Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
How do we determine the value of a person? I doubt any of us have really thought about this question, yet we each have our own system to determine it. Is it the amount of education that one has, or possibly what they do or can do for us? Is it as shallow as their attire or as deep as their philosophy? Along with this question could be how do we measure success? Every situation holds different criteria for us to answer. My other job has a measure based on the amount of apprehensions I make in a month. It is really the only real way to measure the success of someone in my position, but there is a drawback to this measure. I could have fifty stops in a month and only save our company $100 or I could have two stops and save the company $1000. The value and the measure do not always show the measure of success or worth of a person.
So how do we value those around us? In this scripture we are introduced to a couple of different people: the scribe and the widow. To fully understand this passage we should probably have some back ground information on the culture. Firstly, a widow in this culture is probably the most impoverished person in the ancient Jewish culture. Unlike today women had a very specific role in society, they were to manage the home. This basically meant the rearing of children, meal preperation, clothing manufacturing, and many other household duties. Women in this point of history did not work outside of the home, if they earned an income it was only through domestic service. A woman’s value to the society was determined by her husband and adult children, I am not saying that this is the correct view of women only that it is how history tells the story.
A scribe is the exact opposite of a widow. Only men could become scribes and they had a very specific role in society. They could read and write, so they were well educated. They were employed to read and compose documents for others. Because of this they were often regarded as legal counselors or lawyers. These were the highest-ranking secular office holders in a culture. Not to say that they were secular only because many of these men were very religious, but they were not of the clergy or priestly order. They were teachers and interpreters of the law. Scribes were found among the Pharisees as well as the Sadducees in the Jewish culture. There were also scribes among the Romans, and in the Herodian dynasty. Any official office or order had scribes.
So we have in this scripture a view of two opposing sides of the social spectrum: the educated and the ignorant, the wealthy and the destitute. As you consider this passage I want you to again consider how we value the people around us as well.
Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes…” Beware! Beware? I just said that these were respectable members of society, not just respectable but necessary. They were the teachers, legal consultants, and leaders within the culture, yet Jesus says beware of the scribes.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace.” Jesus begins with a warning but goes on to clarify the warning. The scribes are people of high status and rightfully so. They deserve their wages and respect because they have earned their positions. Jesus is not demonizing the wealthy in this passage, though I have often heard it interpreted as such. He is warning us about pride. It is not wrong for people to earn wages, it is not even wrong for them to have power within a group, nor is it wrong to have influence over people. What Jesus is saying is beware of the scribes, those wealthy people, who flaunt their success for all to see. Those people that walk around the dingy, dirty streets in long flowing robes of fine fabrics. Clothing is a necessity in most cultures, and is often a sign of status. When I was a student the brand of jeans one wore would sometimes determine who would interact with tem. If I were to wear wranglers then I would fit in with the cowboys and the FFA crowds, but was not widely accepted among other groups. If the jeans were purchased from the mall then a different group of peers found someone acceptable. I did not fit in either group, even though I purchased my jeans at the mall it was not because I wanted to accepted in a group I was just a weird size and Wal-Mart never carried it, and I thank God that I am finally average. Cultures have not really changed that much. The long flowing robes of this first century culture were the name brand jeans of their day. The scribes that Jesus spoke about were the ones that wanted people to view the tags of their clothing and realize that they had money, enough money that they could freely spend it on designer garments.
This goes one step beyond clothing. These people, Jesus warns, also demand respect. If you were to come across them on the street you were to treat them with honor. I do not know how these first century greetings would have been, but today there are people who have special titles. If you are a judge, you have the title of your honor. Many cultures have an aristocracy with titles of nobility like Lord, Duke, Prince, or Queen. There are doctors who have obtained that title by virtue of education and then there are people who have been given titles like President or Governor. Titles set people apart from others; many titles elevate people over others. Some deserve the title because they obtained it through hard work; others gained the title because they were born into it. Either way the title in some way says to everyone around, “I am better than you.”
“Beware of the Scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” There is a reason Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Pride gets to people. And other people want to be close to someone famous. It does not matter what the title is to be honest. We want to impress our managers at work and we often treat them different than our other coworkers. If we were to go to a dinner where a certain celebrity was going to attend we would dress differently than if it were just a meeting with friends.
“They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance they say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” There are people that demand honor and people that have earned respect. They devour…this speaks of how people obtain their wealth. Those that devour gain what they have by unjust means, and have been unsympathetic to the needs of others. Devour is a term of consumption. It speaks of greed and selfishness. The widow is the most vulnerable person in the community; they have no say or ability to change their status and are living at the mercy of others. As a result they are taken advantage of. They sell what they have so they can survive another day, taking whatever is offered because they have little choice. Yet those that devour their houses, or purchase the property for a devalued rate, stand before the community saying long eloquent prayers even though they themselves are rotten to the core.
