Friday, March 11, 2016

“Seeing Our Neighbor” - March 6, 2016

Text: Mark 12:28-44  

Sometimes it's funny the way things work out.
Last fall, when it came time for our stewardship campaign, we had stewardship moments in worship and highlighted giving of our time, talents, and finances.  We had bulletin inserts and articles in the Spire.  What we didn't have were sermons specifically on giving or stewardship. We just continued with our readings from the Old Testament in the Narrative Lectionary.  Part of the thinkning was that as we read through the scriptures, we will find themes of stewardship all through the year and all across the scriptures.  

Well, we have had an especially good dose of that the last few weeks.  First, there was the story that we call the Rich Young Ruler.  A wealthy young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  He has been faithful in keeping the Law and genuinely wants to do what is right.  Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me.

Then last week, Jesus is asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.  Jesus response was, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God’s the things that are God’s.”  We were left with the realization that all that we have comes from God and belongs to God, and we are to be faithful stewards of what God has given us.

It was a one-two punch, and now, we are again confronted with yet another passage that raises questions about generosity and stewardship.

Jesus has been challenged and questioned and in a sense attacked by folks from all over the cultural and religious spectrum: by chief priests and scribes – the temple leaders and bureaucracy; by Pharisees – very pious, very righteous  reformers; by Herodians – supporters of King Herod who were OK with collaborating with the Romans and making the best of things; and by Saducees – who were the more conservative establishment party and a counterweight to the Pharisees.  These groups all disagree with each other, yet they are all out to get Jesus.

Following repeated questioning and controversy from these various factions, all of which takes place in the temple, one of the scribes came away impressed with Jesus.  He asked him, which is the greatest commandment?  And Jesus replies with a kind of 1a and 1b answer – love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength and lover your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else hinges on these two commands, says Jesus.  The scribe agrees with Jesus’ answer, and after that no one questioned Jesus.

But that did not mean that Jesus was through with the conversation.  While he had words of encouragement for this man, telling him that he is not far from the kingdom of God, he did not have kind words for the scribes in general.

He said, “Beware of the scribes – they love to wear their long robes, they love to be seen in public places, they love having the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets and dinner parties.  They may say long flowery prayers for the sake of appearance, but they will at the same time devour widow’s houses.”

This is rough stuff – and remember, Jesus is on their turf.  He is at the temple while saying this.

This is the background, this is the set-up for the story of the widow’s mite.  It is a familiar story for many of us.  Jesus is watching as people give their offerings.  They would drop their offering in a metal collection receptacle, and it was obvious who was giving a lot.  It would clank around – the more noise, the bigger the offering.  Some apparently wanted others to see them as they brought their offering.  But then a poor widow came and put in two small coins, worth about a penny.  Jesus said that this woman had given more than anyone else, because while they had given out of their abundance, she had given out of her poverty and given all that she had.

Now we have often taken this to be a story about generosity.  The widow is the hero of the story and a role model for us.  We are to give generously, just as this woman did.  It is not the size of the gift so much as the sacrifice.

Now, such an understanding of the passage is not wrong, and her generosity is certainly to be commended.  But I am not sure if this woman is the hero of the story, or if she is the victim in the story.  And I think that this is where reading a longer section of scripture, as we did today and as we have often been doing, can be very helpful in setting things in context.  When I first looked at the passage for today, I thought of it as two stories.  Or at least two stories, or sections.  There was the part about the Greatest Commandment, then a short section where Jesus is kind of trash-talking the scribes, and then the story of the Widow’s Mite.  But I think it may be more helpful to think of this passage as a whole.

Jesus has already described the scribes as “devouring widows’ houses.”  What was that about?

Care for widows was a crucial need in the ancient world.  In Hebrew culture, many believed that death before old age was a judgment for sin, and that that judgment was extended to the wife who was left; therefore it was a disgrace to be a widow.  Some believed that there was shame in being a widow.

And yet the scriptures again and again spoke of the need to care for the widow.  Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”  Deuteronomy 24 says that when you harvest grain, you are to leave some behind in the fields for orphans and widows.  Deuteronomy 27 says, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

Psalm 68 speaks of God as the protector of widows.  The prophets time and again speak of the need to care for widows.  Isaiah 1:17 is one example: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

And then in the New Testament, James writes that pure religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

No, why do you think that the scriptures time and time again speak of the need to treat widows well and care for widows and orphans?  Why would they keep saying that?  Of course – because widows were often mistreated.

