Wednesday, November 08, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Mark 12:38-44 (A Lament Over Religious Injustice?)

[Most weeks, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Bible Lesson: Mark 12:38-44
38As 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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.”

General Comments
1. I was at first hesitant about preaching on this lectionary text this coming weekend because the Sunday after, November 19, brings a critical Consecration Sunday to our congregation. I didn't want to be in the position of beating people over the head about giving. I don't like such harangues and, because I try to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, I try to avoid being a haranguer!

My discomfort had to with how I have always seen this text. My view--the traditional one--has always been that Jesus is here extolling the virtue of giving all your money away until there was nothing left to live on.

But Biblical scholarship has impressed upon me the possibility that a different interpretation is possible, even probable. What happens in vv. 38-40 is the context for Jesus' teaching in vv. 41-44.

In the earlier verses, Jesus condemns worldly, money-grubbing, prestige-loving scribes who devour the households--literally the houses--of widows. (More detail on that when I do the verse-by-verse comments later, hopefully tomorrow.)

In the latter verses, Jesus points to scribes ceremoniously filling the coffers of the Temple treasury from the leavings of their wealth while a widow puts in all she has. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word Jesus uses of the two coins the widow puts into the treasury is her bios, her life.

But let me ask you a question: Do you think a loving God would ask a poor widow to sign over her last penny to the Church? As I've thought about it this week, that surely doesn't conform to the picture of God we see portrayed in the Bible or as we see Him in Jesus.

No, says Biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writing in a commentary on the almost-identical account of these events in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 20:45-21:4):
In the broad context of...[the Gospel of Mark, which Fitzmyer believes Luke used as the source for his telling of the incident in our Bible lesson] the episode, when it is normally understood as a comment of praise from Jesus, creates a problem. This arises from Jesus' statement about Corban in Mark 7:10-13. There he is remembered as having said that human needs take precedence over religious values, when they conflict. Compare further his words about healings on the Sabbath (e.g. 3:1-5). Given such a reaction of Jesus in other parts of [Mark]...would...Jesus become enthusiastic about and praise the widow's contribution, when it involves "all that she had to live on"? The Corban-saying seems to set limits to the interpretation of Jesus' words in this episode.

In the immediate context of both...[Mark and Luke]..., moreover, Jesus has condemned the Scribes who devour the estates of widows. Now he comments: This widow has put in everything that she had, her whole livelihood or subsistence. "Her religious thinking has accomplished the very thing that the scribes were accused of doing" (A.G. Wright, "The Widow's Mites," 262). In the preceding episode Jesus was displeased with what the Scribes were doing to widows' estates; here he is no more pleased with what he sees. He heaps no praise on the widow, but rather laments the tragedy of the day: "She has been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does, and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action"...In short, Jesus' comment contains words of lament, not praise. [bold italics my addition]
2. Jesus is therefore condemning a fat-cat religious elite who shame the poor into giving all that they have to the Temple (or the Church!) while they only give God their leftovers and live high on the hog. Shame has no place in the Kingdom of grace God has ushered in through Jesus Christ. Institutions that shame us into giving aren't speaking for God and don't deserve our support.

It also underscores Jesus' call for Christians to live with a commitment to justice. Biblical justice, as Father Walter Burghardt preaches constantly, goes beyond legal notions of justice, which involves getting what we deserve, or philosophical ones that discuss fairness. Those are valuable ideas. But God ties Biblical justice with the call and the command to love God, love neighbor, and to treat the world with the respect that any gift from God warrants.

Biblical justice, thank God has nothing to do with what we deserve. After all, I deserve only condemnation. Biblical justice has to do with loving others as we have been loved by God in Jesus Christ! The scribes were unjust because they were totally unloving toward the destitute around them. They lived well and gave no thought to how they might ease the burdens--spiritual, material, and financial--of people like the widow, who gave out of a sense of obligation created by the scribes' legalistic, un-Biblical theology.

Jesus laments this horrible state of affairs. To the extent we foster it in our churches, we should lament it too!

