Contrasts & Object Lessons
Jesus’ ministry is full of contrasts. There’s the story of the fates of the rich ruler and poor Lazarus. There’s the story of the prayers of the Pharisee and of the tax collector. There’s sheep and goats, wheat and weeds.
Jesus also seems to love object lessons. His most memorable teachings are times when he just happens to see or experience something and it sparks inspiration. When Jesus is at banquet meals, he tells parables of communal feasts. When Jesus is up on a hillside above the Sea of Galilee, he reflects on the birds of the air and the grass of the fields. And as Jesus eats his last meal with the disciples, he uses the bread and cup on the table to illustrate his imminent suffering and death.
How wonderful for Jesus then, that on this day these two favorite elements come together. Within this short reading, Jesus finds an object lesson in the people he sees in the Temple—an object lesson that also provides a wonderful contrast: contrast between the hypocritical religious practices of the scribes and the whole-self gift of a poor widow.
The Widow’s Mites
“On a long day of controversies and teachings in the Temple, just before telling his disciples about the signs of the coming end of the world, Jesus watches a poor widow throw two coins into the Temple treasury” (Tolbert, Women’s Bible Commentary, 357).
Our story today describes a moment near the end of Jesus’ life. In fact, this is part of the last scene of Jesus’ public ministry. From here on, Jesus’ teachings are more private, and the narrative is more and more focused on the conspiracy that will ultimately lead to his death.
Our story—the story of the poor widow’s gift—is probably familiar to most of us. It gets brought out most anytime a preacher wants to talk about stewardship or monetary giving. We tend to talk about how Jesus commends the widow for her gift, and we challenge our congregations to give sacrificially, as does the poor woman.
That preaches well, I admit—and I’ll bet some of you have heard enough sermons on the Widow’s Mites that you could probably do one better than I could.
Unfortunately, however, our use of the text is not consistent with how Mark uses the text in his Gospel of the life of Jesus Christ. As Mark uses the story in his Gospel, the focus of this episode is not on stewardship or the widow’s gift, but rather on the Temple itself.
The point of Jesus’ exclamation is not to commend the woman’s gift, but to show that the object of the gift—the Temple—is unworthy of her gift.
Jesus has been focused on the Temple ever since arriving in Jerusalem in the previous chapter, Mark 11. It is there, if you remember, that we learn Jesus’ first action upon arriving in Jerusalem is visiting the Temple, a visit that—shall we say—did not go well.
Mark 11:15-16 tells us Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” As the Gospel of John tells the story in chapter 2 verse 15, Jesus fashions a make-shift whip to aid him in this task.
Jesus’ justification for these passionate actions—”teaching” Mark graciously calls it—is that the Temple is intended to be a “house of prayer,” but they have made it into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).
The next time Jesus is in the Temple, he tells the Parable of the Vineyard, recorded in Mark 12:1-12. This parable describes the Temple and the religion of the Jews as a vineyard, which God, the planter & owner, has leased to tenants, the Jewish religious leaders. Every time the owner has tried to reestablish control of the vineyard, the tenants do horrible violence to the messenger. So the owner sends his son, hoping he will be able to establish authority, but they will kill him too. Thus, Jesus says, the owner will destroy them and lease the vineyard to others. Heavy stuff, to be sure.
Not too long after this parable, we get to our scripture reading for today. Here, Jesus points out that the temple leaders do not exemplify God’s concern for widows and those in need, but instead they are self-serving, they “devour widows’ houses,” and their religious concern and commitment is only skin-deep (Mark 12:38-40). As such, they look nothing like their God, and they contrast mightily with the poor, powerless woman who gives all she has to this failing institution.
And fail it will. Because of all of this, the Temple is worthy of destruction, a fact Jesus tells the disciples as soon as they get outside: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
So it turns out this story is not so simple after all. And it is a bit darker than we usually regard it, too. So where do we go from here? What instruction can we take away from this story? What does God desire we learn from it?
I want to propose three learnings for us today.
1. God sees and regards things differently than we do.
First, this story is a reminder that God sees and regards things differently than we do. It is a humble pill for the prideful sin of believing we know better, that we can be righteous judges of our world and others.
The Bible is clear in telling us that there is only one righteous judge, and he is not I. But over and over, we fall into the sin of Adam, believing that we know better than the God who formed us and sustains us.
