Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Not How Much, But How


This past Sunday I preached the following message at Bender's Lutheran Church, the rural church that I've been working in a few hours a week.

The holy gospel according to Mark.

38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,

39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!

40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.

42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.

44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

(Mar 12:38-44 NRS)

The Gospel of the Lord.

Yesterday was the Luther Bowl, the annual flag football tournament that the Gettysburg seminary hosts each year. After the game was Eucharist and dinner. I had volunteered to make chili. One of the necessary ingredients for chili is onions. I picked up a nice fresh looking onion and cut it open. It was all black and moldy on the inside. I could not tell that from the beautiful exterior, but only from going to the heart of the onion. That onion was not suitable for chili because it was rotten. I obviously needed an onion that was good on the inside to accomplish the task of flavoring the chili. And by the way, Gettysburg lost. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus shows us that the heart of true discipleship is not about what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside of us, our hearts.

In this passage, we first hear Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes. Just who were these people? They were the religious professionals, the experts in the Law of Moses and “in traditional laws and regulations” (Bibleworks). These were well-educated, high-class people. They were deferred to by others, which is why they got the best seats and places of honor. It makes me think of the spiffy owners’ boxes at NFL stadiums.

Even their clothing announced that they were special. The average man at that time wore short robes, but not the scribes! The long robes were expensive and by wearing them, they showed they had money. These robes were special, religious robes that would be worn on the Sabbath, but the scribes wore them all the time. This proved they were important people of high status. They liked being greeted in the marketplace, “an arena of male public interaction…Other people can see these respectful greetings and the reputation of the scribe as a person worthy of respect increases.” (newproclamation.com). These guys are big shots as far as money, religion, and prestige.

Now let’s think about this together. Who are the people (religious or non-religious we consider worthy of respect oday………………………………….the president, movie stars, talk show hosts, sports figures? These are all people that seem to have the best life can offer. The scribes like the people we just named, surely must have all their wealth and fame as a sign of God’s blessing………….or is it?

We’ve heard about what the scribes like (the prestige and the authority) and Jesus does not criticize them for these actions. Let’s hear that again, "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!” It’s not the actions, but the desire of the scribes that Jesus criticizes. Brian Stoffregen notes, “It is really their inward desires and wants that are the issue.”

These desires lead to what Jesus does criticize, “They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." How could they “devour widows’ houses?” The scribes received no salary or pay, so they lived off of donations. They took advantage of the poor widows.

It’s interesting that their actions against widows are mentioned right beside their long prayers “for the sake of appearance.” In the original language, it means they were pretending to pray. Another way to express this is “of what is made to appear to others to hide the true state of things” (Friberg). This is the opposite of truth; all the while they were devouring the widows’ possessions! In the final analysis, according to Stoffregen, “scribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation. Mark charges them with full responsibility for these abuses, and in perhaps the harshest words in the gospel, announces that they will receive far heavier judgment.” They knew God’s commandments. That’s why their judgment is heavier. Going back to the onion analogy, the looked good on the outside, but were rotten on the inside. Just as the onion wasn’t suitable for my chili, the scribes’ hearts made them unsuitable for service to God.

Jesus was a people watcher. After teaching about the scribes and their attitudes, he went to the place where offerings were being given. Another way of translating this is, “He was watching how the crowd casts money into the treasury.” Did you hear the “how?” That’s about motive. What was their attitude? What was in their hearts? I believe that in this one verse is the crux of the message, Jesus watching HOW people gave. The rich put in a lot of money because they had a lot. The issue is not about how much, but HOW.

This is how one commentator sets the scene for us:

The courtyard is crowded with pilgrims who have come to celebrate the Passover. Many of them are obviously wealthy. They can and do deposit large sums into the treasury. Then comes a woman not nearly as well dressed as the others. She wears the traditional dark veil and garments of a widow. And from the looks of her clothes, she must be almost destitute. She, too, drops coins into the cone-shaped containers—two copper leptons, the smallest coin in circulation, each worth about an eighth of a cent, the smallest contribution permitted according to temple regulations. And for this she receives the highest commendation of anyone in this Gospel! Perhaps from Mark's perspective her sacrifice of her livelihood in the middle of the week anticipates Jesus' sacrifice of his life at the end of the week. (Mark Wegener newproclamation.com)

How does this apply to us? What about the sincerity of our own actions? Do we pray for God to meet someone’s needs, but are unwilling to be the one God uses to do that? Do we pray for God to grow our church, but shy away from inviting people? Do we pray for church unity, but gossip about other members?

Are we like the onion that looks good, but is rotten inside or are we living in our baptism, in communion with our Lord so that we can serve God and neighbor? The widow may have looked poor, with tattered clothes—not so great on the outside, but how she lavishly gave shows the beauty from the inside.

Jesus shows us what it means to follow him. He is standing before us saying, not the scribes’ pretentious lifestyle, but the widow’s who gave her whole life, not counting the cost. We are not capable in our own strength to live at that level of discipleship. We are both saints and sinners, a mixed bag. Will we fail? Yes. Will our motives always be pure? No. But here is the good news. With God, nothing is impossible. With the grace of God our attitudes can become more Christ-like. Our motives will become more sincere. Our actions will be done out of love.

Let us pray:

Gracious God. Give us the grace to change our attitudes so we can follow you by learning to give of ourselves lavishly to serve each other for your glory. Amen.


1 comment:

Steve Martin said...

"With the grace of God our attitudes can become more Christ-like. Our motives will become more sincere. Our actions will be done out of love."

But what if we can't?

What then?

Is not His grace and mercy sufficient?


I hope you and the family are well, Ivy!