“God in Control;” Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44; November 11, 2012; FPC Jesup

“God in Control”
Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Our New Testament passage today is situated on Tuesday of Holy Week. I know that when I read accounts from Holy Week I have a hard time imagining how so much was condensed into this one week of Jesus’ life. I also wonder how he could have concentrated on the every day activities of this week, knowing what was coming. But Jesus knew his life was coming to an end and didn’t want people to have any doubt about God’s will for the current state of things in the country and in the religious community. Standing here on the precipice of joining God in heaven, he had no interest in seeming rationale or being likeable, just in being heard.

Though he had roused the suspicions and anger of the established religious community throughout his ministry, in this final week of his life, his actions became more and more impossible to ignore. On Sunday he rides into town on a donkey, surrounded by crowds, palm branches waving. On Monday he comes into the temple, and turns over tables in anger with the shady commerce happening there. And now it’s Tuesday. Jesus comes to the temple and speaks to a crowd gathered there. In a subversive move, he says to them “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[1]

I can imagine the scribes of the temple, gathered around the treasury, overhearing this critique of them, their faces red from the anger and embarrassment of being called out by Jesus in this way. How dare Jesus come into this space and slander them?

As if on cue one of these very widows whose houses was being devoured by the scribes enters the scene. And scripture tells us, “She put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”[2] We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

I really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

This passage is often lauded as an example of sacrificial giving. In stewardship sermons it is often offered as a reason for us to increase our giving. For surely we should increase the percentage we are giving if this woman if giving all that she has. I don’t think that is necessarily the message of our text. Right before Jesus points out the relative enormity of her gift he is admonishing the scribes for their abuse of widows. It is very possible that this text is not a commendation of the widow’s gift, but a condemnation of a system that so brutally oppresses those already oppressed. And in the temple, no less!

In this time, the scribes of the temple were also scribes of the community. They were literate individuals among a largely illiterate population. They charged high fees to help people to write to family members far away, decipher legal contracts, and to manage their estates. Since most everyone else was unable to tell what they were really reading, the actions of the scribes would go unchecked. While they would help widows with their estates, they could also help themselves, creating wealth for themselves and bankruptcy for their clients.[3] Though they read and preached texts of God’s power and might, they had moved farther and farther from acknowledging God’s control of their lives and even the temple itself.

This was directly contradictory with the message of the Hebrew Bible, which has numerous appeals for people to take care of widows in their community. Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” Deuteronomy 10:17-18 offers God up as the one who takes care of widows saying, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, an command is given for farmers to offer the access of their crops to widows and others in need, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” Isaiah 1:17 commands us to,” learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

If you were here in worship last week, you may also notice that these scribes are working in ways opposite to the example of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth disavows the stability of her community in order to support a widow, her mother in law, Naomi, even though there is no foreseeable gain. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi was an example of sacrificial trust in God’s will and design for her life. The scribes do not trust in God’s ability to take control of their lives and financial situation. They seek to create their own financial stability by taking from the already vulnerable widows.

Reading about the injustices of this community makes me want to turn over some tables too. This was the temple, a place where people could come and be in God’s presence. Religious leaders were still strongly enforcing dietary restrictions and protocol for sacrifices, but when it came to showing love and care for one another, they were falling short. They were concerned about themselves, worried about their own well-being with God, their own financial well-being, but entirely uninterested in caring for the most vulnerable in their community. They had lost focus of God’s heart for God’s people. This is the sort of corruption that makes a bad name for all religious institutions.

In the two verses following our passage we are told: “As he came out of the temple, one of [Jesus’] disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”[4]

All will be thrown down. This makes the situation even less stable for the widow in our story. She comes to this temple and gives all she has to an institution that Jesus says will not last, will be thrown down. “She gives her whole life to something that is corrupt and condemned.”[5]

This seems like a terrible investment. That is until we remember the week that surrounds her actions. This story of Jesus in the temple rabble-rousing and scribe-annoying is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. This quick, three-verse mention of a disenfranchised woman, is a preview of what is to come. Jesus is making his way to the cross. He is about to offer his whole life, for something corrupt and condemned: the whole of humanity. [6]

She gives, even though she is giving to an unjust system. She gives, even as her gift is taking away her own life. I’d like to think that she gives with faith that God will see her through to tomorrow, but we simply can’t know the intentions of her heart.

Our Hebrew Bible passage says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

The temple was built initially as a place for people to worship God, but it became corrupt as rules became more important than grace, and self-promotion became more important than the well being of all.

The entire world was created as a place for all of humankind to be in relationship with God, but it became corrupt as humanity chose knowledge over love, and chose to build high towers rather than reach out to those beside us.

Relationship with God is a choice we make every day. If we truly want to be people of God, we must invite God into our hearts and our intentions as both individuals and as a Christian community. God must be the builder of our relationships and of our churches.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise here, but we are not Jesus, and this church is not in and of itself a means of salvation. Any human institution will inevitably be fallible. But Christ came for the broken, for the fallible. If we remember that God is in control our future is teeming with hope and possibility. Amen.


[1] Mark 12:38-40

[2] Mark 12:44c

[4] Mark 13:1-2

[5] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

[6] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

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