A Prophetic Reminder

A sermon, based on Mark 12.38-44, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018

The poor widow. O’er the years, the subject of countless stewardship sermons and, depending on the perceived necessity for a stern message to hesitant givers, stewardship lectures about the sacrificial giving that delights the heart of God.

The Widow's Mite, James Tissot (1836-1902)

And great her sacrifice! “Many rich people,” giving from their abundance only a fraction of their material worth, “put in large sums.” The widow, from her scarcity, her poverty, “put in two small copper coins.” Sixty-four such coins added up to a denarius; a day’s wage. The widow only had .03% of what was required to live for a day. Nevertheless, giving “everything she had, all she had to live on,” she walked away from the temple treasury literally penniless!

Whenever, if ever the message about our giving would be preached and taught at this degree of fullest sacrifice, doubtless, it would be hard to hear and harder, impossible to heed. Who can live, survive on nothing? Whatever our financial situations, each of us possesses resources to satisfy our needs and to gratify our desires. And none of us can afford or would desire to sacrifice everything for anything! Anyone! Even Jesus! Thus, we might dismiss our poor widowed sister as mindlessly, madly self-sacrificial.

Or, perhaps, not.

Jesus is in Jerusalem. The place where he will face not his do-or-die, but rather his do-and-die moment, his final confrontation with the authorities who reject his proclamation of the kingdom of God. That confrontation is the context of his scathing condemnation of the scribes.

Here, Jesus acts as a prophet. Not, as commonly understood, foretelling the future, but rather forth-telling, declaring God’s word. According to an old saying: God speaks into the prophet’s ear and from the prophet’s mouth that word comes. As it is given, it is spoken. As God speaks, the prophet repeats (as distinct from preachers whose sermons are scripture-based interpretative expressions of ancient words for contemporary times). In short, a prophet declares God’s will, which is bad news, for the people have forgotten it and need to be reminded of it; yet it is also good news, for God, in love, refusing to forsake wayward people, desires to declare anew the divine will.

The scribes, the experts in God’s Law, represent the religious institution of the Temple. As all institutions over time, its focus is the preservation of its power and privilege. This conflicts with the gospel that Jesus proclaims of God’s love and justice for all, thus, a life in which greatness is self-sacrificial service, in which the last in the world’s eyes are the first in God’s sight, and in which the neediest, like widows and children, are granted the highest regard and the greatest care.

Jesus condemns the scribes – surely, not all, but, as surely, those – who “walk around in long robes” (the outward sign of their social rank and role), who “have the best seats in the synagogues and…at banquets” (affirmations of their status), and who “devour widows’ houses,” compelling this poor widow to contribute all she had and, thus, inevitably soon to lose her home.

This poor widow, as a self-sacrificial, nay, a life-sacrificial giver is a symbol of institutional robbery and systemic victimization. She is a sign of what happens when an organization, whether secular or religious, whether governmental, educational, social, commercial, or ecclesial, in its worldly self-interest sacrifices every ideal, sacrifices everyone for the sake of its preservation.

Therefore, in our day and time, I hear Jesus’ declaration unto the scribes as a prophetic word to us as Christians and to the church at large. Jesus calls us to examine our hearts.

Are we, in our Christian living, more concerned about the preservation of our blessings and benefits and less, little about our service for our sisters and brothers of greater need?

Are we, as a congregation, more concerned about what we derive from our existence as a community of faith and less, little about our service to and in our larger Laurens community?

I leave us with these questions because I cannot answer for us, but only for me. Even more importantly, I leave us with these questions, for Jesus calls each and all of us to answer.

 
Illustration: The Widow’s Mite, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot depicts Jesus (left), dressed in white and seated with some of his disciples, offering his commentary as the poor widow, her child in her arms, having made her contribution, walks away from the Temple treasury whilst others (right) look on her with disdain and still others (middle, rear) make their larger offerings.

3 thoughts on “A Prophetic Reminder

  1. I absolutely love this sermon and it’s primarily because of the questions at the end.

    Many people find it so difficult to give… they want what’s theirs and don’t want to share…. I too struggled with that in the past. I worked hard and wanted to play hard too with all of my stuff and my funds. But I knew I wasn’t raised that way. My grandparents didn’t have a lot to give in terms of treasure but very few people could outdo the time they gave to their church and community.

    Well before my Mom was diagnosed with dementia I began to serve both in the church and outside of it… but still primarily in the area of folks who needed care. If that meant funds I gave that, if that meant time, I gave that too.

