From Pastor Kenny's Desk
November 11, 2018
In his teaching, Jesus said, “Beware of the religious scholars who like to walk about in long robes, be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, and take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. These are the ones who swallow the property of widows and offer lengthy prayers for the sake of appearance. They will be judged all the more severely.”
Jesus sat down opposite the collection box and watched the people putting money in it, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny.
Then Jesus called out to the disciples and said to them, “The truth is, this woman has put in more than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have put in money from their surplus, but she has put in everything she possessed from the little she had – all she had to live on.”
~ Mark 12:38-44
In my study and desire to learn, understand and teach scripture I’ve discovered it is important and enlightening to pose questions about the text. Questions like: who is the author of the passage, who was the intended audience, when was it written and why, what was happening in the world at that time, etc. Asking these questions often bring a more educated and deeper understanding of the text and its relevance to the time in which it was written. It also helps bring clarity to its relevance today. I’ve come to the conclusion the interpretation of a sacred text turns on the questions we ask of it.
Regarding the sacred text above, I want to begin by also asking another central question, not simply for the text, but also for you: How do you hear Jesus description of the poor widow’s offering … is it praise or lament? To put it another way: Is Jesus holding up the widow and her offering as an example of great faith and profound giving, or is he expressing his remorse that she has given … perhaps she feels compelled … to give away the little she has left?
I’ll be honest, for most of my life, I’ve assumed it was the former. But recently I’ve been persuaded that it’s the latter. Here’s why:
This passage is part of a larger set of passages that focus on Jesus confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees and these passages center on his critique of the Temple. Ever since Jesus entered Jerusalem he has done little else except teach in the Temple and debate with the religious leadership there.
The beginning verses of this week’s passage condemn the religious scholars because they felt it appropriate to do things like swallow the property of widows. In the passage immediately after this one, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple itself, seemingly the culmination of his attack on the religious establishment of Jerusalem, an attack that has brought his rivals to first seek his arrest and eventually his death.
There is absolutely no word of praise in Jesus statement about the widow or any indication that Jesus is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing which makes how we imagine his tone of voice … praise or lament … so critical.
All of this leads me to conclude that Jesus isn’t actually lifting her up as an example but rather criticizing the circumstances that demand her to make such an offering … a sacrifice that will likely lead to destitution if not death. Could it be that Jesus is offering a devastating critique against Temple practice and those who allow … let alone encourage … this woman to give all she had to live on?
So … assuming Jesus words are ones of lament, what does that say to us today? Should we stand up for those who are most vulnerable? Yes. Should we stand against laws or customs that exploit the poor? Absolutely. Should we enact policies … and vote for politicians that advance such policies … policies that mirror God’s intention to care always and foremost for those who are marginalized and the outcast? No question.
There’s another important question we must ask ourselves … while all of these concerns are present. In what way is this Gospel? Meaning … how does this capture and relate to, the good news of God’s love and redemption for ALL people … a message Jesus both brings and embodies? And how does this connect to our belief that in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we receive the good news of God’s love?
I believe the good news of this sacred text comes in what it says about the God we worship … the God Jesus reveals most clearly … because this God cares about this woman and her sacrifice. This God sees her difficulty and recognizes her affliction. This God will not encourage such abuse … even and especially under the guise of religious piety … and criticizes those who would order their world and religion to make such sacrifices necessary.
God sees her … and God cares about her. I seriously doubt anyone else … including the religious elite parading around the Temple that day and dropping in their token offerings … noticed this woman. I also doubt the disciples following Jesus would have noticed her either until Jesus lifted her up for their attention and sympathy. Which leads me to conclude that God also sees our struggles, recognizes our challenges, cares about where we are hard pressed to make ends meet.
But even more, I think God is inviting us to look around and really see each other, those in our congregation and community we know and those we don’t. I mean literally see each other … the pain of those who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, race or gender, the desolation of those who cannot find work and have been abandoned to fend for themselves, the despair of those who have given up on finding work and have lost hope, the anguish of those who have been exploited by sex traffickers, those who endure sexual assault, those who are bullied because they are different from others, those who are honest and authentic, transparent and vulnerable in our society and culture, those who society disregards and exploits … and more. God is inviting us to see them, to care for them, and to advocate for a system that does not leave anyone behind.
The question is … do we (you) believe and are we(you) aware that God not only sees our (your) struggles and cares, can we (you) trust that God believes in us (you) enough to use us (you) to make a difference in our (your) life and in the lives of others? Can we (you) acknowledge God is already at work in our (your) lives (life) and that of others and God desires us (you) to join God’s efforts to see those in distress, to help them find comfort and relief, and work for a more just world?
God cares, and God invites us to care, too. God believes that we have something to contribute, that we can make a difference … that our words and actions can help bring more fully to realization the kin-dom of God Jesus proclaimed and embodied. And that … I think … is good news!