A sermon delivered at Christ Church (Tara) and St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) on Sunday November 8, 2015.
Texts: Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44.
The Revised Common Lectionary follows a three-year cycle. That means we read the same texts once every four years and, assuming the preachers focuses on the Gospel text, we hear roughly the same sermon based on that text once every four years.
So, following this logic, then:
- This is the sermon where I am supposed to tell you that we all need to be like the widow and give money to the church, even if we have very little to give.
- This is the sermon where I am supposed to cause you to feel a little bit of guilt about how much more you should be giving the church.
- This is the sermon where I warn against the dangerous of consumerism as we head into the Christmas season (and it’s not even Advent yet!) and implore you not to spend all your money on unnecessary gifts.
However, this is not the sermon I will be preaching today.
Yes, following the Old Testament instruction of tithing our money, that is giving 10% of our income to the church, is an appropriate rate of giving. Stewardship of our God-given financial resources is important.
Yes, vigilance against the consumerist excesses of our culture is an important way of guarding against greed and the accumulation of stuff.
But, our Gospel reading is not concerned with tithing or stewardship.
Rather, Jesus is focused on justice, particularly justice for the poor. Jesus is not centering out the widow as an exemplar of generosity; he is condemning the religious elite for their exploitation of the poor.
At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. His triumphal entry is not what the crowds were expecting; you see, the Israelites were expecting their Messiah to be a military ruler who would overthrow the Romans. However, the only thing Jesus overturns is the tables of the money changers in Jerusalem. Prior to cleaning out the temple upon his arrival to Jerusalem, Jesus is challenged about whether or not people should pay taxes to Caesar. While those who asked this question were trying to trap Jesus in order to create a reason to arrest and kill him, Jesus out maneuvers them by giving an unexpected answer. Jesus is clearly not the Messiah the people were expecting, which is why their cries quickly turned from ‘Hosanna!’ to ‘Crucify him!’
Prior to Jesus’ remarks about the widow’s offering, Jesus was also asked “which commandment is greatest of all?” (Mk. 12.28) To which Jesus replied: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.
You see, the author of Mark’s Gospel is setting the stage to describe the kingdom Jesus will inaugurate. God’s kingdom is not inaugurated with military power of extensive wealth; it is shaped and determined by God’s love and justice. Jesus is God’s kingdom in the flesh.
God’s intent for the temple was that it was to be a place where all people could worship (cf. Mk. 11.17a); however, when Jesus arrives on the scene, the temple is a place of economic exploitation and probably has been for some time.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus observes “the crowd putting money into the treasury” (Mk. 12.41a). He notices that “many rich people put in large sums” (12. 41b) and that “a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (Mk. 12.42).
Having prophetically enacted God’s judgment against the economic exploitation practiced by the money lenders in the temple by overturning the tables of the money changers, Jesus now turns his attention to the temple leadership, placing them under God’s judgment: “Beware of the scribes…they will receive the greater condemnation” (Mk. 12.38a,40b).
The scribes were the temple lawyers; they were the ones who arguably knew the Torah inside and out; they were the ones who should know what God’s law expects, particularly as it relates to the care of widows, orphans, and the poor. And yet, they were the ones, who, according to Jesus “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (Mk. 12.40a). Jesus is saying that these pious men are hypocrites who use their power not to defend the weak but for personal profit.
Therefore, Jesus is not commending the woman’s offering and he is not contrasting her piety with that of the scribes. Rather, Jesus laments what he sees: “she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12.44). Jesus laments that those whom God has called to be a blessing, are using their calling for their own glory.
Jesus completely exposes the situation as that which should not be: the temple should not be a place of economic exploitation; the religious leaders should not be abusing their power at the sake of the weak; the poor should not be expected to give everything they have. Jesus is not pleased by what he sees; what he sees falls under his condemnation and judgment.
This serves to underline not only the plight of the widow, ensnared in an unjust system, but also the plight of the entire human race, ensnared in sin. Sin manifests itself in a myriad of ways, but always results in brokenness, injustice, and suffering.
We want to applaud Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes – Let ‘em have it, Jesus! They are despicable so-and-sos! Indeed, the language of judgment and condemnation is in three out of four of this morning’s readings. We assume this language is always directed at others, but certainly not ourselves, after all, we go to church, we give to good causes, we are decent people.
Kinda sounds like what the scribes might say, eh?
When God’s judgment and condemnation are directed toward us, we object, saying “well, this kind of language can be a bit much! God is speaking metaphorically, of course. We certainly don’t want to make God too extreme!” However, these objections are often rooted in the deep-down realization that if we were honest with ourselves, we too stand under God’s judgment along with the scribes, the unrighteous and the wicked. Deep-down we know that we are ensnared in sin; deep-down we know that our world is broken, that we ourselves are broken, in need of salvation from our own desires and devices.
This is why we want the focus of today’s Gospel reading to be about tithing and stewardship because it means we do not have to take a hard look at the systems that perpetuate injustice and our involvement in them. Like the scribes, our piety can easily blind us to our complicity in injustice, whether intentional or unintentional; we become self-righteously indignant: “I deserve what I have, it’s mine and I’ve earned every penny”; or complacent: “Let the poor take care of themselves, God knows their poverty is their own fault, the way they waste what they have”; or self-righteous: “I give enough of my time and money to the church; I am tired to being asked to give more to everyone who asks”. However, these responses serve as weak moral justifications for our refusal to consider the ways in which we are perpetuating injustice.
So, where does this leave us? Our ignorance and justifications will only exacerbate the problem. Furthermore, our attempts to ‘fix’ the world, despite their noble intent, cannot liberate us from the injustice wrought by sin. These attempts often leave us exhausted and cynical, paralyzed in the face of the enormity, indeed the impossibility, of the task. As if we could end suffering and injustice by sheer force of will.
The good news is that it is not ours to save the world; the world has already been saved by Jesus Christ. It is only through his death and resurrection that the world is saved. The Church is raised with Christ, but it is not raised as Christ. The Church is not in the business of completing what Jesus started; that task belongs to him alone for he alone is the only one who can complete it. Rather, the Church, goes into the world as “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1.23), as a community that is filled by the Holy Spirit. The world is not ours to save – and this is good news because it liberates us to participate in the new thing that God is doing as he redeems and restores creation.
Therefore, we cannot sit idly by; with Jesus we are called to grieve the plight of the poor and to demonstrate the same righteous anger at systems of exploitation. However, it also means that we confess our own involvement in these systems and accept that we cannot save the world, be it through our piety, our ‘good intentions’, or our good deeds.
It is not our hands and actions that save the world, but rather the one who “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9.26b).
The church is called to be Christ’s earthly body and continue his earthly ministry, but we do so in remembrance of what Christ has already done to defeat sin and in anticipation of Christ’s second coming (cf. Heb. 9.28) when he will establish God’s heavenly kingdom on earth where justice and peace for all peoples will be established, where the hungry will be fed, the low will be lifted up, and where strangers, orphans and widows are swept up in God’s loving embrace (Cf. Ps. 146-7-9a).
The world is not ours to save, so let us work for justice and for the common good in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, we give you thanks that you are not a passive observer of human affairs, but that you are intimately involved because of your love for what you’ve created. We confess that we are entangled and complacent in the injustice of the world. We confess that in an attempt to justify our behavior and ‘fix’ the world’s problems that we lose sight of what you have already done through Jesus Christ. Remind us that the world is not ours to save so that we may enjoy the liberation that Christ’s death and resurrection brings us, freely serving the world with the same self-sacrificial love of your Son, in whose name we pray, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.