A Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church of Palo Alto
Sunday, November 8, 2015
Text: Mark 12:38-44 (The Message)
He continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”
Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”
You’ve heard me say before how much I enjoy mysteries, especially British mysteries on public television. Today’s text is not quite a Sherlock Homes or Miss Marple mystery but, in the end, Mark’s Jesus leaves us to solve for ourselves the curious case of the copper coins. How is this so? What’s the mystery here? Isn’t this the classic tale of one who gives her all for her faith? That’s what we’ve always heard.
But evolving biblical scholarship suggests that there might be another interpretation to bring to this ancient word. Let’s go back to the beginning. The reading opens with Jesus excoriating the scribes, the religious scholars, for their self-centeredness. Now we must be careful not to lump all scribes into this critical category. Just a few verses before Jesus has encouraged a scribe for his wise understanding of the heart of the Torah – to love God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as one’s self. But apparently that scribe was an exception. As a class, Jesus sees them as a problem for the practice of Jewish faith in the first century.
Alan asked in Bible study what a scribe was. In his commentary, Alan Culpepper writes, “The scribes appear in Mark to be…more often priests or Levites than Pharisees…they were probably not a unified group, although at times the Gospels convey the impression that they were…Originally, a scribe was one who could read and write…By the New Testament period they were the respected stewards of a sacred lore—the Scriptures, esoteric teachings, and the oral traditions. They handled legal matters, produced documents, advised priests and civil authorities, and were recognized as teachers. The people greeted them in deference when they passed” (R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark, p. 425).
“Watch out for [these] religious scholars,” Jesus warns. “They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function.” Well, you can see how this might make religious leaders uncomfortable. Just Look around. Here I am in my robe and stole. We’ve got some thrones and an elevated pulpit up there where I could preside. And then, there is the danger of long-winded, self-serving prayers or sermons, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
There is a place for religious ritual, for leadership in worship, for elements that are out of the ordinary, reserved for sacred practice. But you can imagine how silly I would look wearing my vestments down California Street to the Farmer’s Market, making a big deal of my set-aside status, insisting that people treat me with deference, always elevating myself above the masses and demanding a place at the head table. I know the parallel is not exact in our much more secularized context but you get the point. I hope that I am rarely, if ever, guilty of such practices, but the warning is well-taken.
I don’t think Jesus wants to challenge sincere religious practice, but in Jesus’ time the religious practices of the dominant forces in Judaism had become too much of a hollow structure that missed the meaning of God’s given word. God’s temple was meant to be a “house of prayer for all people, but you have made it a den of thieves and robbers,” Jesus rails at the sellers and the money changers in the Temple courtyard. Culpepper writes, “The temple was the major industry of Jerusalem. Pilgrims came to pray, to offer sacrifices, and to pay their tithes. In a sense, temples functioned like national treasuries. They were also similar to banks in that the treasuries included private deposits, and the temple in Jerusalem, like other temples, had been raided for its wealth on several occasions “(Culpepper, op. cit., p. 428).
In his critique of the religious practice of his day, Jesus says these religious scholars were addicted to self-aggrandizement and often at the expense of the people whom they were meant to serve. Jesus’ final jab, the most damning, is that “they are exploiting the weak and helpless” – specifically widows. To some degree, widows stood for all who were both poor and pious, those who had little or nothing and yet remained faithful. You can see how the widow in this story represents this category. Over and over Hebrew scriptures exhort the Jewish people to care for widows, orphans and strangers in the land. This would be the kind of adherence to God’s word that too many of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day failed to exercise as they fine-tuned their reputations and feathered their own nests.
