Sermon: Giving Back to God
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44
Last week we noted how the chief priests, scribes, and elders tried to entrap Jesus with no success, so they sent some Pharisees and Herodians. They also failed. Then a scribe, an expert in the law, who had overheard some of these conversations asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus directly answered his question: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.29-31; NRSV). The scribe commended Jesus’ answer: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12.32-33; NRSV). Mark concludes this account by stating: “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question” (Mark 12.34; NRSV).
As he continued to teach, Jesus posed a question which pointed to a weakness among the scribes: “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” Then Mark observes, “And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.” (Mark 12.35-37; NRSV) Why with delight? We may perhaps be given a hint in the verses which follow, in today’s reading.
Our reading for today contains two brief stories which, at first glance, appear to be unrelated: Jesus’ warning about the scribes and his observations concerning a poor widow who puts two small copper coins in the temple collection box. Let’s dig more deeply.
In his warning about the scribes, Jesus notes several behaviors indicative of their quest for honor. Once again, remember the importance of honor and shame in this society. Jesus warned the crowd to beware of the scribes for they liked walking about in long robes (an indication they stood above the working class), being greeted with respect in the market place, having the best seats in the synagogues, and having the place of honor at banquets. People understood the hierarchy among the scribes – the scribes of lesser knowledge and reputation were to bow and greet their superiors. The best seats in the synagogue were right up front against the wall which housed the Torah scrolls – the entire congregation would have been looking at the scribes in their long robes and finery. At banquets, the best seats were on couches where they could semi-recline next to the host. Having noted their quest for honor, Jesus adds strong words of condemnation: “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12.40; NRSV).
The large crowd may have taken delight in Jesus’ debating ability, but they may also have enjoyed seeing and hearing the scribes put in their place. I suspect the scribes could be rather haughty and lord their status over others.
How are we to understand “devouring widows’ houses.” Commentators point to two ways in which this could take place. First, although poor people were exempt from the “temple tax,” the scribes still levied heavy demands concerning widows’ contributions to the Temple. Second, scribes were often appointed as overseers of a widow’s property, and as would be normal, this came with a fee, and funds were often misappropriated. Hence, the scribes “devoured widows’ houses.” Those who prided themselves on knowing the law were not practicing the greatest commandment of the law of love.
Now we turn to the poor widow. Jesus had been watching people contribute money to the Temple. He observed many wealthy making large donations. The poor widow placed two small copper coins in the collection box. He called the disciples over and said, “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” (Mark 12.43-44; NRSV).
We have been talking about stewardship, so this is where I am to commend the poor widow and tell you to emulate her example. If you give enough, I might be able to own a 12-million-dollar mansion, my own jet, and proclaim that God has truly blessed me! According to the script, I should also assure you that God will bless you for your generosity! If I get around to it, I might even remember to say a prayer for you!
Have any of you heard a sermon preached on this which did not commend the poor widow? There is a sense in which she is to be commended – discipleship does call us to give our all, but I believe there is more to this story.
Let’s try this interpretation. Look at this poor widow! Even though she has next to nothing, the scribes have laid such burdens on her that she brings everything she has and gives it to the Temple. Now she is totally reliant on others to care for her. Yes, that’s right; she has made a dire situation even worse. She is to be pitied! In an honor/shame society, “she has acted shamefully. She has deliberately worsened her status. . . Jesus’ comment on the widow’s donation is not a word of praise but rather a word of lament” (Pilch: http://liturgy.slu.edu/32OrdB111118/theword_cultural.html).
So, what are we to make of this reading? What would Jesus have us do?
First, I believe Jesus desires that we practice good stewardship, but as I have said before, stewardship is about more than our money, our time, and our talents. Stewardship applies to our whole life – it calls us to a life of properly caring for all the gifts we have been given. Broadly understood, that includes our lives, our relationships, our families, our possessions, our talents, our communities, our world, and our environment. Stewardship encompasses everything of true value – especially our relationships with God and our neighbor. We need to recognize that our relationships are gifts from God. Stewardship calls us to invest the time required to sustain good relationships. It is so easy to lose sight of this. In retrospect, how many of us, if we could do it over, would spend more time with our families and friends. As the adage recognizes, when on our death beds not many of us will find ourselves wishing we had spent more time at the office, but many of us will wish we had spent more time with our family and friends.
Second, the Old Testament requirement for a tithe of one tenth is based on Genesis 14.19-20 where it states that Abram gave King Melchizedek of Salem, a priest of God Almighty, one-tenth of everything after being blessed as follows: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (NRSV) Thus, a tithe of 10 percent became the established norm. If you have not reached ten percent, I encourage you to move incrementally toward that goal.
Third, given that all our actions are to be grounded in love for God and love for our neighbor, we are to give from love. Among Jesus’ harshest words we read: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23.23-24; NRSV).
Our gifts to God and our neighbor in need should be grounded in love. If able, love may compel us to give more than the tithe. Let us not forget that all we have is a gift of God – when we tithe, when we meet the needs of others, we are giving back to God what rightfully belongs to God. In doing so our hearts are enlarged.
Last, it is only fitting that today, the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of World War I, we remember those who gave themselves, their very lives for our freedom.