3. One note about context: Jesus notes that most scribes don't really understand the central command of God embodied in the Scriptures they supposedly know so thoroughly: to love God and love neighbor (Mark 12:28-34). (It should be pointed out though, that even in Mark 12:28-34, we meet a scribe who does understand that this community of love is central to God's identity and will. Jesus' words in our lesson speak of scribes apparently prevalent around Jerusalem.) Then in Mark 12:35-37, Jesus speaks of how, often, the masses get it, but not the religious elites represented by the scribes. You can see how this sets up what happens in our lesson.

Immediately following our lesson comes an extended bit of apocalyptic teaching by Jesus (chapter 13), followed by Jesus' passion (chapters 14 and 15). The New Interpreter's Bible (and others) suggest that the widow, appearing just before Jesus' crucifixion, is a type of Christ. Like the widow--only in His case, in an ultimate sense--Christ will give His life for the sins of others.

One difference between the widow and Christ, among others, of course, is that He gives His life--His bios--knowingly. The widow was duped. In our lesson, as in other places, Jesus condemns charlatans who employ religion to get others to make sacrifices which they themselves don't even think of entertaining: A widow can go to the poor house while their freezers are stocked with filet mignons and caviar.

Obviously, there are implications in this for our congregation--and others--as we ask people to give their time, talent, and treasure to the mission of the Church and to charitable needs in the world.

I hope to do a verse-by-verse look at this passage tomorrow. Please pray that I prepare a faithful message on this lesson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


That's a very interesting thought. Jesus certainly condemns hypocritical and self-serving religion. But I'm not sure that's the point of this pericope. He is drawing a contrast between the bad faith of the scribes and the genuine faith of the widow. He commends her for her generosity, and there's no indiciation it came about wrongly.

Do you think a loving God would ask a poor widow to sign over her last penny to the Church?

I don't think God is asking anyone to do what the widow did. She did it willingly, which is the point of Jesus' commendation. The point is not that we are to ask for that kind of sacrifice, but that God honors willing generosity, regardless of the size of the gift (see 2 Cor 8:12).

In short, Jesus' comment contains words of lament, not praise.

I don't see that in the passage. She is living out Jesus' exhortation in Matt 6:31-33 literally, and that is what he commends. She gave her last two coins, but that doesn't mean she starved to death or there were no more coins ever again.

Jesus' disciples left behind homes, money and businesses to follow him, not knowing how they would eat or where they would sleep (Matt 8:19-22). Hannah gave her son to God, Anna gave her life to God (Luke 2:36-37). Radical steps of faith, to be sure, but they are honored for their faith and sacrificial self-giving. The gospels are filled with Jesus' calls to radical self-denial.

Paul commends the believers in Macedonia for their sacrificial giving, and even uses it to spur the Corinthians on to greater generosity (2 Cor. 8:1-8). In the wrong hands, that can of course lead to abuse. There are greedy shepherds. But that doesn't negate the commendation of those who give freely and at cost to themselves (see 2 Cor 9:1-11).

In Mark and Luke, Jesus condemns the rich for their selfishness, even though they gave much. He commends the widow for her faith and generosity, even though she gave little.

I don't really see how the "corban" statement is relevant to this passage. Jesus' point there was again about self-serving hypocrisy, not elevating human needs over giving to God. It's the same issue -- religion becomes a sham, a pretense to justify what we want to do anyway.

And I agree that we never need to harangue people to give. The NT perspective is that as our hearts are transformed by the work of Christ, God changes our priorities. Our time, our abilities, our bodies, our money all belong to God because he has redeemed us by his amazing grace. He has given us everything. That motivates us to give freely and generously out of gratitude as an act of worship.

I think these are the questions this account raises: "Do I hold on to my money tightly? Am I willing to trust God's provision? Is there a cross of self-denial in my finances? Am I willing to give up anything to be more generous towards God and others? Am I glad to give anonymously, or do I need to have my name listed on gifts to the church?"

Sorry for the very long reply. You raise some good questions. I hope this is helpful, and I enjoy the interaction.