Sunday, November 11, 2012


Wesley Church
11 November 2012
Text: Mark 12:38-44

Beware of theologians in long robes! Such a warning has a bit of a hollow ring to it when spoken by a theologian in a long robe. Jesus issued a warning in Mark 12:38-40 about the religious leaders of his day who enjoyed their privileged status and used it to abuse more vulnerable members of the community.

“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!” (vv. 38-39)

Yet behind this religious façade and community respectability lay darker motives and activities for, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (v.40)

In contrast to these men who were viewed with the greatest esteem in the community, in verses 41-44, Jesus set forth a different kind of example altogether. While the religious leaders were devouring widow’s houses – taking advantage of her weaker status to shore up their own wealth – poor widows themselves were giving out of their poverty motivated by love for God.

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.” (vv. 41-44)

It was poor widows like these who in Jesus’ eyes approached more closely the ideal of the kingdom than the professional religious class. Jesus made this kind of contrast often in his teaching. Those who looked outwardly as though they were representatives of the kingdom (scribes and Pharisees) were often in fact only focused on their own little kingdoms of self-righteousness. On the other hand those who seemed the most insignificant – women, children, widows, and even despised lepers and prostitutes – were much closer to the kingdom than any of the religious leaders.

The Queensland government has been debating a bill that will make it legal for motel and hotel owners to refuse to rent rooms to sex workers. Many Christians will support this law because of their opposition to prostitution as an immoral activity. However, since this kind of private prostitution is legal in Queensland, anti-discrimination officials have quite understandably pointed out how unjust such a law would be. They have argued that it is wrong to consider a sex worker to have fewer rights than other citizens under the law. Whatever one may think of this particular debate, Jesus came to overturn the idea that prostitutes, or widows, or little children  were second class citizens with less rights than others. Rather, every person, even the most insignificant, is the object of God’s love and should be treated with justice and respect.

I was once taken out to dinner by a denominational leader who was head of a large missionary department in the United States. The restaurant was quite expensive and I was a little surprised to hear that the cost would come out of the missionary department’s budget. Of course I understand that some money may legitimately be spent on hospitality toward overseas visitors. But my heart sank when I thanked him for the meal and he replied, “Don’t thank me; thank the little old lady who saved her coins to support the missionaries.” That comment seemed to me to convey disrespect toward such faithful givers and left me sadly reflecting on the cynicism sometimes displayed by religious leaders.   

During the days of the U.S.S.R. the government placed severe restrictions on the churches believing that religion was destined to die out in any case. Only a few old ladies with headscarves were interested and these would soon pass on, leaving state-sanctioned atheism to take their place. But the faith did not die out in Russia and when the Soviet Union collapsed the Russian Orthodox Church was revived.

A congregation in Romania had their church appropriated by the government under the regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. When their bishop died they were not permitted to bury him in the traditional location of the church’s crypt. Determined to defy the order they took a jackhammer and began to open up the pavement at the front of the church.  As the young uniformed police officers attempted to stop this activity, little old Orthodox ladies took their umbrellas and began to beat them crying, “Shame on you; shame on you!  How can you do this thing”?  That story could be seen as a metaphor for the end of the repression of the Church in Romania.  Again we see the faithfulness of widows doing what they can to keep the faith alive. Thank God for those ‘little old ladies with headscarves’ who kept the faith alive during that period of repression, allowing it to blossom back into life when the time was right.

The reason Jesus praised this poor widow was that while others gave larger sums, and she only gave two small copper coins, she gave more because she gave all that she had. It seems that God is not so much interested in how much we give but in how much we keep.

This week George Lucas (pictured right) the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises struck a deal to sell his company Lucas Film to the Disney corporation. He “has announced that he will be putting the vast majority of the $4.3 billion dollars from the sale into a foundation which will focus on education. Lucas is the sole shareholder of Lucas Film so the entire sum will go to him and he is free to do what he wants with all of it.  This donation will put him on par with Bill Gates in terms of his charitable giving.”[1]

I think people like George Lucas and Bill Gates are to be applauded for their charitable giving but this widow even more so, for they gave out of their abundance but she out of her deep poverty.

If you have ever spent time in the developing world you will have experienced the generosity of the poor. People who have very little will generously share the little they have with you, motivated by hospitality. On the other hand the wealthy can at times be so protective of their wealth that they cling to it possessively.  I remember being involved in a bitter church dispute over property and finances. The way the congregation divided over the issue was very interesting.  Those who were quite well off financially were arguing the case for frugality and concerned about what would make the most money for the church.  On the other hand those with little resources – pensioners, missionaries, and welfare recipients all argued the case for generous and extravagant giving without thought of financial return.

In today’s Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 17:8-16 we learned about the widow of Zarephath. During a time of famine, this starving widow gave the prophet Elijah her last meal, which she had reserved for herself and her son. As a reward God miraculously provided her with bread and oil until the drought broke.       

In some circles it is taught that the more we give financially the more God will bless us financially in return. Televangelists have been among those who have promised miracles in return for money. Early one morning I was shocked to hear one of these tell his audience how God had blessed him when he was able to swoop in on a foreclosure and get a bargain basement house.  No thought was given to the poor farmer and his family whose house had been devoured due to the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Now, if viewers (many no doubt poor widows) would send in a generous donation to the televangelist’s ministry they too could expect God to perform such financial miracles on their behalf.

Neither the poor widow of the Gospel story nor the starving widow of Zarephath gave with such motivation in mind. They gave out of their poverty because they were motivated by love.  They made no showy pretensions of piety. They didn’t care to announce how much they had given. When they gave, their left hand knew not what their right hand had done.         

Beware of religious leaders who devour widow’s houses. Look instead to unimportant people (unimportant in the world’s eyes) who in the generosity they display in the midst of their poverty are the true and best examples of God’s kingdom of extravagant love.   +

[1] accessed 10 November 2012

1 comment:

Ross said...

That's one reason why I don't watch televangelists, not to mention their poor exegesis. Even in the past year, there have been times where I've dishonoured God with the use of my finances, so I don't claim any moral superiority here.


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