First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
February 18, 2018 – First Sunday of Lent
Scripture: Mark 12:41-44
Sermon: “What Do You See?”
A pastor who was my mentor early on in my journey to ordination gave me some advice before I ever went to seminary. His pastoral advice: listen. His preaching advice: put the cookies on the bottom shelf. His worship advice: while the offering plate is passing, meditate on your shoelaces. Look down at the floor while it is passing; you don’t want people to think you are watching what they put in the plate. Today, it is advised that the pastor should know what people are giving. Sometimes our giving is a sign of our spiritual health, a thing to celebrate. Sometimes it is a sign of stress or distress in home; it could signal pastoral care may be needed.
Church experts have changed the advice my mentor gave twenty years ago. Maybe they read the scriptures more carefully, and saw that Jesus knew what people were giving. He didn’t look away or down at his sandals when time for offering was at hand. He planted himself directly across from the temple treasury where he had a perfect view.
That might seem an unusual thing to do, but this story really begins serval scenes earlier. Jesus has been in the temple awhile. He doesn’t just walk in to stare at the offering. He’s been sparring with the religious leaders. He’s been embarrassing them. Just before this treasury scene, the text reads:
While Jesus was teaching in the temple and the large crowd was listening to him with delight… he 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.’’
In the story about the scribes, Jesus points to them and says, “Beware of the scribes! They are hypocrites, and worse, they are taking advantage of the poor and destitute- devouring widows homes…” The scribes are definitely ‘bad guys.’ “Beware” is clear instruction. Don’t be like the scribes: false, hypocritical, acting like your faith is genuine when really it is just a ruse for taking advantage of poor, marginalized. The crowd is liking what he is saying. It is quite bold of him to go into the Temple and call out the scribes right in front of them. The scribes were the note takers, the temple’s legal team, the writers, and teachers. Jesus scribe object lesson is quite blunt and evident to all.
Then Jesus goes and sits down directly across from the temple treasury. We might think he is going to take on the Temple Finance committee next. Jesus sits there watching. He sits and he watches. He watches as the crowd enters for temple teachings and as they give. He watches the rich people give. He hears their heavy gifts thud into the offering with weight and substance. Surely the temple finance chair must have smiled at those. Jesus says nothing. He just keeps watching. Then he sees a widow approaching (not a rich widow, not a merry widow,); the word used here is the poorest of the poor. This is a woman who has nobody, nothing. If she had a house at one time, it’s long gone, maybe by the scribes who ‘help’ to manage estates of deceased since women couldn’t enter into legal transactions.
The unnamed woman that Jesus sees enter the temple is the one who was standing at the street earlier with beggar bowl in hand. In desperation she begs for coins to survive. Jesus sees her enter, he watches and hears as her two coins fall and lightly ting against the side of the offertory. The only fruits of her days’ worth of standing in the hot Mediterranean sun are two tiny coins. She puts them in the temple offering. That’s when Jesus calls the disciples over and says, “This poor widow has put in more than all those … for all of them have given out of their abundance, she has given out of her poverty. She put her all in.”
I wish we knew more. I wish we could be as clear about the lesson from the widow character as we are the scribes. I wish we knew what she was feeling and thinking as she released those two coins to clink into the treasury. We don’t, so I’m not sure what Jesus wants us to do with this character. He states the facts: percentage wise, this woman gave all while others gave little. He doesn’t say, “beware;” he doesn’t say, “do” He just reports what he sees. So are we to model after her? That’s usually how we hear the story told. “Go and do likewise.” Or, are we do something else altogether?
Why did she put all she had – a penny – into the temple treasury- we wonder?
Is she acting out of devotion? Is her love for God so great, her gratitude for the gift of life that beckons her giving? Has the death of her husband reminded her of our mortality, so the gift of life so overwhelmingly good that she has to do something to express her gratitude? Is this in response to her appreciation for waking up this morning? Even if she awoke in poverty, she saw the sun and has a burning desire to worship God and give thanks, and is only sorrowful that she doesn’t have more to give. In giving it all, is she expressing her longing to truly worship? Maybe we are to learn from her about the joy of giving as an expression of the joy of living.
Or, is it something altogether different that brings her to deposit her two coins in the temple? Is she acting out of guilt? Did she give all she had as a sin offering as she was taught is necessary? Had she stolen a piece of bread or pushed someone aside or blasphemed the Lord in frustration? Does she fell like she needed to atone for her transgressions? She knows these two coins, worth less than a penny, is not enough to meet the requirements of the sacrificial law, but maybe, since it’s all she has God will be merciful and forgive her anyway. Maybe the story is about faith and trust when all we have seems insufficient, but believing that in God’s grace it is enough.
Is she giving out of expectation? Does she feel obligated to give even though she has nothing to spare? Did she release those coins because the religious system expected her to, but as her only coins fell from her arthritic fingers did her last bit of hope fall also?
Is she giving out of defiance and frustration? Is her giving a symbol of resistance to shame an unjust, unmerciful religious system that would take from the poor to sustain the comfort of the rulers? Does she throw those two coins into the treasury with her head high as if to say, “there, take all I’ve got, now aren’t you religious leaders ashamed of yourself? I give you all now – what will you give me? I stand before you stripped bare.” Are we to learn from her how to resist evil injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves – even in the form of religious ritual and institution demands?
Is she giving out of loyalty? Is the Temple the place she feels closest to God? Has the Temple provided food and substance for her as they are supposed to? Has she received a widow’s stipend or food basket, so she appreciates the value of the religious institution that cares for poor, widows and orphans? Is she giving so that the Temple can continue its ministry to others like her? If everyone gives generously, everyone will have enough.
Is she simply foreshadowing the gift that Jesus will offer: all of himself?
Each of us will come to this lesson from a different place. Some will come from a place of privilege -like the scribes- and feel the sting of reproach. Some will come from a place of poverty- like the widow. Some from a place of grateful generosity; some from a place of abuse and inequity. Maybe, we all have a unique lesson to learn from the woman that Jesus sees and calls attention for others to see.
Maybe the lesson is less about the woman and more about Jesus and what it might say about God.
Jesus saw her. Jesus saw a woman, of no status or privilege, with no voice or power, a woman that we might overlook and never see. Jesus saw her and knew her. He saw the gifts that she offered that went unnoticed by others. While her gifts weren’t big enough to catch the eye of the Finance Committee or a letter from the pastor, Jesus saw her gifts and her devotion. Maybe our lesson is to be more like Jesus and see and open ourselves to learn from those we might expect have little to give or little to teach us. Maybe our lesson is to open our eyes and be sensitive to the quite ones amongst us, and open our hearts and ears to see what we might learn from them. Maybe our lesson is to be appalled on behalf of those who have nothing and at a system that squeezes more out of them while the wealthiest glide on by. Maybe the lesson is about God who sees this poor widow, who sees the poor amongst us now, who sees those others try not to see, who sees all of us in love.
Jesus claimed his mission was “proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to those who no longer see and to let the oppressed go free.” Here’s a story of Good News to the poor saying: You are beloved. Your penny is far greater than all the others. Here’s a story of release to the captive and freedom to the oppressed. It’s a story of those caught in debt and poverty calling us to take notice and take steps to liberate from the bondage of debt and consumer marketing. Here’s a story of recovery to those of us who can’t see clearly opening our eyes allowing us to see one another, and learn from one another. Maybe even the scribes can learn to open their eyes from their own narrowed view.
May it be so.