Sermon preached on November 11, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Psalm 146, Mark 12:38--13:2 (Proper 27B)
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help;
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
By any stretch of the imagination, the scribes were not Jesus’ favorite people. He sees in them the antithesis of what he was trying to teach about the ways of God. So who were the scribes?
A scribe in Jesus’ day was a person of many talents. They were called “scribes” because many of them were copyists of the biblical texts. In many ways, we owe the fact that we have the Hebrew scriptures at all to the Jewish scribes who maintained and passed down the text.
But scribes were much more than just copyists. They were also the biblical scholars of their day. They were interpreters of the Bible, in particular they were interpreters of biblical law. That made them the lawyers and government bureaucrats of their day. They were among the most highly educated and respected people of their day.
Jesus speaks of them largely when he is in Jerusalem in and around the Temple. Because of the Temple, Jerusalem would have been thick with scribes. Jesus saw them as part of the problem that Temple religion had become.
He says of them in this morning’s reading that they love
· To walk around in fine, long robes
· To be greeted respectfully in the marketplace
· To be seated up front in the synagogues
· And have the best couch at dinner parties.
One can understand that the man who taught that to be the greatest you must be the least and the servant of all, would neither be impressed nor supportive of people (especially religious leaders) who acted in these ways. This is not what it means to be a disciple.
But it got worse. Most scribes were wealthy individuals, and Jesus alludes to one way they accumulated wealth. “They devour widow’s houses.” Jesus is referring to the common practice of scribes administering the estates of widows. Widows could not manage their dead husband’s affairs. If there was no obvious heir, a scribe would manage the estate and receive a percentage of the assets. The system was notoriously corrupt with “a percentage of the assets” becoming an exploitative amount. Widows were largely destitute and powerless in Jesus’ day.
And this at the hands of a religion one of whose vocations was to “protect orphans and widows!” God himself is given the title in Psalm 68: “Father of orphans, defender of widows.”
Jesus then begins to leave the Temple for the last time, but he pauses outside the Treasury, the part of the Temple where people paid their tithes and left their offerings. He watches what is going on. The Greek verb here is actually more like “scrutinizes.” He is looking for a last lesson for the disciples. Many people of wealth are putting in large sums of money. Then he sees what he may very well have been looking for.
A poor widow, the kind of person he was just speaking about, brings her offering of two small coins, “lepta,” the smallest coins in circulation in Jesus day. He calls the disciples close and says to them, “Amen” (“truly I tell you”). Jesus tends to begin sentences like that when he wants it to be very clear that he is teaching the disciples something important. Do not forget this!
“See this poor woman? She has put in more than anyone else. These wealthy people gave out of their abundance. She gave her life.”
They leave the Temple. His disciples marvel at its splendor. By all descriptions, Herod’s Temple was magnificent, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Jesus is not impressed. “These stones will be thrown down.” And indeed, some forty years later the Romans would do just that. Jesus seems to be saying that it will have deserved what it got, for the Temple was not a symbol of faith in the living God, but of religion that thrived on the backs of the poor.
“The widow’s mite,” as this story is often called after the King James’ Version use of the word “mite” for the coins the widow offered, is often used as a stewardship story, and I would be foolish not to use it for that today, since pledge cards are out and the Vestry is asking us to return them next Sunday. But it ends up this is not a great stewardship story.
The story is not so much about the sacrificial giving of the widow, but of the system of exploitation that has robbed her of life. Exploitation in the name of religion is the worst exploitation of all as far as Jesus is concerned. Which means that through history he has frequently been unhappy with religious expressions that bear his name and religious leaders who act more like the scribes than the disciples he calls them to be.
We have to constantly be concerned that long robes and impressive buildings are not what this is about. Our worship, our buildings, our leadership must never be ends in themselves. The end is justice and peace and the dignity of every human being, things that begin with how we live together in this faith community around this table fed not with splendor but with meagerness and simplicity and humility. Those are the things Jesus calls his Body.
We ask one another to give to this community, and, yes, sacrificially, but not exploitively, and there is a difference. And a great deal of what we give goes to maintaining a building and supporting a leadership that could dangerously become ends in themselves. But we also hold one another accountable for the true ends of what makes this community Christian.