The New Revised Standard Version reads that Jesus accuses the scribes of “devouring widows’ houses.” This seems like a strange image until we understand the very specific ways in which scribes could, and did, exploit widows. Quoting Joseph Fitzmyer, Culpepper lists six ways scribes might have taken advantage of impoverished widows. They could have taken “payment for legal aid to widows even though such payment was forbidden.” Scribes were known to cheat “widows of what was rightly theirs.” Specifically, “as lawyers, they were acting as guardians appointed by a husband’s will to care for the widow’s estate.” They took advantage of “the hospitality of these women of limited means.” They “mismanaged the property of widows like Anna who dedicated themselves to the service of the Temple.” In a particularly offensive practice, they “took large sums of money from trusting old women as a reward for the prolonged prayer which they professed to make on their behalf.” And finally, they literally could take widows’ “houses as pledges for debts which could not be paid’ (Quoted in Culpepper, op. cit. p. 426).
So here is the mystery for us to unravel. When the widow in Mark’s story drops into the offering plate those two copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny, but still all she has, what is she doing? And, perhaps more importantly, what is Jesus seeing, sitting there opposite the Temple treasury with its 13 opulent offering boxes, each marked for its own particular purpose? Is hers an act of pure devotion by someone who is both poor and pious? Without obviously praising her action, Jesus observes “…she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.” Did she do it as a demonstration of her faithfulness? Does Jesus see one willing to pay the price, to give it all, as he himself will soon be called to do? Is this a sacred act that goes beyond what is expected or can be easily understood? What deep love for God could impel her to give all that she has?
Or is she dropping these two tiny coins in the offering plate out of a sense of obligation to some religious rule or practice that demands that she pay her debt, regardless of her ability to shoulder or even survive such a sacrifice? Is she paying off something at the insistence of some scribe? Most odious, is this the price for a prolonged prayer purportedly prayed on her behalf? Is Jesus deeply offended at the injustice and exploitation this widow is experiencing at the hand of those who are meant to care for her?
Culpepper likens these two passages to “a legal brief” with “a judge’s ruling.” Jesus brings the charges against the religious scholars, “showing cause for the decision that comes in Jesus’ last statement: therefore ‘they will receive the greater condemnation’” – or, as The Message says, “they’ll pay for it in the end.” He concludes “In God’s court, the severest sentences are reserved for those to whom much has been entrusted, to those who know better, to those who are trusted by others, and to those who have been called to minister in God’s name” (Culpepper. op. cit., p. 426).
Micah Kiel says of this tale that “Widows are often provided as the example par excellence as those to whom caring justice should be meted out.” So, the story addresses a matter of justice combined with compassion for those in need. Kiel continues, “It is interesting that, in Deuteronomy 14:28-29, certain of the Jewish leaders (in this case, the Levites) are listed as among the aliens, orphans and widows who need support from the community because they have devoted themselves entirely to God” (Micah D. Kiel, “Commentary on Mark 12:38-44,” November 11, 2012, workingpreacher.org). Is this the case with our mysterious widow? Is she to be counted among those who need support, not only in her dire poverty but also because she has devoted herself “entirely to God”?
This is a hard lesson and it is right and just. We know, as did those religious leaders so long ago, that much is expected of those to whom much has been given. Regardless of how you read the curious case of the copper coins, the word for those of us who are privileged is to care for the widow and orphan and stranger, the least and the lost, our neighbors in need. This is fundamental to what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Yes, it may cost us something, even our foolish pride. We may have to make do with a little less, to take a place at the back of the line, to make room for someone whose need trumps our vanity.
Now just to be clear, I am not lumping any of us with those religious leaders Jesus challenges. I hope for us this is a cautionary tale, a reminder of what it means to follow Jesus, to love our neighbor, to work for the Beloved Community. If we need any further reminder, we might take heart from that view of the widow as one whose devotion overshadows even her deepest need. Without glorifying her poverty and any system that exploits her, we still might see in her a deep-seated belief that one “cannot live by bread alone.” If that’s her choice, we must respect it. At the same time we venerate her self-giving, however, we must also move to insure her survival. We must feed and clothe and shelter her for, not only is that the ancient law of love, that also becomes the measure of our own devotion.
The curious case of the copper coins – it remains a mystery. Perhaps we have shed a little light on it today. You decide for yourself – a call to devotion, a call for justice, two cents worth of each? What ending will you write for the tale?