It is so easy to be deceived in this way because, compared to our limited perspective, compared to our finite minds, God’s expansive perspective & infinite mind looks……well…crazy. To us, it seems like God has everything backwards, that sometimes—to God—down is up, in is out, rich is poor, weakness is power, and sometimes even good looks bad.
In reality, it is we whose perspectives are skewed by our human limitations and sin. But the desire—no, the temptation—to trust our own perception over that of God continues to readily deceive us today.
In our story in Mark 12, Jesus’ contrast between the scribes and the widow provides further illustration of this point. By looking deeper than appearances, Jesus speaks harshly of the hypocritical practices of the scribes, illustrating what we read in 1 Samuel 16:7: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
But the point that God sees things differently than we do is perhaps even more clearly illustrated in Jesus’ valuation of the poor widow’s gift. She gives two copper coins—the smallest monetary unit in the empire. It is, I imagine, the smallest contribution the Temple received that day, or maybe any day.
But Jesus, looking deeper, sees that it is her whole life she has given. This is what the Greek language reveals for us here. She gives the entirety of her worldly possessions, all the wealth she has in the world, the whole of her life. And as such, Jesus says, her gift is greater than all the other gifts put together: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had” (Mark 12:44).
Two pennies are worth more than the thousands and thousands of dollars of contributions that were already given?!? It sounds crazy, but God sees things differently than we do. And that is something we must learn as we seek to live faithfully and follow our God.
2. Follow Christ’s example in giving our life for those who do not deserve it.
But this text does more than merely teaching us again what Isaiah reveals to us in chapter 55, verse 8, where God says: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” This story also inspires us to live out the call of Christ to the church—a call “to give the whole of its life for the sake of those who do not deserve such a gift” (Pete Peery, Feasting, 289).
This is our second learning: the text inspires us to give our everything for those who do not deserve it, as did Jesus for us.
I think part of why Jesus highlights the woman is not just because she contrasts so wonderfully with the scribes he sees, but also because Jesus sees her embodying the kind of sacrifice that Jesus himself is living into. The woman gives her whole life—everything she has—to an institution that does not deserve her gift.
The Temple, as I have said, is a failing institution, something Jesus speaks very clearly about. But it is not only failing because it is like the vineyard that has been seized by unrighteous tenants—it is not only failing because it’s leaders only practice skin-deep religion—it is not only failing because those in charge look nothing like their God……it is also failing her.
The Temple is failing the widow, because instead of supporting her, taking care of her needs, and regarding her with dignity and honor—the Temple is instead “devouring her house,” so that these two copper coins are all that she had left—and now the Temple has taken them, too.
This woman gives everything to an institution that does not deserve her gift. But it is more than that, she gives the whole of her life to an institution that has done her great violence. And as such, I believe we should see her as an embodiment of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Jesus, the Bible tells us, gives the whole of his life for corrupt humanity. Romans 3:23 tells us that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We are all in need of redemption.
Romans 5:8 tells us that “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were yet sinners—while we were undeserving—while we didn’t even know we needed redemption, Christ died for us.
Though God himself, and deserving of the highest praise and glory, the God-man Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” as the apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7-8.
What does this look like? Well, John of Patmos has a vision of the Son of Man—Christ Jesus—revealed in all his glory, recorded in Revelation 1:13-16. He says he saw:
The Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
This is Jesus in all his divine glory. But in life and on the cross, Jesus instead takes the form of the suffering servant, described in Isaiah 53:3-5:
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
The result of this most radical sacrifice is our redemption, as we read in the Gospel of John, chapter 3 verses 16-17:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We are undeserving of the gift we have been given: the gift of redemption that leads to eternal life. But it is only through this gift that we truly know love, as we read in 1 John 4:9-10:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The poor widow makes for an exceptional allegory for the work of Jesus for undeserving humanity. But there is a call in here for those who would be followers of Jesus too. Unlike the scribes whose actions do not resemble the God they claim to worship, we are called to be imitators of Christ. We are called to “walk as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6). And the path of discipleship, Jesus says, involves taking up your cross, denying yourself, and losing your life for the cause of Christ.
So just as the widow gives her life to the corrupt Temple, and just as Jesus gives his life for corrupt humanity, so the call of Christ to the church is a call “to give the whole of its life for the sake of those who do not deserve such a gift” (Pete Peery, Feasting, 289).
