Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 11, 2018
Mark 12:38-44 Commentary
Our text’s Jesus is in Jerusalem during the last days of his life. He figuratively stands in the shadow of his upcoming betrayal and denial, trial and torture, suffering and death. Jesus is, in other words, preparing to give up virtually everything for the sake of the world he so passionately loves.
The specter of Jesus’ suffering seems to loom larger and larger as the tensions between the religious leaders and him escalate. Those leaders want to kill him. Jesus, however, keeps baffling and delaying them with his profound answers to their questions and challenges. He’s showing that he, not the religious leaders, is in charge of the timetable for his saving death.
Yet rather than avoiding his pursuers, Jesus basically turns to face them. In Mark 12:35-37 he, in fact, comes right out and asks them about one of the issues that most divides them from him: who is he? Jesus’ defense of his identity as God’s Son “delights” all but the religious leaders who listen to it.
I sense that emboldens Jesus to press his case for a proper posture before God and people. He, after all, continues his teaching on his identity by warning people about the religious leaders who wish to silence him. Jesus warns people to beware of those leaders’ spiritual “showiness.” He insists that more is going on than meets the eye with their religious activities. So, Jesus warns, his contemporaries must weigh their actions carefully.
Of course, that doesn’t surprise most of us. We’ve been taught, after all, to be suspicious of Jesus’ contemporaries who were religious leaders’ motives and actions. Yet we can’t understand what Jesus is saying unless we remember that his contemporaries highly respected those “teachers of the law.” They thought of them not as the bad guys we usually think of them as, but as the good guys.
Might we think about that this way? Revelations about child abuse have colored modern opinions about Roman Catholic priests. We even wonder why parents put their children in places where they might be so deeply harmed.
But priests have always been deeply respected by Roman Catholics. Their lofty spiritual status as kinds of mediators between God and God’s people engendered a deep trust among their parishioners. While we may now think of many priests as pariahs, their parishioners sometimes thought of them as virtual saints.
Yet while some priests I know are almost embarrassed by parishioners’ adulation, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day weren’t. Jesus says they, in fact, loved the attention. They loved to walk around in the virtual academic robes that were the long clothing they wore.
Those religious leaders’ clothing actually set them apart from the “commoners” around them. After all, as scholars point out, “blue-collar” workers couldn’t wear long robes because it might interfere with their work. Only religious leaders could wear long robes because they didn’t have to “stoop to” manual labor.
Yet attention’s not all the religious leaders loved. They also delighted in the way people greeted them with respect if not deference. The religious leaders also loved to make a big spectacle of striding toward and sitting in the important seats in the synagogues where everyone could see and admire them.
What’s more, they loved sitting at the head table of every church function. On top of all that, the religious leaders loved to offer long and flowery prayers for the sake of making a good impression. While those actions may have seemed spiritual, Jesus warns they’re signs that the religious leaders especially enjoy the attention they receive from people.
However, Jesus also points out that the religious leaders of his day don’t just crave attention. They’re also hungry for material things. So Jesus grieves, for example, how they “devour widow’s houses,” exploiting these defenseless people.
He portrays those religious leaders as being like animals or dragons that devour their prey that is vulnerable peoples’ possessions. So while they preen like pious saints, they actually act like wild animals that wolf down widow’s possessions.
But, Jesus warns in our text, ravenous religious leaders may get all they’ll ever get in this life. After all, God’s judgment will be especially harsh on them. They may have swiped people’s attention and widow’s homes for next to nothing. But in the end, Jesus warns, they’ll pay an exorbitant price for it.
As if to make his point, Jesus takes his seat right across from the place where people put their offerings in their form of a collection plate. Those collections, after all, went towards the care not just of the temple, but also its priests.
Yet people sometimes turned that act of worship into a way to gain attention. Rich people would throw brass, gold and silver coins into those collection plates that made a lot of noise when they landed. So by making their sizable contributions they were, in a real sense, calling attention to their generosity and themselves.
Jesus watches, by contrast, a widow approach the temple collection plate. This one whose home was precisely what the religious leaders loved to devour enters the one house where high and low, rich and poor worship. There this widow seems to give far less than the rich people do. She just puts in two measly cents that make only a fraction of the noise that the rich people’s offerings do.
