Meditation on Mark 12: 38-44
Merritt Island Presbyterian Church
Nov. 8, 2015
“As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and to be greeted with respect in the market-places 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.’ 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.’”
Friends, I am happy to see that folks are turning in their time and talents sheets, along with their pledge cards. So far, 43 people have responded. I am hoping more of you will fill out this volunteer sheet that invites us to give not only from our material resources, but to offer ourselves– all that we are– to the Lord and His Church! I had to smile when I saw some people’s names are listed under a variety of volunteer positions. Some are elderly with health problems and no longer driving, but they cheerfully give of themselves to do whatever the church needs–to serve the Lord.
But then I began to look more closely at our need areas, and I grew worried, especially as we consider our desire to have more young families and children in our midst. We only have 2 people volunteering to sub or assist in Sunday school and the nursery. Only one kind soul has offered to provide dinner for the youth group. If we really care about our young people and reaching out to the youth of our community for Christ, we have to do more than talk about it! We have to be willing to serve!
Another concern I have is the relatively short list of people willing to volunteer as ushers and greeters. How come? These are some of the most important jobs in a church, especially a congregation longing to grow. The greeters and the ushers are those who extend the first welcome, reaching out to new people and long time members alike with the love of Jesus. Usually, the greeter’s job is to help hold open the door for someone who needs help, smile, shake hands, and say, “Hello!” or “Good morning! We’re glad you are here!” Greeters point people in the direction of the sanctuary, coffee and refreshments, the nursery, Sunday school, and restrooms. They introduce new people to other members and answer general questions.
At my last church, every person served as a greeter at least once a year; some more often than that, filling in for others who could not make it at the last minute or were away on vacation. Those who would have trouble standing for any length of time would be seated in a chair by the door. We sometimes scheduled the greeters by couples or families. All of the children participated!
Friends, every Christian is called to reach out with Christ’s love to a hurting world. Greeters are making disciples of all the nations–one smile at a time. I can’t imagine what might keep people from wanting to be greeters; I can only think that maybe some people are uncomfortable welcoming strangers. Maybe they are worried they won’t know what to say. Or perhaps they are uncomfortable welcoming some of their own brothers and sisters in the Lord? Is that possible? Do we have some relationships that need mending?
Speaking as someone who has often been an outsider as a religion journalist, it isn’t just the pastor who needs to be friendly, welcoming and approachable. We ALL need to be that way! Studies show that someone visiting a church often makes a decision in the first 10 minutes whether or not they will come again. What happens in the first 10 minutes at our church? Do visitors receive a warm greeting from everyone they pass by? Do people take the time to introduce themselves? Do people invite visitors to sit beside them during worship? Do people ever sit in a different seat just to welcome someone they don’t know and strike up a conversation?
And here’s one more question that I wonder about. Do new people see us smiling at one another? Are we smiling? Or do we appear to be a congregation of Grumpy Cats… you know, that cat on the Internet that went viral, the one who is always saying, “No!” in a thousand different poses. We laugh when we see him because he’s so cute and loveable, even though he is making that bad face. And maybe we laugh because we know, deep down, there’s a little Grumpy Cat in all of us.
We don’t always want to be what God wants us to be, not if it means we might have to change our routine or habits. We don’t want to give and give of ourselves–our time, talents, and money–as the Lord urges us to do, like the widow does in today’s gospel reading. We come up with excuses why we can’t volunteer or take on new jobs in the church. We allow the same group of people to do most of the work of our ministry, though they are overburdened and sometimes exhausted. We don’t always want to be servants and help others; we come to church wanting our own needs met and sometimes being overly critical because something isn’t to our liking. Something isn’t like it used to be or how we want it to be.
I hate to say it, but we are Grumpy Cats!