    As we’ve discussed many times I believe I was born to do what I’ve been doing over the last few years…but in truth it has gotten harder for me and I have had to pray harder on the right amount to give to the church as I struggle with my funds preparing for retirement… but the moment I finally pledge my amount to the church I receive a blessing of some sort, as if God is asking me, “why do you doubt that I’ll continue to take care of you?” I smile to myself and promise I won’t wait so long to pledge next year, but then I do. For me I guess what’s important is that I eventually get to where I know I need to be even if it takes me a little longer than it should. And of course sermons like yours give me the prodding I need!

    Much love!

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  2. Dear Paul,

    I appreciate so much about this sermon and this post: the distinction you make between prophet and preacher; another beautiful Tissot to illustrate the scripture; the way the story of the widow’s mite seems to place our current American (and larger) society under a microscope; the way in which this story calls each and every one of us to account for what we give and to whom, and what we withhold and from whom.

    We here in Minneapolis are currently facing a number of very obvious dilemmas, but one of the most visible is a large encampment of homeless people, largely native Americans. along an important Minneapolis thoroughfare. Winter has arrived already with two measurable snowfalls and steady below-freezing temperatures in late October and early November, and the people, including children, are still there, all except the three who have died over the past couple of months. In the fine neighborhoods of the city and its suburbs, lavish holiday lights and displays are going up, and families are preparing for Thanksgiving feasts and Hannukah and Christmas celebrations. Into this picture walk the scribes and the widow and Jesus. And your sermon lands on my heart tonight with its clear prophetic voice, with its indictment of “institutional robbery and systemic victimization.” An additional bitter irony is that the people walking through Mexico are still walking, walking north, because at some time and in some place someone told them north meant hope, hope of a better life, or perhaps just hope of survival. And on “our” side of the border our military is gathered to do… what? in response to these poor, weary, heartsick, hopeful people?

    I don’t know yet what to say or do in response to your sermon, Paul, and I feel I must respond in some way. And so, I thank you, for reminding me of a story I hadn’t remembered for a while. Thank you for allowing that story to stir my discomfort, to call into question my ready propensity to blame and accuse that I know serves as an escape valve for my shame at not having done enough with the plenty I possess, which I often, in my insecurity, deem scarcity. Thank you for words that called me to account tonight in my own heart, in my own city, in my own country.

    With gratitude, humility, thanks, and love,

    Karen

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  3. As always, Loretta and Karen, with your commentaries you confirm for me what I always know — yet, again, as you write, so you demonstrate and reaffirm for me — that there are countless varieties of viewpoints of a given scripture text; those myriad perspectives being rooted in the personal experiences of the readers/hearers. For each of you write/share out of the depth of your life’s circumstances and, yes, life’s questions and struggles.

    As I reflect afresh, yes, the story of the widow’s mite, at its heart, is a parable of life about giving — what to give, how much to give and for what and/or to whom and, of course, when. Nevertheless (and, surely, I was talking about myself among many other preachers when I opened the sermon reflecting on how the poor widow had served as a foil in innumerable sermons to prod folk into giving more!), in this sermon I paid greater attention to the context, that is, Jesus’ denunciation of rapacious scribes — again, not all scribes, but, surely, those who behaved in the ways Jesus’ described. And given that context, the different light or, perhaps, shadow is cast on Jesus’ commentary about the widow and her giving. She, as all of us at any time and in place and in any era, are bound up in our institutional surroundings, whether secular or religious. In this awareness, I hear a clarion call — and this gets to the question or issue about what to do (for, Loretta and Karen, in all of the concrete, real-world situations you highlight, there always, I think, is this issue: “What do I do…what CAN I do in the face of so great a concern?” And, with this question, there is, I also believe, an immediate sense of powerlessness and impotence that can o’erwhelm us) — that we, at the least (and, perhaps, at times, at the most) are to pay attention to our institutions; that is, respect them, value them, be grateful for them, but not…but never worship them. For in bowing down to our institutions, which can be and become an unconscious act, we play into the equally unconscious work of institutions, that is, caring more for self-preservation than service. Thus, the tougher task, I think, is to be prepared to call our institutions — whether governmental, educational, social, ecclesial, etc. — to account when they (when we!) sin, that is, miss the mark of remaining true to our founding principles.

    That’s enough from me!

    Love you,
    Paul

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