewardship season and/or contemplating end-of-the-year contributions, let’s take a moment to think about where our money and resources can have the most effect. It may be in small, but tangible ways at the parish level, being part of providing the sacrament and word for all comers. That is a sacred cause, and the most important thing that churches provide. It may be to causes beyond the church walls that bring about God’s mission. Whether you are fortunate enough to be rich and powerful like a scribe or poor as the widow, we all depend on God’s grace, and we all have received what we have through that grace and not our own deserving. Let us put our resources towards those things that lift up the lowly, that empower those with no voice, and that, with God’s help, will perhaps even change history.
Adapted from sermon given November 8, 2015, St. George’s, Hawthorne