In Which Jesus People-Watches

Sermon preached for the Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Mark 12:38-44

As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets.  They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money.  One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, all that she needed to live on.”

***

Well, as someone who walks around in a long robe and says long prayers in public… this is awkward.

Although in my defense, I’ve never been expected to be greeted with honor at Remke’s or Kroger.

But even so, this is a piece of our holy scripture that makes me pause.

Makes all of us pause, I hope.

In fact, I think that might be the whole point of this scripture: the pausing.

Jesus makes his disciples pause, and in the pause, notice. Notice what is really going on in the day-to-day bustle of the temple of Jerusalem.

Remember, this is Jesus’ last week on earth. He’s not doing anything superfluous here. He’s trying to set his disciples up with everything they’ll need to know how to do once he’s no longer there to lead them around.

And so he teaches them to see. To see underneath the surface, see what’s really going on.

He begins with a bit of a potshot at the legal experts, those who use religion to make get ahead in the world, who trade on their piety like a commodity. Those who look the part on the outside but behave cruelly to the very people the law they are supposed to be experts in tells them to take special care of: the widow and orphan, stranger and immigrant.

Jesus then shifts his attention to the treasury, where donors to the temple are making their offerings. Some things haven’t changed in 2000 years—it still takes donations to run a church. After his cutting takedown of the scribes, I think it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich who give lots of money. He does, however, turn his disciples attention to someone else—someone who might otherwise have crept through this scene invisibly.

There is a widow in the crowd by the treasury. Her coins do not make a great clinking rattle as she throws them in—she does not have enough for that. One imagines she slipped in and out without any fanfare at all. Yet Jesus notices her.

The widow’s offering is two coins, worth almost nothing. It’s hard to calculate ancient exchange rates, but it might have been something like 1/64th of a day’s wage. So if you work 8 hours a day for 8 dollars an hour, this is you giving your very last dollar. Maybe it could have bought you a Big Mac, but that’s about it.

She has almost nothing, and she gives it all away anyway.

There is a great deal of debate over whether Jesus is commending the widow for her generosity, or condemning the temple for taking this poor widow’s last resources. Given that Jesus just condemned the scribes for cheating widows out of their homes, and that in the next few verses he will predict that the temple is about to come down anyway, it does seem compelling that Jesus is frustrated with a religious system that takes from the very people it was designed to support.

My problem with that, though, is that I think it shortchanges the widow. She’s poor, but she’s nobody’s pawn. Inside her she has a wealth of strength and generosity, of trust and hope. And so she makes her choice.

In the Jewish system, the very poor were not required to tithe to the temple, or to give at all. This widow may very well live in hopeless poverty, but she still makes a choice, to give to the institution that was built to support her and people like her. She walks up to the treasury box, un-intimidated by other wealthier, flashier donors, knowing that what she has to give is worthwhile.

And Jesus notices her, notices that dignity and self-determination, that generosity and giftedness. It’s not that the gifts of the rich mean nothing. It’s that her gift—a gift all out of proportion to what she has—means more.

In essence, Jesus teaches his disciple that it’s not the gift by which we judge people. It’s the giver.

Jesus notices not only what the gift can buy, but what the gift cost.

It’s easy to think of this story in purely financial terms. But there is a bit of a strange phrase in the Greek, when Jesus is describing the widow’s sacrifice. He says that she gave everything she had, all her life.

We translate it “all she had to live on” or “everything she needed to live,” but that word is a noun. She gave all her Life. Jesus is talking more than money here. He’s talking about our whole selves.

So I think we can expand his lesson to think about all the people who give at great costs to themselves.

I’m thinking this week about the invisible struggles, the invisible poverties. Not just of money (although that is huge), but of energy, time, health.

I’m thinking about the teacher who shows up every day to love on her students even though she is fighting depression.

I’m thinking about the grandpa babysitting his grandchildren even with his chronic arthritis.