During Jesus’ ministry on earth, our Lord encountered a few Grumpy Cats, too. But they weren’t cute or loveable. In our gospel reading today, Jesus warns the disciples about the scribes, the teachers of the law. But there’s a problem with the comma after the word, “scribes” in verse 38 that may lead to a misunderstanding. The original Greek had no punctuation. Editors and translators, hundreds of years later, added punctuation making it easier for people speaking modern languages, such as English, to read. But Jesus wasn’t labeling a whole group of people as “bad.” He was pointing to the bad behavior and arrogance ofsome of the religious leaders–the so-called pious examples of the day– and contrasting it with the generous, faithful behavior of the poor widow, a woman who probably went unnoticed by most people. I think Jesus does this because he means for all religious people to be warned against the arrogance, superficiality, and hypocrisy that we can all slide into, if we are not careful.
I am going to read verse 38 with and without that first comma, so you can listen for the difference in meaning. “Beware of the scribes, (comma), 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!” Now, I will read verse 38 without the comma: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.”
It’s significant that in this passage that denounces arrogance, false piety and self-righteousness, we encounter a lesson about giving and generosity. The economics of Jesus’ time were in some ways not that different than the economics of today’s world in that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The Temple levied taxes, a mandatory assessment for every Jewish family, in addition to what was required for the regular 10 percent tithe and offerings. The system favored the wealthy that could easily afford the taxes and the tithe. And the system was corrupt; the wealthy and powerful were not paying their fair share. This was what Jesus likely meant when he denounced the religious leaders who “devour(ed) widows’ houses,” presumably by requiring them to pay high taxes after they no longer had a close male relative to provide for them. Women, in those days, had few options for earning a living. The Greek verb translated “devour” in verse 40 is a graphic term commonly used to describe the ravenous eating of wild animals.
But in this instance, the woman isn’t a victim of poverty being forced by a cruel system to give all her money away. The money she gives is an offering, freely given, in addition to the Temple tax and tithe. Jesus watches her from the outer court–the part of the Temple that was accessible to women– where people could give money by placing it into one of 13 receptacles shaped like a trumpet. In verse 42, she gives 2lepta (“copper coins” in the NRSV), which Mark tells us are the equivalent of one kodrantes (a “penny” in the NRSV). The lepton is the smallest Greek (and Jewish) coin of the time, while the kodrantes is the smallest Roman coin. The kodrantes was a small fraction of a denarius,which was a day’s pay for a soldier or laborer. (The denarius was the coin Jesus asked to see earlier in this chapter when the Pharisees and Herodians try to trick him by asking him about paying taxes to Caesar.) Jesus says the widow’s gift of just 2 lepta worth only a penny is “morethan ALL those who are contributing to the treasury.”
Why is it “more”? Jesus says in verse 44 in the NRSV that she gave “all she had to live on.” Translating the Greek word for word, we read, “she gave her whole life.” Think about it! She had 2 coins left. And she gave both of them! What courage! What faith! To have trusted the Lord enough to freely give all of herself to God and God’s people, without worrying about her future.
The poor widow’s story sums up what Jesus had been teaching from the beginning of Mark’s gospel about discipleship. In this widow’s sacrificial gift of “her whole life,” we hear echoes of Mark 1:16-20, when the 4 disciples leave their nets–their sole means of making a living–to follow Jesus. And we hear echoes of Mark 8:34, when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
Do we have the courage and faith of the poor widow, who faced the future without fear– and gave without holding back? Do we trust the Lord to provide for us and guide us as we offer all of ourselves, for His sake? Friends, what will you give to the One who gave His Son so the world might have new and abundant life? What will you give?
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for all that you have given us–our families, friends, our church, our talents and gifts, our jobs and homes and all the material wealth we enjoy. We thank you especially for our salvation through belief on your Son, Jesus Christ. We ask that you help us to be more faithful in giving and serving you with all that we have and all that we are. Empower us to be more welcoming and joyful as a church so that others would see your beautiful light shine through us and want to know you, and receive your love and grace. Forgive us for being self-centered at times, looking to have our own needs and desires met instead of seeking to meet the needs of others. Stir us to forgive one another and let go of any past hurts that may be holding us back from growing our congregation and reaching the community for Christ. Mold and shape us into the image of your self-giving Son. In His name we pray. Amen.