Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mark 12:38-44 Commentary

Comments and Observations

Preachers don’t always pay much attention to the acoustics of Bible stories but they should.  How something sounded may be the key to getting a passage correctly.  But as I say to my preaching students, this is where the Bible does not help us a lot.  It is a rare Bible verse that says something like “Jesus replied cheerfully” or “Peter said angrily.”  Just not a lot of adverbs in the Bible to suggest how something was said.  The verbs, too, tend to be “answered” or “said” or “spoke” but rarely more colorful verbs like “barked” or “shouted” or “whispered.”  Hence we tend to read all Bible passages the same way and when it comes to the words of Jesus, that “way” is often a semi-flat intonation or something flecked with a lot of confidence.

But what if not?  Suggesting a new acoustic for a passage can make even familiar verses sound fresh and new.  I often use John 14 as an example: we often read Jesus’ words “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me . . .” with a kind of spritely, bold confidence.  But given what was going on at that precise moment, I prefer to read it in a quivering voice, tears forming at the corners of the eyes, chin quaking with emotion.  Jesus’ world and circle of friends were crumbling fast just then.  I can’t imagine he stood up, placed his hands on his hips, and spoke those words in a triumphant tone of voice with a face radiating confidence.  It’s certainly not how he’ll look shortly thereafter in a place called Gethsemane.

When I have read John 14 that way, I have seen people all over a sanctuary snap to attention.  Turns out, a gentle, compassionate, emotional Jesus is just who people sometimes need to meet in worship on a given Sunday morning.

So what about Mark 12 and Jesus’ words about this widow and what she had put into the offering box?   All my life I have heard this incident touted as being a singular example of generous giving to God and to the church. This widow has become a role model, someone whose attitude the rest of us need to emulate and imitate.  Hence, we imagine that when Jesus spoke what he did in verses 43-44, the tone of his voice was appreciative, maybe wondrous. Perhaps Jesus was even shaking his head in amazement as he pointed out to the disciples how very much this woman had given. Although he didn’t say it, you could almost tack on the phrase “Go and do likewise” as the conclusion of this story.

But I have come to realize that this angle on this story may very well be all wrong.  But please don’t misunderstand: even though I am about to suggest a revision of how this story should be interpreted, even so this will take nothing away from the widow herself.  We can safely assume that her heart was in the right place.  She did give generously and out of genuine reverence and piety for God at that.

But it was not this that caught the attention of Jesus.  Given what Jesus had said in verses 35-40, I can no longer imagine that his voice was full of appreciative wonder at the end of this chapter.  In fact, I detect in the voice of our Lord a hint of scorn, of criticism, of anger, of astonishment that the situation was what it was.

This is one of many passages where the larger context has tended to drop away over the years but where the context is absolutely vital if we are to hear Jesus correctly.  Because after all, this entire section of Mark’s gospel is harshly critical of the temple establishment.  In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus attacks the very theology of the scribes.  Their views of the Messiah, the Christ, were woefully inadequate.  They prattled on and on about how the Christ would be David’s son, thus losing sight of the fact that the true Christ would be not just a distant relative of David but David’s Lord, David’s God.  The scribes had played into the popular idea that one day a great-great-great grandson of David would show up and would lead a popular uprising and revolt against Rome.  He’d be a human figure but a powerful one who would fulfill the people’s every political aspiration.

But by reminding the crowds of the divine dimension of the true Christ, Jesus was hinting hugely that things might turn out differently than the scribes thought.  After all, once the Son of God, and not just the Son of David, came down to earth, there would be no predicting how things might go.  God, after all, tends always to surprise us.  His ways are not our ways.  In fact, God might just turn the whole world upside-down and do a shockingly new thing.  Of course, keep in mind that Jesus spoke these words less than 5 days prior to his own death on a cross.  Talk about divine surprises! Nobody back then wanted a dead son of David hanging off a giant spit of wood. If the Christ were no more than David’s human relative, crucifixion would spell the end of his usefulness.  A dead Christ would be no Christ and so you could literally cross out his name from the list of messianic candidates.  But Jesus says that’s wrong.  No one should pretend to have the identity of the Christ cased.