How do we value people? How do we measure success? How do we measure? “Beware of the Scribe, who…” Not every scribe in Jesus’ day was like this, many were quite the opposite. They deserved honor because they were gracious to people. In the Old Testament book of Ruth we meet an honorable “scribe” named Boaz who saw the widow named Ruth and made sure that she had plenty to gather in the fields. In the New Testament we meet people like Joseph of Arimathea who was a wealthy man yet gave his property to honor Jesus. What Jesus is speaking about is simplicity and humility.
To be an educated person requires some responsibility to society. A medical doctor has earned their title but to receive the honor they must apply what they learn to the helping of others, and they receive wages. Not all medical doctors are the same. Some serve graciously and others devour. An attorney is similar they rightly deserve honor for their position in our society; they earn a wage for their service to others, yet some devour. Jesus does not condemn the pursuit of knowledge or honorable careers but we need to be honest about who we are and live simply within our place.
To live simply is to be honest about who we are and from where our value comes. In many societies the measure of success is found in the amount of currency one can earn. But do you know what the true value of currency is? The true value of a twenty-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill is actually equal. The true value is the amount of heat it can produce when it is burned. Currency is only a tool to operate within a society. It makes the exchange of goods and services easier and more uniform, but it actually has very little real value. If we are determining the value of a person based on the amount of money they have we are misplacing honor. Currency can be gained in many ways, honorable and dishonorable, but the value of that person is ultimately found inside.
Jesus took his disciples to stand across from the temple treasury and they watched as people gave their offerings. They observed the wealthy and the poor placing their offerings into the collection. Some put in vast amounts of currency and they observed a widow place in two copper coins. I learned that these two coins amounted to around an 1/8th of a day’s wage. The stewards of the community were probably observing this as well, making note of the larger sums and overlooking the small ones. But Jesus said that the true value of the coins was greater than the others. We wonder about this but it comes back to value and honor. Who do we value and what do we honor?
The widow had nothing she lived at the mercy of the community. She did not know what she would be able to eat or how she was even going to survive. And the wealthy gave out of their abundance. Who is more important to the community as a whole, the scribes or the widows? How we answer that question tells us a lot about who we are and what we value. The money we earn through our labor is a tool of trade. It can be traded for goods and services in our nation. Currency does not determine our value, because the trade value changes and can ultimately become worthless. With that being said, the basic needs for survival are the same for everyone. We all require similar amounts of food to survive; we all require shelter, and transportation. The cost of these are the same no matter what income we earn, so in that sense we are equal no one is better or worse than another person. Yet the amount of our income that these consume differs dramatically.
Simplicity and humility is required by God, what Jesus was showing his disciples is that the scribes were full of pride because they had the ability to earn a better wage. They thought of themselves as better than the widow because she did not have the means to earn or contribute as they did. As a result they demanded from their society honors that were greater. They wanted everyone to know that they were important. But in God’s economy every human is equal, we are made of the same stuff, from the dust we were created and to the dust we will return. Your value is not based on what you earn but on who God is. The widow knew this better than anyone else. She knew that it was God that provided her with what ever she was able to do, just as it is God that provides us with our minds to think, our abilities and temperaments to earn tools of trade. Our incomes are blessings from God. The widow gave all she had and was honored because she recognized the truth and humbly submitted to God, where the scribes hypocritically demanded honor for their contribution and as a result receive condemnation.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination, is a name that many of us know. John lived most of his life as a single man, and lived a very simple life. He determined the cost of all his basic needs and that is all he lived one. John however was not a poor man, he made a significant income from the books that he published, but even as his income increased he still lived on the same amount. He gave everything else to the expansion of the ministry of the Church. He died with very little to his name, and God honored him because he had a humble and simplistic view of life. He knew that it was God that provided everything so he gave it all to God.
The widow gave all she had. The scribes devoured and gave only some of their large amounts. God honored the widow, and it was through her gift that the kingdom was expanded. It was through her witness that God will provide for her needs no matter what that the kingdom advanced. It is her witness to those struggling that encouraged them to carry on in their faith. Not the vast offerings of the wealthy.
It is a hard lesson to learn. I am sure that most of us do not want to listen to the lesson because we work hard for what we have, and we feel like we should enjoy it. The truth is what you have is a gift from God. That gift was given not so we can devour it but so that we can become a blessing to others. If we are not willing to bless others with what we are given God will take that blessing from us. This is true for our personal lives as well as the life of our Meeting. I encourage each of us to honestly look at what we have and what we need. Let us take our needs to God and trust that He will provide for us and let us step out in faith, as we become blessings to others.