Mark 12:38–44 (NRSV)
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
(Mt 23:1–7; Lk 20:45–47)
38 As 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, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then 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. 44 For 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.”
At times there are things that annoy me about organizations. Things like absolutely no overtime at work. It is not like I am one to work a ton of overtime, but when I am told to cut my overtime when there is only three minutes it just seems a bit petty. But even when things annoy me about an organization that same organization can amaze me.
Religious organizations are often the source of these mixed feelings. If we were to listen to those who do not attend meetings for worship, we would hear horror stories at times for why they neglect the gathering together. I even have a few of my own comments to add to them. At times we as a collective whole can be judgmental over things that really do not matter to salvation. But this same organization can also give assistance to people that can nearly be overwhelming to those they have blessed. This has happened to me several times within my life. At times I question if God can use people like us and then I wonder how God pulled it off because I know the people involved.
Today I approach this scripture and to be honest I do not really know what to say. I studied all week, had a good idea of which direction to go, and then something happens on Saturday which brings me to my knees. And this time it is not prayers of a grieving heart but prayers of praise. All because God uses people like us in ways that just confound me.
Let us remember where this passage is taking place. This portion of Mark’s Gospel is during the passion week of Christ. The time we recognize between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. The crowds have cheered him on proclaiming him to be their long-awaited king, and the religious leaders are left stewing over their loss of influence. It was one thing when Jesus was up in Galilee teaching and healing, but now he is on their home turf, he is teaching in the temple courts. This is where they teach, this is where their teaching reigns supreme and no one is supposed to question them, because they hold guard the gates of redemption. Yet here is Jesus teaching right there in the temple courts.
That Sunday, Jesus was proclaimed king, he came to the temple and left. He returned the next day He again entered the temple courts. And this time he came with vengeance. The temple courts were filled with venders. The temple would not allow Imperial currency to be used within so there were people exchanging currencies. If you happen to read the currency markets, you would know that at times you can make a great living just by simply converting one currency to another at the proper times. This happens to be a time leading up to one of the greatest feasts of the year. All of Israel is making pilgrimages to the temple to offer sacrifices and celebrate the feast of Passover. And when there is high demand for temple currency the exchange rate shifts. There is more to the story though, not only are there people exchanging currency but there are people selling animals for sacrifice. This is very convenient for the worshipers. They no longer have to make their pilgrimage while hauling animals acceptable for a sacrifice, they can simply buy on when they get there. There is a flip side to this enterprise as well. Who authorized the sacrificial animals to be sold and are they getting a cut of the profits? It does not take much imagination that the religious leaders would be involved in this enterprise. A priest inspects an animal and deems it unworthy and sends the penitent worshiper to their dealer, who sells them an animal that is guaranteed to be acceptable for the altar. There is a closed market, people must convert their money to temple currency, they are potentially required to make a purchase of an animal using only temple currency. This is an enterprise that reeks of opportunistic and predatory greed. What does Jesus do? He storms into the temple courts and he turns the tables over, he drives releases the animals and chases the venders out. The then proclaims, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers”.
He has embarrassed the religious leaders. He has removed a profitable source of income from them. He has the ear of all the worshipers. He has just caused the status quo of the temple to crash, and the religious leaders are furious. By what authority does he do this they ask, and they join forces with their religious opponents to take on this common threat. They begin debating and asking questions in the attempt to catch Jesus in his words. For the next several days they do this. Each time a question is asked Jesus steps around it in such a manner that the truth is revealed while and their religious ideologies are shown to be what they truly are, human attempts to control the masses.
Then one wise scribe asks a question, of all the commands and laws what is the most important. This question, which we discussed last Sunday, was one that Jesus answered head on, because this is a question of value. It was one that spoke to the truth of why everyone was at the temple in the first place. It was a question that spoke to life and not just religious observance. “Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. And the second is this, Love your neighbor as yourself.” The wise scribe agrees with Jesus, and even says you are right, and this is more important than all the sacrifices. To which Jesus replies, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
It is important to visualize the scene. It is important to recognize what Jesus a few days had just done prior and why the religious leaders were asking these questions, because if we do not recognize the context of the story, we might miss something important. In today’s passage Jesus begins his teaching by saying watch out for the teachers of the law.
When Jesus is saying this, he is not meaning all teachers are like this, because he just said that some…well one was not far from the Kingdom. Jesus is speaking about those that exploit the system, the ones that make the temple into a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer for all nations. He says, “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! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Those who like to walk around in long robes. Recently we discussed long robes in our Sunday morning bible study. This is like the multicolored coat that was given to Joseph that enraged his brothers. As people have gained more understanding of the ancient languages that were used in scripture, they have decided that the coat given to Joseph might not have been multicolored, although that is probably part of it, but it might have been irritating because it was long sleeved. If we were to find something similar today the difference between this coat and the clothing of the others, it would be like a suit compared to a uniform. So, Joseph was clothed in the garments of management and the brothers wore the clothing of labor. When Jesus refers to the teachers wearing long robes, he is speaking not only of their clothing but the divisions among people. They made sure that people knew their position and they also wanted you to be aware of your own. They were not leaders who walked with those they managed but they were separate elites.
