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Seeing

This is the message I shared with the people of St. Timothy on Sunday, 11/11/18. The text was Mark 12:38-44.
Ahhh…a passage like this is music to the ears of all those involved in church finances. Here we have the selfish scribes pitted against the generous, sacrificially giving widow. Jesus lifts the widow up as an example of how we should give, doesn’t he…or does he? 

This incident occurs at the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Other chapters include incidents that point to the corruption of the Temple and the growing opposition of the religious authorities to Jesus. The scribes’ habitual behavior as a group gets severe criticism. But beyond the scribes’ actions, are the desire to do such things. It is the scribes’ inward desires and wants that are the ultimate issue.

The Jewish community was centered in its regard for God’s Law, Torah, its interpretation and application. The scribe was an important and duly honored person. However, their practices were pretentious: strolling in long robes, seeking public acclaim, taking the best seats in the synagogues and banquets, as well as lengthy prayers that masked the ruthless exploitation of the poor, especially widows, who in a male-dominated society are left without defense. Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness, scribes were given charge over the estates of widows. As women, widows were considered to be unable to manage their finances, so this fell to the scribes, the legal experts. They managed the estate for a fee, which often led to financial abuse and theft (Myers, Binding the Strong Man).

Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes echoes the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Zechariah who wrote, “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey (Isa. 10:1-2), while Zechariah declared, “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (Zech. 7:10). The greater condemnation for the scribes is declared because greater knowledge means greater responsibility.

This passage serves too as a warning to the early Christian leaders. They were to watch out for those other religious leaders (like the scribes). It’s tempting to want to become like those who seem more “successful” by worldly standards—even in the church. This also provides words of caution for later church leaders.

We don’t know much about this widow. She may have been old, but she may have been young. She may have had a baby on her hip or may have been childless. We do know that she was poor. Being a widow put her on the outskirts of society but being poor as well further marginalized her. A poor widow, especially if childless, was a drain on the community.

When a woman became widowed, she could return to her own family, if they would pay for her. Otherwise, she would have to stay with her in-laws being given very low, humiliating jobs. She was an extra burden on them. Widows had no means of support. They didn’t own property, usually didn’t have a way to make money. They were people on welfare—living off handouts from society or family.

This widow gave two copper coins, the smallest coins in circulation. It would take four to eight of them to make one cent. It is significant that she had two coins. She could have put one in the treasury and kept the other one for herself, but she doesn’t. 

Jesus is not sentimental but compares one’s gift to what one has remaining for oneself. He doesn’t denounce large gifts or romanticize small ones. Jesus is not holding up an example of faithful giving, but an example of a failed system. We have a message of critique against a religious system that results in the poorest giving all they have so the institutions can remain in wealth and comfort. 

In some ways, the widow’s giving parallels that of Christ’s giving of his life. Just as the woman’s gift was little, a crucified man was, in the eyes of the Roman Empire, a small thing.

What if the main point of this passage is the simple fact that Jesus notices her. which is not a given? Jesus was watching “the crowd putting money into the treasury.” Mediterranean peoples are not noted for being quiet. I experienced this vividly while living in Bethlehem. The widow was just one person in the large crowd and many were putting in significantly larger sums, yet Jesus’ attention is given to this woman. 

Jesus likely wanted to teach his disciples several things through this situation, but perhaps the first is to simply notice the widow, to see her--to acknowledge her person, her being, her plight and her offering. She is not merely an object lesson, but a person. Jesus notices what everyone else is too busy, too grand, too spiritual and too self-absorbed to see. She may have been easily unseen, even invisible, yet worthy of Jesus’ attention and ours (David Lose). 

After the widow leaves the temple, so does Jesus. As he does so, one of the disciples invites him to admire the magnificent stones of the temple and its impressive buildings. And Jesus responds, “Not one of these stones will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.” 

Ouch. Jesus has predicted the destruction of the temple. He has just watched a trusting, destitute woman, give her all to an indefensible institution, which refuses to protect the poor. Together, these two sections of scripture 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. 

Each of us, no matter our status or wealth, has days when we feel invisible, unremarkable and not worthy of attention. But Jesus sees us, deems us worthy of God’s attention and frees us to extend the same compassionate regard to others.

Throughout all of scripture, the call to care for widows, orphans and foreigners has sounded over and over again. These three groups were especially vulnerable in the biblical times of a patriarchal, clan-based society. They fell outside the protective mechanisms in place for other members of society. Today those on the margins of our society also fall outside such protective mechanisms. 

We are suspicious of people unlike ourselves, especially women, people of color and immigrants. This continues to shape the way we construct our economic systems and public policy. We had the opportunity to express our opinions on such things by our vote last Tuesday. 

Like Jesus did, should we call out any form of religiosity that manipulates the vulnerable into self-harm and self-destruction; any form of piety that exalts soul-killing suffering as redemptive; any practice of faith that lulls us into apathy in the face of economic, racial, sexual and political injustice?

If we are living as a community of faith committed to justice, a widow would not be moved to give up her last coins. Being committed to a right relationship means that everyone shares out of his or her ability and resources so that others will have enough. No, I am not suggesting that we all pool our resources and live together in one big Christian commune. But we are certainly not to hoard our money and possessions for our own pleasures while others go without food and shelter.

We might ask who we are not seeing as we go about our daily lives. Who have we forgotten, ignored or overlooked that God would invite us to notice, recognize and honor? Sometimes we can make those in need into an issue or a cause when, most of all, they are people. It is one thing to be a champion of the poor but knowing the name and taking the time to care about a specific person who has very little is another thing altogether (Lose).

Maybe veterans are among those we do not see. How many of us here today are veterans? Today is Veterans’ Day, which originally was Armistice Day, signaling the end of WW I. Today we celebrate 100 years since the signing of the Armistice. 

Many veterans suffer from PTSD and other disorders and diseases. How can we help them to best become reintegrated into society upon returning home? Faith-based hospitals, long-term care providers, houses of worship and other religious organizations provide critical connections and services for veterans returning to civilian life. Besides direct service, engagement and community education, advocacy for veterans is a critical way in which people of faith can raise support in local communities. Resources can be found on the VA webpage and ELCAchaps.com (elca.org). You can also talk with Sarah Goebel, who daily works with veterans.

Just as Jesus saw the scribes and the widow, Jesus sees us, heals us and uses us to be his eyes and ears and mouth and hands in today’s hurting world.

Amen.

Resources
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
Eric Fistler and Rob McCoy, pulpitfiction.com
David Lose, davidlose.net
Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting On the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com
Sundaysnandseasons.com
Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net 





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