Sermon on Mark 12:38-44 for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, November 8, 2015
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.”
We are teaching our kids, on Wednesday evenings, about the Jesus path. We were discussing the footsteps we make on the Jesus path, like kindness and compassion. We talk about our essential identity as children of God, and about the practice of prayer.
So, last Wednesday I asked the kids to take our list of the virtues and practices of the Jesus path, and rank them in importance to them. There are a couple of virtues and practices on the list that almost none of our middle-schoolers understood. They all know what compassion and kindness means, but none of them understands what advocacy means, and no one understood the word stewardship.
I explained that stewardship means how we use our money. One of the kids said, “Money is not important.” They do not call it the age of innocence for nothing.
Our high school-aged youth assistant and I, simultaneously in reply, said, “Yes it is!” By high school, you have completely lost your innocence about money.
The amount of money you have makes a huge impact on your life. It affects what you eat, where you eat, what you wear, where you live, and how healthy you are. It most likely has an impact on what you think of other people, and how you think about yourself. Not that it should, but that, without a lot of spiritual work, it does.
Money is spooky. People are cagey about it. Money and secrets seem to be a happy couple. Jesus said you had to choose between serving God or money, but that we cannot serve both. Money is then, a spiritual fork in the road.
Money is spiritual. Everything we do with money has meaning. That is why it was important to Jesus. As he taught his followers how to walk the Jesus path, he knew that they had to get the money issue right.
Money is important, not just for how it affects us, but even more so, because of the way our use of money affects other people. That is what our text from Mark’s gospel is about.
I can just see the scene: in contrast to the priests, who are here, called scribes, wearing their elegant robes, seeking honor, which was such a big deal in that culture, here comes this poor widow.
How did Jesus know she was a widow? That is one of the details that make some people believe that this story started as a parable, like the one about the rich man and Lazarus, that became historicized. Either way, it says a lot about Jesus,’ shall we say, “theology of money.”
Anyway, there she is, obviously poor, with her “two cents.” That would just about be right in today’s currency. Not only are these the smallest coins with the lowest value, they are also her last two cents. Jesus says, as he watches her put them in the collection box, they are “all she had to live on.”
Parables often have shock value. Sometimes it gets lost in translation. The shock here is that these honor-obsessed priests took the last two cents from a poor widow. The law of Moses is so clear: the donation should have gone the other way. Widows were singled out, along with orphans, as the very people that the temple tithes were supposed to support.
In fact, every third year the tithe was supposed to go to the poor, the Levites, who had no land of their own, the aliens, that is, resident non-citizens, the orphans and widows (Deut. 26).
But, instead of supporting her, they took her last two cents. “All she had to live on.” They did precisely what Jesus accused them of when he warned:
“Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses”
“Houses” here means estates; whatever remained of their deceased husband’s property.
Money is powerful, both for good and for ill. Money can save a widow from the wolf at the door, or it can seduce a priest into being the wolf. In that way, it is like a window into the soul.
What we do with our money has meaning. We all know that, and that is why we are nervous about it. The way we use our money shows what we truly value.
I know you all value highly what we are doing here. This is the place where we come to re-calibrate our hearts. This is the time we get to focus on goodness, on truth, and on beauty. This is where we are renewed in our hope. This is where we find new strength to trust that God is alluring us, grounding our existence in love.
I know you value what our children and youth are learning here. It is important to you that a new generation learns how to walk the Jesus-path; that they know that they are loved by God; that they practice compassion; that they learn words like stewardship and advocacy.
I know that it is important to you that we are teaching our kids that they can matter to others. Like the banner they made for the firefighters out west this summer; it actually made a difference. They felt our love and appreciation.
It is important to all of us that we got involved in the refugee crisis, doing something good, learning to, at least, light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness. Our kids were part of that; they are learning to be generous people who care about suffering, and respond as much as they can.
Because this matters to you, you give. Many of you have given generously over the years. You know that none of this is possible without money.
I know that it is important to you that we do not spend all of the money we receive on ourselves. It is part of our identity as generous Christians that we support ministries like the Christian Service Center and the Presbyterian Children’s Home. We reach out to our widows and orphans.
We, who have a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator and a decent place to call home, are grateful for all of that, knowing all of it is a gift. And so, out of gratitude, we give back to help people in need.
We do not give back from the bottom. We do not give to the church the way we throw spare change in the jar. We give, according to the pattern of giving Moses established for Israel, from the top, our first fruits.
We do not decide how much to give based on how much is left over. We decide what level of giving is meaningful; what level of giving reflects our values; what amount expresses what is important to us. Israel established the pattern of the tithe: 10%. I use that as my benchmark.
The New Testament has no strict rule for giving. Paul told his people to do what they determine is right in their hearts, knowing, as he reminded them, that “God loves a cheerful giver.” It is about joy and gratitude, not duty or coercion.
We adults here are not in the age of innocence about money. We know how powerful it is, for good and for ill. We know how it works. We know how much it costs to air-condition and heat our homes, we know what it takes to live for a year.
Therefore, our giving to the church reflects our adult understanding of what it takes to have a church, a place like this, with these services of worship, these programs, these people, and these ministries. Our giving naturally reflects adult realities.
We know, from texts like this, that money matters to God. What we do with it is spiritual. Therefore, with full and grateful hearts, we determine, from the start, how we will use the resources entrusted to us, as faithful stewards.