The people Jesus warned his disciples about were those who made demands not based on character but on position. These teachers make interpretations of the law, yet they themselves do not live by them because they can twist their interpretations to allow themselves to live how they desire while requiring everyone else do what they say. And these same people were the ones that could deny your offering within the temple if you did not support their agenda. They like their position because people were required to give them respect. They walked around in the finest of clothes and when they walked by people would greet them with proper words. They would have the seats of honor in the places of worship and you would not think of giving them a seat anywhere but at the head of the table at a feast. These are people totally disconnected with reality, and they consume the faithful.
Our early Friends had something to say about these types of people too. They called them the hirelings. They were religious leaders that had positions but did not have true life. This is why our spiritual ancestors of faith turned from the steeple houses of England, stopped the use of religious sacraments and met in silence. Because many of the leaders were void of life. They went through the motions, they said the right things but lived contrary to what they spoke. They were dishonest to the people and themselves. Beware of people like that Jesus said.
But not all the religious leaders are like this. Jesus knows this and even said that one of those people that held position was not far from the kingdom. And there were others as well, one of those religious leaders gave up his own tomb so that Jesus could be laid to rest in it. But it should cause us all to take note and consider our words and actions.
This is why Friends have the spiritual exercise that we call the Queries. These are simple questions that we read in every business meeting, we discuss them on occasion and hopefully we sit with them and consider our answers. Questions like, “Do you love one another as becomes the followers of Christ? Are you careful of the reputation of others? When differences arise do you make earnest efforts to end them speedily?” We could simply answer, yes or no, but are we being honest? Beware Jesus tell his disciples. The words and lifestyles should match. And if they do not, then listen more closely.
Then Jesus takes the disciples and they sit and observe as people place alms in the treasury box. They watch as some place large sums of money into it, and they observe a widow that places seemingly nothing, two small copper coins. Jesus tells them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For 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.”
The warning and this observation are connected. The cleansing of the temple and this observation are connected. Jesus’s advent and this observation are connected. I imagine that the disciples sat there watching countless pilgrims placing money in the treasury box. They probably gasped as some place into this box a month’s wages or possibly more money than they made in a year. And as the widow approached with her coppers they probably laughed. But the words of Jesus probably leapt to mind. BEWARE, and they took a second look. They might have even thought about who these people were, because they had probably greeted some of them in the marketplace earlier that day.
Then as they watch Jesus speaks again. He tells them that the widow gave everything she had, and the others gave out of their abundance. The others gave large sums but what they gave was only a fraction of what they had available, but the widow she did not even consider herself.
I speak often about the rhythm of Jesus’s life. He has a distinct cycle in his life and lifestyle. He made it his custom to worship in the community he visited, and he went to the synagogues on the appointed days. He withdrew often to isolated places to pray. And after worship and prayer he would move out into the community and minister to the needs of the people and taught them what life with God was like. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus doing these things, showing this lifestyle to the disciples and encouraging them to participate. Jesus lived a certain way. And to be his disciple we are called to take on his life. This does not mean we simply say magic words, but we take on a new life. We take on the lifestyle of Jesus. No longer do we look only to our own good, but we look out for the good of others.
Jesus showed his disciples what that looked like. He told them beware of the teachers, the teachers who built an economic religious empire selling redemption to feed their greed. And then he shows them the sacrifice of the widow who gave her last two copper coins.
At times, organizations can bring me sorrow. It pains me when religious groups and teachers get caught up in petty arguments that do not really matter in the larger picture. But then I also see groups that give their last two coins to help those in need. I have seen this small meeting give. We have given to teachers, knowing that new teachers do not always have the funds they need to provide for the children they teach. I have seen us rally around individuals who have had health concerns and trouble financially. I have seen us give to missionaries, enabling them to devote their lives to sharing the Gospel. We have even given to missionaries who have gone to places not to start churches but to simply live their lives to encourage others. I have also sat through meeting where attendees have argued with red faces, making threats and demands.
I have seen a great deal in my life. But there are some things that mean more than the others. The hugs and tears from friends, when words could not express sorrow at my sister’s funeral. The fact that most of this meeting drove to Wichita to attend the event at yearly meeting where I was recorded as a minister. My aunt coming here to Kansas City to watch my son being dedicated in this Meetinghouse. And more recent, with expenses that I really cannot cover our yearly meeting and our Friends here in this monthly meeting have helped. I personally have witnessed people giving of themselves to encourage someone else. I have personally seen them give knowing full well that that gift is a sacrifice.
I have seen true faith and I have seen things that have caused me to beware. I have seen it all around me, but I stand here today because the truth has more power than the lies. I stand here today because a Sunday school teacher loved Jesus enough to put up with unruly boys. Because a pastor shared with me the rich history of Friends. Because a Meeting looked through the sin and offered grace. I am here today because so many people throughout my life have given of their lives for me. Each of these people gave because there was a long line of people that invested in their lives, and people that invested in theirs. And it goes all the way back through history, to this one moment where Jesus stood in the temple and showed the disciples teachers in long robes and a widow with two pennies. And Jesus said some will give everything and some will take. And then later that same week Jesus would say this is my body broken for you and this is my blood as they ate together. And later Jesus would cry from a tree, “Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”
Some give it all and some take. Who are you?