We are warned. We are warned that “the world [will] not know us [because] it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). We are warned that “people [will] revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11).
But still we are told to “love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We are to give the whole of our life for those who do not deserve it, just as our Savior did for us.
3. We should strive to be worthy of the gifts we are given.
There is a third and final learning that we can take from this story, something that may not be as directly intended by Mark, but something that is clearly important for churches today: We should strive to be worthy of the gifts we are given.
Poll after poll shows that the general population of our country holds the institutional church in low esteem. A contributing factor in that is how many churches today, like the Temple in Jesus day, do not fill us with love and lead us to wholeness, but instead suck the very life out of us and bleed us dry.
A person only has to mention an idea, and suddenly she is the chair of a committee. Once involved, a single commitment quickly expands to many, and “church” rapidly becomes “work.”
But it is even more dangerous than that, because many church cultures ask not for service but for martyrdom. It is true that I believe Jesus asks us to be willing to give our whole selves, but that is for the Gospel, and not the institutional church. When we ask or expect our church members to martyr themselves to keep our programs running, we are heads of a Temple that is just as doomed to destruction.
But that’s enough negativity. We also respect and honor those who have accepted leadership positions when we recognize the sacrifices they are making, sacrifices of time, talents, finances, and other considerations. We might be more appreciative if we recognize that these committee members could be spending quality time with their spouses, parents, or children instead of sitting in this meeting.
We honor the service of our members when we try to make our church worthy of their sacrifice.
I watched an interesting altercation on Facebook this week. It took place between two college acquaintances, at least one of which was a pretty good friend back then. It was the eve of the election, and one friend—a former Special Forces member—was furious at the president for not doing more to save the Navy Seals in Benghazi. That anger was further kindled by what appeared to be a censoring on Facebook of information about Obama’s lack of action.
All of this came out in an emotional burst that included the statement “This president needs to be shot for treason!”
A mutual acquaintance, in what I expect was an attempt to tone down the rhetoric stated this:
“It’s never appropriate for a service member to say our president should be shot. Threatening harm to the president is a felony. Your political opinions are yours and may be freely shared. Suggesting murder or assassination, however, is out of bounds. Please act worthy of the country you serve.”
The counter response to this by my Special Forces friend made two primary points. The first point is that he is no longer a service member as a result of a “stupid political decision being made by senior level staff officers that negatively affected me and those I served with.” His second point was even more charged. This is what he said:
“Unlike you I have earned the right to express these opinions. What have you done? I have sacrificed my body in training, prepared mentally to engage in combat, been willing to die for my country, and all you have done is get some fancy philosophical and theological degrees. For you to sit there and tell me what I can and cannot say is utterly preposterous.”
Now I don’t bring all this up just to rehash a rather ugly disagreement between two people you don’t even know. It’s just that this confrontation has been simmering in the back of my mind as I have prepared this sermon, and as we have arrived at today: Veterans Day.
You might arrive at a lot of different conclusions about these two individuals based on this one low point in their friendship. I admit I react strongly against any sentiment that devalues another person’s opinion because you believe your own is more deserved.
But the main takeaway for me here is that my ex-Special Forces friend does not believe his sacrifice—his gift—has been respected or appreciated. He was maneuvered out of the military life he loved because of political decisions that had nothing to do with his service and commitment. And civilians just have no idea what it is like—that part I do believe he has right.
I don’t condone his emotional outburst or the words he says, but he does remind me to live a life that honors his sacrifice. He challenges me to consider how we can make our country a country that is deserving of the kinds of gifts he has offered up—the kinds of gifts that all the veterans here have offered up, too.
Today, I’m remembering that all of our veterans have offered up gifts of sacrifice and service for a country that does not appreciate or respect those gifts as it ought. Like the poor widow in Mark, and like Jesus Christ himself, our veterans give their very lives for individuals who are undeserving of those gifts.
The choice for tomorrow is how to live in a manner worthy of such gifts of sacrifice and love—the gifts made to our country, the gifts made to our churches, and the gifts made by our Savior.
What “mite” you give? How “mite” you live? Let us honor the gifts we have been given. Let us honor each other. And let us as well give our all for a world that needs Jesus.