To the delight of the crowds, Jesus out-exegeted the supposed experts in the Scriptures.  He attacked nothing less than their very theology.  But he’s not finished yet.  Next Jesus goes after their spirituality.  In startlingly blunt terms, Jesus as much as calls the scribes hypocrites, charlatans, fakes, and pious pretenders.  Doing the right things just for show, using clergy garb as a cover-up for an insincere heart is indeed the worst form of clergy abuse.

So Jesus pegs these clergy as vain, pompous, proud, arrogant.  All of that is bad enough but the kicker–and obviously the key that unlocks the reason why we need a revamped view of the widow’s mite–is when Jesus says that the scribes devour the homes of the widowed.  Unhappily, we have no clear idea what that meant.  One commentary I consulted listed no fewer than six possible scenarios that could explain just how the scribes devoured the estates of widows.  But because Jesus immediately mentions also their reciting of long prayers it may be that the scribes were essentially selling ministry, charging people for various acts of ministry service.

Whatever the specifics, it appears that the religious leaders were doing something that was making the already-vulnerable widow population feel obligated to give to the temple more than they frankly could afford.  That’s why when Jesus then sees a widow giving away the last two coins she had to rub together, he sees in that not first of all an example of good stewardship in action (and so something that we should all try to imitate).  What Jesus saw was a glaring example of how far off the beam the whole temple enterprise had gotten.  This woman felt obligated to give away what little she had and although that revealed how earnest she was, it was an earnestness that had been manipulated.  So when Jesus says, “That’s all she had to live on,” he said it with exasperation in his voice.  She should not have done that.  She should not have been told to do that.

Andre Resner points out in a commentary on this passage that Jesus’ closing words here were essentially a lament.  As Jesus watched this widow walk away with now literally nothing to live on, he as much as said, “There goes another precious one down the tubes!”  Small wonder that at the beginning of Mark 13, as the disciples, in good tourist fashion, call attention to the magnificence of the temple building itself, Jesus sneers that one day soon, the whole place would be sacked.  Not one stone would be left cemented to another one, and given what he had just seen, you get the feeling that Jesus believed that destruction of the temple would be only just.  They were building the thing by ill-gotten gain.

Viewing this passage in this way also helps us to recover a message of grace and hope.  The way “The Widow’s Mite” usually plays out in sermons is all bad news stuff when preachers turn this into yet another item for the congregation’s “To Do” list, perhaps even scolding people for not doing better for the kingdom.  Ironically, if that’s how we preach this text, we may be playing into the same problem the Pharisees had as they were also finding clever ways to motivate people to DO more for God than what they were already doing (including even widows who had nothing to give but were being shamed  into giving more anyway).

A perspective of grace on this passage reminds us that we all live immersed in the prior grace of God in Christ.  Everything we do in the Christian life—including giving to the offering plate—is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.  This grace allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.

When preaching on Mark 12, grace, not guilt, needs to set the tone and lead the way.

Textual Points

This point has been noted in other sections of this posting, but the story of the widow’s mite will almost certainly be misinterpreted if we sheer it off from all that had gone on earlier in Mark 12 as well as from what happens immediately following this in the opening words of Mark 13.  The context here dictates how we view this widow’s action—or better said, the context dictates how JESUS viewed this woman’s sacrificial giving.  And we had best pay some attention to what is admittedly a semi-confusing exchange in verses 35-37 when Jesus gets underneath the pop definition of who the Christ would be by reminding everyone that he would not be just some super-descendant of David but God himself.  If you are expecting just a human strongman to show up, you might be able to conduct “business as usual” even in the Temple establishment of the day.  But if God Himself is going to show up . . . that would properly shake things up in ways the religious leaders of the day were clearly not prepared to deal with!

Illustration Idea

Those of you familiar with Dante’s The Inferno will recall the hellish punishment Dante imagined would come to hypocrites: for all eternity they would wear the most gorgeous of flowing robes, looking ever-so-lovely on the outside.  But those robes would be lined with lead, making the very act of standing up straight an abiding agony.  Such would indeed be a fit punishment for those who spent their lives harboring ugliness and selfishness on the inside even as they exuded nothing but superior piety on the outside.


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