I’m thinking about the veteran starting her own business even as she handles her post traumatic stress disorder.

I’m thinking about the person of color constantly asked to dismantle the very systems of racism that harm him the most.

I’m thinking about the single parent who sets aside time to read to their child even though there are never enough hours in the day.

I’m thinking about all the invisible sacrifices the people around me make every single day. Like that widow with her two coins, the sacrifices I might never notice, because they don’t look like much from the outside.

It is easy for me to judge the gift and not the giver. Why wasn’t the cashier nicer to me at the store? Why didn’t my friend call me back sooner? Why don’t the other members of the presbytery committee show up to meetings as often as I do?

There is value in holding people accountable. But there is also value in grace, in recognizing that what they give may be all they have.

There is value in recognizing the sacrifice that others may be making just by getting up and getting dressed and heading out to face another day.

It is trite but true: Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

And it is part of our Christian call, part of our life as disciples, to see it. To see the battlefields all around us, to see with eyes of compassion the invisible struggles our neighbors and friends and coworkers face. To lift up their dignity and strength, that they keep fighting, keep giving, keep showing up, even when it feels like they are being swallowed whole. To see with Jesus’ own eyes.

One person may have less in them to give than another, on any given day. Jesus asks us to celebrate what they can give, instead of judging them for not measuring up. Asks us to celebrate the giver as they are, not how we wish they were.

This weekend we remember the sacrifices made by our military veterans, not only on the battlefield but when they return, the lives of generosity, dignity, and service that they live even after witnessing the very worst humanity has to offer.

We particularly remember today the end of the First World War. The bells rang for peace on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month exactly one hundred years ago today. The war left behind a world that was hurting, whole countries with their economies and populations decimated. It left behind millions and millions of grieving parents, spouses, children.

And yet they continued to give, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. They continued to give love to those who were left behind, peice new families together. Give money to churches and colleges and libraries. Give their time to Rotary and the Elks and the Shriners. Give their wisdom to their fraternities and women’s associations and political parties. Even with shattered hearts, they kept giving their life.

Peace didn’t last. That is the tragedy of the world, the cycle we have been unable to break. And yet I am astonished by the way people who have been through the most brutal, unimaginable situations find ways to give. They deserve our celebration.

I was incredibly moved a few years ago by a story shared by a friend. Her father was a veteran, the core of his being shaped by years of service and sacrifice. Even when dementia began to take away his memory, that core—that essential life of him—remained.

My friend took her father to the yearly Christmas Eve service, hoping the familiarity of worship would center him. She wrote:

[Dad’s] dementia continues to leave him confused – and for eight months he has not, of course, had any control over his money. He is always worried about this – he feels he needs money for his bills and for gas for a car that he does not have. I continually have to remind him that I am taking care of his bills and that he does not have a car. But at the Virginia Veterans Care Center, he won one dollar in bingo. He has kept that in his wallet for several months. He is always proud of that one dollar, mentioning it is the only money he has. But tonight during the offering, an offering to help people in need, he donated that one dollar which in his mind is the only money he has. I love him so much – even in this state of mind ravaged by a horrible disease, he still continues to teach me. I hope we can all learn from this.

My friend’s father had so little to give, and yet he gave it. That dollar could not buy nearly as much food or shelter or medicine for those in need as a thousand dollars could have. We all know that. That is not the point. The point is that what he gave cost him everything he thought he had—and he still gave. From a sense of generosity deeper than even his mind, from somewhere deep in his heart, he still gave.

There are people all around you who are giving what feels like their last dollar just to be up and around today. There may even be a person inside you who feels the same way.

And Jesus sees you, and notices your generosity, that you showed up, that you brought the gift of yourself, of your Life, to share with us. Jesus knows how hard it is. How much it is costing you just to be here. And Jesus celebrates that. Celebrates you.

For a God who knows what it feels like to everything, because that’s exactly what he did, we give thanks and praise.

And we ask for a portion of that same strength.

Amen.

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