The Reversal of Fortunes

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Mark 12:38-44

 

12: 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.”  (Mark 12:38-44, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of widows and strangers, you protect the oppressed and forgotten and feed the hungry with good things. You stand among us in Christ, offering life to all. Give us open hearts and minds to respond with love to the world, caring for those for whom you care. Amen.

 

This is not a Stewardship Sermon! But it is a sermon about giving.

 

We are privy to a very common transaction, a person making a donation, a woman making her offering.  But this woman caught Jesus’ attention and this transaction stood out to him.   So much so that he tells his followers about her and what she gave.  Did anybody else notice her or what she gave?  Probably not?  So, Jesus tells them.  She gave, “her whole life.” Not a portion. Not a tithe. Not a percentage. She gave her whole living.

 

Her whole living?  That should give us reason to pause and reflect on what is happening here.  Nobody can give everything.  Not even to the church, nor should we give that much to the church, or to anyone or any organization.  So, let’s move away from the stewardship interpretation of this Gospel story because we cannot reduce the widows’ donation to a percentage or a portion or a pledge. She gave her whole life to God.

 

She gave her whole life.  Why?  Was it out of obligation?  Was it out of respect?  Was it because of her religiosity?  Her piety?  Was it all of the above?  She gave her whole life because she had no other options.  She gave her whole life because that’s what was expected of her.  She gave her whole life because her life depended on it.  She was captive and caught in a system of exchange, trapped in expectations that demanded more from her than she could essentially give.  She had to do what she did.  She had no choice but to give her whole life.[1]

 

This is not an indictment of her or even the practice of Judaism.  This was the way it was back then.  This was reality.  Like death and taxes.  She had to give.  So, for Jesus to make such an important observation and notice her and single her out and raise her up as an example of the corruption of the system, was a huge risk.  Jesus speaks the truth, trying to show that God was up to something new — not a new doctrine, not a new ritual, not a new sacrifice, or even a new God, but instead it was Jesus telling how God is/was committed to being in relationship with the world.

 

Jesus is attacking the Temple establishment.  The Temple was not only a religious institution and the earthly home of God but it was an economic institution as well.  The Temple had hundreds of employees, and Jerusalem was a “company town.”  The Temple performed many financial functions, including operating as a central bank and treasury.

 

The Temple priests and scribes lived high on the hog.  They received a cut from every Temple sacrifice and were the beneficiaries of a five-shekel tax on every first-born child.  This generated great revenue for the priests, but even this was not all they took in.  There were several other offerings — or perhaps better, taxes —that brought in even greater wealth, so much so that priests got into the business of lending money, which means that they also were in a position to foreclose on property if the debt was not paid. Remember this passage began with a scathing indictment of the scribes, the Temple lawyers, who like to walk around in their long robes and pretty vestments and say long prayers that mean nothing, they devour widows’ houses…So for Jesus to say these things against the Temple and the religious establishment he was setting himself over and against them.

 

Jesus was trying to offer new ways to think about God to show how God was not easy to capture or contain or make into our own.  Jesus is saying that God is more than ritual and transaction.  God is about relationship.  So, the widow and her offering is a foreshadowing of what God was up to in being in relationship with humanity.  That is why Jesus and his ministry was counter to everything people knew about faith and about God.

 

That is why this is not a stewardship sermon but it is a sermon about giving because we can’t reduce the widow’s giving to a message of stewardship or as an example for us to follow in giving to the church, to do so is to miss the point of this story entirely.  The Bible does not allow us to boil down every character we meet into a sermon illustration or a stewardship example.  They cannot always be reduced to an example, “Wow, I need to be more like this widow (her)…”  She is instead a multi-dimensional character, an invitation to embody what it means to follow Jesus.

 

So, Jesus points her out because he sees in her what he must do on the cross.  Jesus will have to give his life for the world. That is how God acts.  That is God’s character.  God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life for the world, for all of us. God has shown that time and time again to God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures and it is no different now. This is the essence of God – to give God’s whole self.

 

The widow tossed the only shred of independence she had in to the offering plate, but she kept intact her complete dependence on God and neighbor.  Her way was a life of faith grounded in the trust of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a life lived in the conviction that we are dependent upon God and others in all things.

 

Jesus shows us that our dependence on God leads to joy and thanksgiving. If God is running the universe and ruling all of life, then we no longer have to save ourselves, prove ourselves or justify ourselves.  We are the work of God’s hands. We live and move and have our being in those hands and we will die in those hands. Jesus through this story of the widow’s mite tells us that we can trust in the one who will reverse our fortune from lost to found from slave to free from sinful and broken to forgiven and whole. It is God who will reverse our fortunes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. Karoline Lewis, Whole Life Living, Sunday, November 01, 2015, www.workingpreacher.org

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