I can’t help but be uncomfortable with the way that today’s scripture from Mark opens. The first word out of Jesus’ mouth is, “Beware.” Beware of what you ask? Beware of people like me I suppose. Jesus says to beware of religious leaders who walk around in long robes. Check. I’ve got my long robe on this morning. Beware because religious leaders like to be greeted with respect in the marketplace. Check. I enjoy it when I’m having dinner out in a restaurant and someone from the congregation comes up to greet me. Beware, Jesus says, because religious leaders get the best seats in the house of worship. Check. I get to sit up front, and while I am not sure it is the best seat, I do have a particularly fine view of your faces and the light coming through the stained glass windows. Again Jesus says beware because people like me get the good seats at banquets. Check. I’m often invited to sit at a table near the front at charity events I attend. Beware, because people like me devour widow’s houses and say long prayers for the sake of appearance. Check. I can’t remember ever devouring a house, but I do say a lot of prayers. And then Jesus tops it all off with this friendly conclusion: people like me will receive the “greater condemnation.” Well, doesn’t that little thought put a bounce in my step? Of course the reality is that Jesus has a much larger point to make than to call attention to the foibles and pretensions of clergy like myself. The real issues that he is talking to his disciples about as he walks through the grounds of the Temple have to do with: style trumping substance, integrity of leadership, and most particularly, violation of trust.
In a New Yorker cartoon I cut out recently, there is a scene set in hell. There are myriads and myriads of poor naked souls all lined up to make the long descent into the places of torment. Devils stand guard, armed with three-pronged spears to guarantee an orderly crowd. The line is entering through two gaping entrances to the nether regions of darkness. One is labeled, “Individual.” The other is labeled, “Corporate.”
We live in an era when almost all institutions are held in suspicion. And it is no wonder. What’s happened is that there’s been a major collapse of confidence in the institutions of our country. Newspapers and TV news tell us of one indictment after another: a breach of trust by government representatives, university administrators, public school teachers, corporate executives, priests, rabbis and ministers. All caught betraying their vocations, their responsibilities and the very principles they give lip service to. In the last couple of years we have come to know more about the corruptibility and the fallibility of people in leadership positions than we ever wanted to know. Just this last week, the name of the former president of the National Evangelical Association, the Reverend Ted Haggard, was added to that dismal group. He publicly admitted he was a “liar and deceiver.” Giving yet one more reason for many people to be convinced that the church is as hypocritical, if not more hypocritical, as any institution. Sadly, some church leaders keep showing up in the news to give them ample reason to believe that. Never mind that 99 percent of persons in similar positions have carefully walked the straight and narrow.
It has gotten to the point that the general public feels they’re justified in their suspicion of institutions, and of the people who represent them. This culture of suspicion is uncomfortable – and frequently unfair. Nevertheless it’s probably necessary. In fact we find in scripture a call and demand for integrity of life of leaders that spares no one – not priest, nor prophet, nor king, nor layperson, nor scribe.
Just prior to today’s scripture reading, Jesus experienced a series of encounters with members of the religious establishment of his time. He went head-to-head with a couple of powerful sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. And he suffered criticism at the hands of the scribes, who were experts in the study of the Torah, and sticklers about religious law and its interpretation.
Jesus had a lover’s quarrel with the religious institutions of his time, though he faithfully participated in them. Not a Sabbath passed but that he was present in the synagogue. He knew and paid respect to his tradition. And loving that tradition, he insistently held it to the highest standard – of always reflecting the love of God. But in his experience, it frequently fell short of that standard.
Jesus observed that too often the religious leaders were much better at “talking the talk” than they were at “walking the walk.” That’s what was behind Jesus’ anger at the scribes in the Temple.
It was a fundamental tenant of Judaism that orphans and widows were to be protected and cared for because of their vulnerability. Yet Jesus knew that it was for that very reason they were taken advantage of by some of the scribes. It had to do with something called “scribal trusteeship.” Scribes were retained by widows to administer their deceased
husband’s affairs (taking their percentage off the top first, of course). The practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse. It was for that reason Jesus said they deserved condemnation.
To Jesus it was a sacred responsibility violated. Still his disciples looked at the trappings of power and favored position of the scribes in the Temple, and were impressed. So to underscore his point about the integrity of faithfulness, he called their attention to the example of a poor widow. She was standing in line to make her contribution to the Temple. In front of her were several prosperous looking types putting large gifts into the collection trumpets. As the widow came forward, they watched her dig into the bottom of her purse and put in the proverbial widow’s mite (as it is called in the King James Version) – two small copper coins worth very little. Barbara Brown Taylor comments, “As far as [this widow] knew, no one even saw her. But then again no one ever saw her. She was one of life’s minor characters, one of the invisible people who come and go without anyone noticing what they do…She was a bit player, one of the extras who ring the stage while the major characters stride around in the middle, dazzling everyone with their costumes and high drama.” (The Preaching Life, p. 127)
In Jesus’ time, widows were a marginalized group. A widow had virtually no status in the community. Because if she did not have a husband or other male relation, she was not entitled to any legal rights. She was therefore – a nobody. The Hebrew word for widow has the nuance of one who is silent, unable to speak. And so the very fact that Jesus even noticed her at all tells us something about him. If God’s eye is on the sparrow, so too does Jesus have his eye on each of us, including those the world too readily overlooks and dismisses as unimportant.
Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those others contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”
Those are challenging words. Words that can make folks like us uncomfortable. And you can understand why this passage has been used in more than a few stewardship sermons to encourage generous giving to the church. But not today. Because I don’t really think this passage is simply a message about money. The stories of Jesus are rarely that obvious. There is a deeper meaning to this small story.
So what is this story really about, then? At its heart I believe it has to do with sacrifice…a willingness to sacrifice for what you really care about. The widow sacrificed. She gave her all to the Temple, which her tradition held was where God was most powerfully present. Her sacrifice was so complete, why? Out of obligation? Not likely. Because of devotion to God? Possibly. Because it meant so very much to her? Probably. In any case, her very act of selfless giving was both noteworthy and praiseworthy to Jesus.
Now to be honest, I am not all that comfortable talking about sacrifice since my own defense mechanism kicks into gear with that word. But at the same time, I know that sacrifice is important to our life of faith. And though it seems contradictory, I believe that sacrifice is important to living an abundant life. Here’s why. The Greek philosophers were the first to popularize the proverb, “In all things – moderation.” It’s a tenet that the Puritans who first settled our country lived by, and a saying many of us heard growing up. It suggests that the key to life is nothing in excess. It is the wise person one who works for a balanced life: the person who carefully avoids becoming over-committed, the person who dampens the fires of passion so as not to be too zealous…the golden mean – that’s the key to life. But Jesus was no philosopher. His heritage was the Hebrew way, walking the halaka, God’s way. A way characterized by the extravagance of love rather than the limitations of moderation.
Mostly you and I are not radically extravagant about anything. Mostly we are cautious and prudent. We are told of the widow giving everything she had and are struck by her willingness to give so generously. Just as some of us were struck by the extravagance of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in committing sixty billion of their own dollars to combat disease and suffering, as well as to fund better education for the poor and community development in the third world. What then about you and I? Have we ever given everything we had? Have we ever sacrificed our all? I think so. I hope so. Surely we have sacrificed our all when we have poured out our life for love. If ever the boundaries of moderation need to be pushed out, it is to extravagantly give of ourselves for what we care most deeply about in our hearts.
At a recent seminar I attended, one of the speakers said something to the effect, “People don’t really care enough about the problems of our city, the problems of the poor, or the problems with our environment. Because if they did, they would be willing to make some necessary changes. But of course to do so requires sacrifice, and no one wants to sacrifice these days.”
I beg to differ. I know of many people who willingly sacrifice to help make change happen. In working with the different agencies our church supports through its Outreach program, I have met executive directors who have strong credentials and obvious talents sacrificing a better lifestyle to do work that helps the poor and disenfranchised. One was a chief of staff for a congressman who became frustrated with Washington and so came to Chicago to take the job of director of an agency that feeds the poor off the streets. Certainly nowhere near as prestigious or glamorous as what she did before, but as she told me, more meaningful. And we can’t forget our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who are sacrificing to serve our country.
Jesus notices real sacrifices when he sees them – and he invites us to see them too. If you watch the people in the temple courts of Kenilworth Union Church closely, you will see mother and fathers, giving themselves away making sacrifices for their children. You will see quiet, private sacrifices. A person sacrificing their popularity to speak out against prejudice. A person sacrificing their time and energy to address a seemingly intractable problem. Real sacrifice occurs when giving it all away makes a difference in the life of those who receive the gift. A small news story from this last August bears this out. It reads: “When two of Motti Taman’s brothers were killed by a Hezbolla rocket, the Israeli asked that his brother’s eyes be available for transplant. One of the recipients was an Arab, Nikola Elias, who was blind in one eye and had little vision in the other. [After the successful operation] the two men later met, shook hands and exchanged phone numbers. (Christian Century, Centurymarks, p.6) Jesus said, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be put in your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Who among us has not withheld our time, our money, our love, ourselves, and then later regretted it? Who among us hasn’t felt the heart tug of passion to be part of a cause and then pulled back? Who among us hasn’t heard the call for commitment, sacrifice, generosity, but chosen a more sensible way?
We miss something of the miracle of life when we do that.
There are times that being balanced and moderate is not enough. There are times when we need to give everything we have. To live the abundant life, we need to give, not sparingly but all we have, knowing that to give is to live. Jesus praised the widow for giving everything she had. Perhaps because her gift prefigured his own. After Jesus leaves the Temple, four days later he will give everything he has. She withheld nothing, neither did he. He laid down his life, sacrificing everything for us on the cross. As the old hymn puts it, a gift “so amazing, so divine, [that it] demands my soul, my life, my all.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.