It’s hard to overstate the physical contrast between the rich people and this poor woman’s offering. Yet Jesus insists we don’t know half of the size of the contrast between those offerings. “I’ll tell you just how sharp that contrast is,” he says to his disciples in verse 43. “This widow put more in the collection plate than all the others.”
“Are you kidding?!” we can almost hear those disciples at least quietly respond. “Are you not just blind, but also deaf? Didn’t you just see (and hear) how much those rich people put in and how little the widow contributed?”
Yet Jesus points out that the people who are rich, he points out, after all, give what they’ll never miss. They give figurative if not literal pocket change. By contrast, the widow extravagantly gives what she can’t afford. Is it her last dollar? Rent money? Mortgage payment? Food budget? The house the religious leaders liked to steal from people like her? Whatever it is, Jesus says, is everything she had to live on.
This is yet another of the seemingly endless texts that we struggle to apply to our faithful response to God’s grace. For one thing, Jesus doesn’t explicitly tell us to imitate the widow by giving our every last cent. But Jesus does make these observations about religious leaders, wealthy people and the widow who’s poor in the shadow of his giving everything for our sakes. What’s more, he follows our text with warnings about the signs of Jerusalem’s coming judgment.
So what might the Spirit be saying to citizens of the 21st century through this difficult text? Scholars, preachers and teachers tend to focus on the extent of the poor widow’s giving. We tend to emphasize the widow’s “everything – all she had to live on.”
But the fact is that if every one of us gave everything we had to Christ’s church, we’d need other people to take care of us. What’s more, such extreme generosity would also leave us unable to care for each other.
So what if instead of focusing on the widow’s “everything,” those who proclaim Mark 12 were to focus on her act of giving? After all, our text’s Jesus condemns the religious leaders who are interested only in receiving attention and material goods. He also at least implies that rich people threw their money in the collection plate in loud ways so that they would receive others’ attention and, likely, praise.
That shouldn’t surprise us, since all of us naturally prefer to receive things to giving anything. If it’s not material goods we long for, it’s people’s attention and praise. While it may be more blessed to give than receive, at least some of us find it easier to receive than give.
But we follow a Jesus who received little during his lifetime, but gave away everything. We follow a Jesus who gave us the heavenly realm’s glory to be born to unmarried peasants in someone’s guest room. We follow a Jesus who took little but lavishly gave of himself, his wisdom and his healing power.
I’m not at all sure God is as interested in how much God’s adopted sons and daughters give as in whether we give at all. Some of us may be able to give generously. Few of God’s people can give sacrificially. But all of us can probably give more than we receive.
Yet as soon as those who proclaim Mark this week’s gospel lectionary text admit that, we also have to admit that Jesus does seem to be summoning us to give the way both the widow and Jesus did. Mark 12’s preachers and teachers may find fertile soil as they till its ground for ways for God’s adopted sons and daughters to imitate God’s generosity with us.
In his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, John Meacham describes the privileged early life of the United States’ 41st president. He paints a vivid picture of wealthy American families during the 1930’s.
Neal Plantinga summarizes Meacham’s picture this way: ‘The idea was that if you have great advantages you must make something of them and of yourself. Honor requires that you acknowledge your duty to give back to society. A favorite text in the Bush household was Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
‘The 12-13-year-old Bush buckled down. His parents were accomplished, powerful people, and George wanted to be a worthy son. His mother — an athlete — insisted that the trees on their estate were there to be climbed. She and Prescott Bush, George’s father, instilled great ambition in their progeny, always counseling that it must not show…
‘Meanwhile, “there were trees, and trees were to be climbed, no matter how high or how hard … There were older people, and older people were to be charmed, and charmed graciously. There were other boys, and other boys were to be treated well, with kindness and generosity.”
‘Life is a contest, and in all contests there are winners and losers. The subtle message to George Bush was, “be a winner and be easy about it.” Ambition inside and nonchalance outside were expected from the time George knew who his family was, and therefore who he was.’
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