by Ellen Sims
text: Mark 12:12:38-44
This morning we peek inside the synagogue as Jesus teaches that there are two kinds of religious folks. Some are scribes; some, widows. “Beware of the scribes,” he says. “They make a grand entrance into the worship space to impress others. Beware. But take care of the widows. They humbly worship and give all that they have. Take care.”
Beware of those who use the church. Take care of those who are being the church and need the church.
The scribes are those who flaunt their symbols of religiosity. Their “long robes” might have been a first-century equivalent of modern bumper stickers and t-shirts with Christian slogans. If the scribes were around today, they might print t-shirts that say: “Be the Church: condemn gay people; round up or run off immigrants; post the Ten Commandments in all public spaces.” Today’s equivalent to the scribes Jesus criticized might be church leaders in Mobile who pray long, explicitly-Christian prayers at the Mobile City Council meetings without ever suspecting some in that room are Jewish or Muslim or other. Or they might be wealthy deacons passing offering plates on Sundays but on Mondays are slumlords operating barely habitable rental properties for the working poor.
Beware of those who use the synagogue/church to appear righteous.
Jesus is saying, “Beware the scribes; take care of the widows.” The widows, in today’s terms, are those who serve the church, who serve through the church, who love the church, who trustfully live out the values of the church as printed on OUR new “Be the Church” t-shirts.
Like any scripture, today’s lection can be misused. Too often this story has been sermonized without including verses 38-40. Too often Sunday school teachers and preachers have omitted Jesus’s discomfiting accusations against the scribes and focused only on his commendation of the poor widow. Too often sermons about the widow’s mite avoid the specific charge that the scribes (v. 40) “devour widows’ houses” and kick them out on the streets. Too often Jesus’s praise for the widow has been twisted to support the exploitation of the poor. It’s one thing for Jesus to lift up the faithful generosity of the poorest, humblest, and most vulnerable member of the congregation. It’s another for us to see her as a hero to emulate. That’s because expecting the poor to be the most virtuous and generous is not a means of justice. When we tell children the sweet story of the poor woman who gave all she had—we unintentionally emphasize the responsibility of the poor and hide the source of the problem. The problem started with scribes who kicked widows to the curb.
Jesus excoriates the synagogue leaders who call attention to themselves as they smugly donate to the treasury. Notice, however, that the narrator does not zero in on a particular scribe in the same way the story focuses on a very specific poor woman. That’s because we are ALL part of an unjust economic system. We are all involved in a complexity that benefits the richest ones and leaves vulnerable the people with not enough. Sadly, this story about Jesus’s compassion for the poor has been used indirectly and subtly to pity rather than support the poor; to put pressure on those with little means rather than remedying a skewed system. We get to feel all warm and cozy by watching this individual woman save the day. As if one person can rectify the economic wrongs. Her two coins, though blessed by Jesus, are not the way forward. He critiques the scribes. And moved by her generosity, he blesses her. And certainly EVERYONE has gifts to contribute and to be appreciated.
But commentator John Perry goes so far as to say that “[the widow] is not a positive example, but rather the (barely) living representative of a crying shame. She represents the on-going exploitation of the poor by the Temple elite.”
New Testament scholar Greg Cary charges that “only a perverted imagination can turn her story into a general example.” He notes that in the chapter that follows, Jesus is sitting “opposite the temple” (13:1-3)—a symbol of his disapproval of the Temple leadership. He continues, “The widow’s generosity places the reality of poverty before our eyes. It reminds us that the poor do not represent parasites who drain society of its resources. This story reminds us that we live in an economy that siphons its resources upward and leaves the vulnerable to face destitution on their own — and . . . churches . . . ignore the process. Whether our institutions and religious leaders recognize it or not, we have lots to learn from the poor and the vulnerable. If we would just look.”
Carey urges us to ask these questions:
“Does Jesus seem like the kind of teacher who wants poor people, especially vulnerable widows, to give away their very last resources? Do we seriously imagine Jesus as rejoicing when a widow’s generosity deprives her of ‘her whole livelihood’?” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/mark-12-38-44-the-value-of-chump-change_b_2083237.html)
I would like to add this question to you: “Has this beloved story ever bothered you?” If so, maybe we’ve misused it.
My friends, as Open Table nears the end of another church year, we are presented with the opportunity to reflect today on how we are being church together. As I wrote in this year’s pastor report and which you’ll receive in today’s meeting: “We are a church not because we have reached a particular numerical benchmark or ecclesial standing. We are a church because we are trying to, in the words of our new t-shirts, “Be the Church” as we “protect the environment, care for the poor, forgive often, reject racism, fight for the powerless, share earthly and spiritual resources, embrace diversity, love God, enjoy this life.” I’d add, with today’s Gospel reading in mind, we are a church when we care for the widows and orphans. We are a church because we have become Christ to one another.
How do you measure a year . . . in the life of Open Table?
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.
How do you measure,
Measure this year?
In babies held and fed through Family Promise while their mommas ate delicious pot roast?
In 9:30 discussions where folks dare to deconstruct a childhood faith and begin painfully reconstructing a faith for adults living in the 21st century?
In new imagery for God and old stories heard in fresh ways?
In leadership roles that demand creativity and loving hearts and time and effort given in service of their faith community? In what can only be described as a heroic rescue of our LGBTQ support group that is stronger than ever?
How would YOU measure Open Table this year? I invite you now to share briefly something specific that happened this year or that you learned or observed that is a measure of Open Table’s maturation, that shows we’re gaining strength and living up to our vision:
(The congregation shared many moving examples.)
How do you measure this year?
In songs sung?
In prayers prayed with hope?
In helping friends cope?
How about love?
This year an important thing we did was to create a vision statement. Let me remind you of it:
“Grounded in love and moved by hope, Open Table United Church of Christ is a welcoming and safe spiritual home for all. We strive to provide progressive Christian theology and to work through advocacy and social justice for the oppressed in our world.”
Living out that vision is a good way to measure our year together. I hope we’ve cared less about the scribes and more about the widows and did so while grounded in love and moved by hope.
Gracious One, sometimes we worry that you are measuring us and we’re coming up short. But Jesus insisted that the first are measured as the last and the last are first and that your divine calculus depends completely on grace. We are grateful we’re not being measured for our halos. You are instead noting our needs and supporting us in a difficult journey—-as individuals, as a congregation. May we generously support one another on the road ahead. Amen