One Little Word

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 27B (Nov. 8, 2015)

Lessons:1 Kings 17:8-16 Psalm 146 (8) Hebrews 9:24-28 St. Mark 12:38-44 Semicontinuous Series: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 Psalm 127 (3)

Prayer of the Day: O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

12.38 As [Jesus] 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.” 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.”

St. Mark 12:38-44 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

All In

There was a day when this passage from St. Mark seemed relatively simple. It is a contrast between two groups of people in the first century. On the one hand you have the religious professionals. Jesus has already experienced some conflict with them, and in the opening verse of this text he warns his followers about them. “Beware,” he says. They may walk around in fancy garments, be greeted warmly by those they meet, and always sit in the best seats whenever God’s people get together. But look: they devour widows houses, and show off with their lengthy prayers. This kind of behavior will lead to their condemnation.

Then he points out the second group: the very widows whose homes are being devoured by these same religious professionals. One of them — a poor widow (and, honestly, most of them were in the first century) — drops two small copper coins into the treasury. Others put in far more that day, but Jesus notices this woman, and remarks that her gift is notable because she gave everything she had.

It used to be that we preachers would read this text and then announce God’s desire that we all put a lot of money in the treasury. After all, Jesus seems dismissive about the prosperous worshippers who put in what look like large sums, but which are actually fairly modest gifts when compared with how much wealth the contributors have. And even if he doesn’t actually commend the poor widow, at least he notices her and comments on her generosity. That has to stand for something, right? So we took it as an encouragement to give in relationship to how much we have, and fill up the treasury. [And, not coincidentally, we silently gave thanks that this story usually came around just about when we were asking our members to make a commitment to supporting the church’s ministry in the coming year… something we’ll do at Saint Peter this very Sunday.]

But maybe there is more going on here than meets they eye. David Lose suggests: “All of this leads me to conclude that Jesus isn’t actually lifting her up as an example but rather decrying the circumstances that demand her to make such an offering, a sacrifice that will likely lead to destitution if not death.”  Karoline Lewis writes, “God knows nothing else than to give God’s whole life… And here, now, in this unnamed widow, God is doing it again. God calls us to whole life living. That’s what discipleship is all about.”

It is, indeed, a complex story. It is about generosity. It is about the contrast between cautious and extravagant giving. It is about about institutional integrity. It is about God’s sacrificial love. It speaks to us on a variety of levels, and can come to us as a word of grace or a word of condemnation.

We’ll have other opportunities to address the poor leadership of these religious professionals, but this week we take time to admire this generous woman. What inspired her gift? Was Jesus admiring her generosity or lamenting her situation? This story clearly has struck people in a variety of ways. How does it speak to us today?

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What tone of voice do I imagine Jesus having as he speaks of this widow?
  2. How might the disciples have interpreted what he had to say about her?
  3. Which of the disciples eventually gave “all they had” for the cause of the Gospel?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What does the contrast between the scribes and the widow say to us today?
  2. Who have I known that I would describe as “all in?”
  3. What would it look like for me to be “all in?”