a sermon on Mark 12:38-44
There are few stories in the Bible that can be immediately recognized through a single phrase, but our reading from Mark this morning is certainly one of them. If someone mentions “the widow’s mite,” this story almost immediately comes to mind. It seems to be such a simple tale, with Jesus commending a poor woman who has given a very small coin at the temple treasury because she has given a far greater sum than anyone could imagine. Her generosity, so seemingly small, has come out of her deep poverty. Jesus proclaims that she is to be emulated, and so we assume that her generosity gives us a model by which we can shape our own lives.
This is a lovely version of this story. I think we like it because it gives us permission to recognize the importance of even very small gifts that all too often affirms an ethic of scarcity over an ethic of generosity. Thinking about the story in this way is especially easy because it shows up in the lectionary every three years about this time, around the time of stewardship Sunday, in that season when the church asks us to consider how much we will give for the coming year, so we can tell ourselves that it will be okay if we can only give a small amount this year, for Jesus so greatly honored this poor widow’s small gift.
But reading the story in this way is an exercise in self-deception. None of this matches up very well with the story of this widow when we put it in its context. Before Jesus pointed out this poor widow giving her penny in the temple, he had been engaging with several scribes, answering their strange questions and addressing their challenges to him and his authority. After he had finished with them, Jesus offered his warning about the scribes that opens our reading for today. He is rightfully frustrated at their self-righteousness, for they manage to set aside real concern for those in need and instead place themselves at the center of everything. In their careful attention to the minute details of the law, they have missed its larger point of bringing care and comfort to the poor and needy. They seek out respect and honor at the expense of others and do everything for the sake of appearance. Ultimately, they use and abuse the gifts of God intended to be shared broadly, even “devouring widows’ houses” rather than glorifying God in their care for others. Only after noting all this does Jesus turn to the widow he sees at the temple treasury. He points her out to his disciples, though he does not commend her. Instead, he simply tells them that they ought to pay attention to her gift, for she “out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Jesus’ words here say less about the widow and more about the religious elite of his time. When we focus on the widow and her gift, we miss the challenge that he offers to our own ways of being. First of all, Jesus notes that the widow’s gift is the very thing enabling the scribes to continue with their troubling actions. The scribes “devour widows’ houses” just as one widow “puts in everything she had.” The religious establishment that Jesus criticizes here uses the gifts of the poor once intended to support the poor to destroy them all the more. As commentator Rodger Nishioka puts it, “Together, these two sections read as a lament for and an indictment upon any religious system that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the system’s leaders may continue to live lives of wealth and comfort.” (“Pastoral Perspective on Mark 12:38-44,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 286)
Such behaviors and practices are not limited to the scribes of Jesus’ time. I think there are plenty of practices in the church today that would make Jesus similarly furious: giant personal expense budgets for overcompensated pastors, ostentatious displays of wealth in the ways we decorate our churches, even some direct misuse of funds. I hope and pray and believe that our own practices do not fall into these categories, but Jesus might still have some concerns about more familiar and common practices that are a little more comfortable for us. What would he say about churches insisting upon owning and maintaining expensive property that only gets used once or twice a week? What would he say about large endowments and savings accounts held for a rainy day when many of our sisters and brothers are getting drenched today? How would he respond to the rising tendency of the church to raising money like other nonprofits, focusing greater attention on large donors and allowing substantial gifts to gain greater access to the life of the community? The very necessary systems of our world that shape our life together promote oppression in unexpected, sometimes even unknowable, ways. We must live in the necessary tension of supporting the financial necessity of our ministry while not exploiting or plundering our society and our creation. Rodger Nishioka again offers us a helpful word:
Many of the scribes whom Jesus condemned also thought they were doing what was honorable, right and good. Perhaps they too were caught up in a system over which they felt they had little control. But Jesus does not condemn only those who are aware of how they benefit from systems of violence and oppression. Jesus condemns any who benefit from such systems, whether they are aware or not. Ignorance is no excuse here. (“Pastoral Perspective on Mark 12:38-44,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 288)
So we are called to examine ourselves and our actions carefully. Where have we abused the poor and powerless, intentionally or unintentionally? How can we allocate our resources of time, talent, and money to promote the common good and especially for the protection of those in greatest need? What changes must we make to be better stewards of the gifts that God has given us so that we can not only avoid the condemnation facing those who misuse these resources but also promote the flourishing of our whole world and all who live in it? I for one am grateful that we will hear one person’s perspective on this after worship today. As we welcome Dan Turk, one of the Presbyterian mission co-workers we support in Madagascar, I pray that our eyes will be opened and our hearts set afire within us to join him and his wife Elizabeth in greater and deeper support of God’s transformation in this corner of our world.
Amid the condemnation Jesus offers these scribes, he offers us all a challenge. Jesus calls us to transform the self-righteousness that so easily infects our institutions and our lives into God’s righteousness. He calls us to listen to the cry of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hungry, the refugee, the undocumented immigrant, the stranger in our midst. He calls us to recognize the places where we are complicit in oppression and to step in and act where we can to respond. And he calls us to work each and every day for things to be different—and to challenge our world to join us in that work, too.
So may God strengthen us for these challenges ahead—for the difficult examination of our faith and practice that he calls us to do and for the deep giving of our whole selves that we offer in response as we seek to join in God’s transformation of our world through Jesus Christ our Lord even as we wait for him to come to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.