Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
“They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” ~ Mark 12:40
Over the last few months, as we have been reading through the Gospel of Mark, one of the common themes that we have been seeing come up in Jesus’ teaching and his ministry is the turning upside down of the ways of the world because the Kingdom of God inverts the priorities and the expectations of our culture and society – the weak become strong, the least and lost are raised to positions of prominence and authority, the first is made last and the last are made first.
As Christians, we may not live these Kingdom values one-hundred percent of the time, but we nonetheless see them as good and worthwhile, we might even look upon our society or other people in judgement or disdain for not seeing the value of embracing the love, mercy and grace of the Kingdom of God. Which makes reading like the one we heard from the Gospel of Mark this morning all the more uncomfortable and even damning if you read beyond the surface.
Our passage today appears at first glance as two separate teachings of Jesus, only linked by the common characters in his rhetoric: scribes and widows. More often than not we tend to focus on one or the other, in particular the widow and her two coins – when it comes to sermons on stewardship and joyful giving you’ve all probably heard a dozen about the widow and how her offering was worth more than all the others because it was given out of her poverty and not her immense wealth – often as a story which is meant to convince every one of us to give no matter what our means or circumstances might be.
While there are certainly merits to this approach considering other parts of scripture which teach us about giving abundantly and cheerfully – this particular passage takes on a significantly different meaning when we take both teachings together.
In the first half of our passage, Jesus was decrying the scribes for several practices, a list which included the devouring of widows’ houses. “How did they devour widow’s houses? Historical evidence suggests several ways scribes interacted with (and could take financial advantage of) widows: though forbidden, many took payment for providing legal services, some scribes were known to take advantage of the hospitality offered by widows, some cheated and mismanaged the estates of widows, some took payment to offer intercessory prayer for widows and if a widow couldn’t pay some scribes took the widow’s home as payment for services rendered.
When we get to the second half of our reading we should have this context in mind. Jesus was sitting across from the treasury, the place where people would present their offerings for the upkeep of the temple (temple staff, provision of offerings and the like). Jesus noticed many people putting their offerings into the large offering, including many people who were rich, likely many scribes and Pharisees. As the offering was dropped into the plate the larger offerings would have made quite the sound as the multitude of coins clanked off the metal receptacle. It would be quite the moment of pride for the rich and powerful for everyone to hear how generous and supportive they were of the religious institution. Concerning these larger donations, the widows offering wouldn’t even have made a sound.
Considering the first half of our passage, it is notable that Jesus describes the widow as poor, he was making the link between this widow and the widow’s who were devoured by the practices of the scribes. And yet despite this poverty which had been inflicted on her, first by a heavily patriarchal society and second by the villainous actions of the scribes she offered all of what she had, what would have amounted to enough to buy flour to make herself a small loaf or biscuit.
It’s also important to note that Jesus doesn’t make any positive or negative statements about the widow’s offering. We might assume that he does because that is how we have been taught this passage in isolation. He merely says that she has given more than anyone else, which when we consider the consequence and the cost of her offering, they have the greatest impact upon her. The system has crushed her to the point where she doesn’t have enough to take of her most basic needs.
Just because Jesus doesn’t want his disciples, and us by extension, to be like the scribes and the rich who show off their offerings, doesn’t mean he wants us to be like the poor widow, sacrificing everything we have to the point where we cannot even take care of our most basic needs.
Throughout this Gospel, Mark has been telling us how Jesus has been showing his disciples and the crowds how the Kingdom of God is different from the Kingdom of this world, and this teaching is no different. By linking the two stories of the scribes and widows together, Jesus is undeniably critiquing the whole temple system and the way it corrupted the law of Israel and its mandates to take care of the widow and orphan. This fact is made abundantly clear in the passage that follows directly after, and which we’ll hear next week, where Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and the whole religious-political system of Israel.
While our religious systems and traditions might be different than ancient Israel, we cannot deny that Jesus likely turns his Kingdom critique upon us as well. I cannot help but wonder if many of our stewardship pushes, ones that I have participated in as a leader in the church, don’t perpetuate the same system. After all, while I might believe that I am being sincere that all gifts are welcome, churches today require upkeep just as the temple did – and so financial tithes take prominence.
Perhaps this is merely the reality of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world coming into direct opposition in the life of the church. After all, to be able to do much of the ministry that we do, financial support is necessary but it is easy to slip into the expectation that everyone must contribute to the faith community rather than everyone can contribute to the well-being of the whole—and can do so in different ways.
The truth of the matter is that sometimes, someone does the most good for the community and themselves when they acknowledge their real need and allow others to care and provide for them for a while. For a season, their honest vulnerability is their contribution to the life of the church. Further, I’m not sure that there’s any church out there, ours included, whose members don’t struggle with the image game—it’s the same game that keeps us from admitting when we need help.
And as he looks at it all play out, it’s as though Jesus is saying, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” The Kingdom of God upends our expectations, it upends the systems that oppress and devour the livelihoods of the least and lost, the widows and the orphans. As a church while we might still need to pay our bills we need to do so recognizing and truly acting as if every gift, every talent, every offering of time is as valuable as the next – no one has reason to boast, no one has reason to judge or lord over others for what they can or cannot offer in building up the body of Christ here in our little corner of the Kingdom called Grace Church. We cannot allow our needs, as pressing as they may be sometimes, to oppress or cause hardship to our members. For the times that it has, I must ask forgiveness, and as we move forward we must strive to more closely reflect the Kingdom of God that is breaking through into this world.
It won’t be an easy task, after all our saviour died so the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven, but remember he also rose again offering us the path of life and salvation to walk upon. As disciples we are called to walk this path, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to do so.
Let us pray.