Generally, a woman could not own property, and if there were no man in the family, a woman was in danger of losing her land.  According to the law, the deceased husband’s brother was to take in and care for the widow, but if there were no brothers or if they were too poor, the widow had little recourse and was very vulnerable.

Now, who were the go-to experts in such matters of the Law?  The scribes.  And what had Jesus said about the scribes?  “They devour widow’s houses.”

This story may be about the widow and her example of faith and generosity.  But I think that maybe more so, it is about the scribes.  It is about the leaders of society.  It is about a culture that would allow widow’s homes to be taken away.  And the real question that Jesus is raising is, when those around her obviously have so much, why does this woman only have two coins, to her name?

The scribe had asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, and Jesus said love God and love your neighbor.  Well, how well was the community doing in loving the neighbor when this neighbor, this poor widow, had nothing to live on?  How well were they doing in following the repeated injunction of the scriptures to care for the widow?

The scene at the treasury, where people were bringing their offerings, illustrated the problem that Jesus was addressing.  Why did this woman have so little?  Why did so many feel obligated to bring their tithes to the temple but not obligated to love their neighbor and care for the widow?  Like long and impressive public prayers and fine clothing and seats of honor, their offerings were mostly for show.  The way they treated the most vulnerable revealed the true condition their hearts.

Now, it is easy to read this story and think of those terrible scribes who could take away what little a poor widow owned.  It is easy to become angry and judgmental about the way these people made a show of how good and upstanding they were but whose faith proved to be pretty shallow, pretty empty.  It would be easy to do that, but this is a powerful and challenging story because it confronts us with the question of how we care for those who are vulnerable among us, those who are on the margins in our community.

Next Sunday, several of us are going to Kansas City for a mission trip.  We will be working at the Bethel Neighborhood Center.  It has served its neighborhood for over 100 years.  The neighborhood has changed a great deal over that time; it began as a ministry to those working in the meat packing plants, largely Eastern Europeans in the beginning.  Now it is a diverse neighborhood with a lot of need, and they have a variety of programs for seniors, for children, for youth, health programs, tutoring, food programs, assistance for refugees, as well as weekly worship.

I always enjoy these trips, and I always learn something.  I remember a trip I took with college students many years ago to New York City.  We worked at a place called the Graffiti Center, and we were in a Bible study where several of the regular participants were homeless people.  We had a prayer time, and a guy named Franco had a prayer of thanksgiving.  We were there over spring break, and he was thankful that he had made it through a cold winter.  He knew people who hadn’t survived the winter, he said, and he was grateful that he was doing OK.

There was another guy there, another homeless man named Frank.  Frank was well known at the center where we worked and a very friendly and positive guy.  A local TV station had done a news story about poverty and homelessness and had interviewed Frank.  Somehow, out of this story on the news somebody had given Frank $500.  And like the widow at the temple, Frank had given it all away.  He had a big dinner for his friends, and he helped out people who were in worse shape than he was.

I learned a lot from Franco and from Frank – people that most of us are inclined not to notice.  People who are in the shadows – people to whom we may not pay much attention. And maybe that is part of what Jesus was saying.

This poor woman was a part of the community.  She too was a child of God.  She too had something to contribute.  Perhaps her heart was in a better place and perhaps she had as much or more to contribute as the people who get noticed.

The story is in some ways about perspective.  Who is to say who has more to offer?  And why does it need to be a contest in the first place?  From our perspective, of course – a big check is worth more than a couple of coins.  From our perspective, a person of limited means and limited resources doesn’t have that much to offer.  But God sees from a different perspective.  In God’s eyes, the giver has value, regardless of the gift.  Lives, identities, relationships have value.  Compassion, wisdom, faithfulness, integrity have value.

Imagine this poor widow.  She has no resources, no power, no prospects.  She is there at the temple where very wealthy people are making a show of their wealth, clanging their large offerings in the collection.  People are impressed.  People see their generosity.  People see their wealth.  People see what fine, upstanding people these are. 

How intimidating would it be for this widow to follow the great demonstration of wealth and generosity with two little coins?  Who did she think she was?  Did she even belong in this place?

But she was there, and she was giving all that she had.  It would have been easier – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally and maybe spiritually – to have stayed home.  Fewer reminders of the lot that had fallen to her, fewer reminders of what she didn’t have, fewer reminders of the cold-heartedness of those who were supposed to be temple leaders.  Yet here she was, bringing all she had to give to God.  This woman actually has a great deal to offer: not just generosity, but faith and courage and strength and constancy.

Jesus noticed this woman giving her offering.  I doubt that those of whom Jesus was speaking had noticed her at all.  Maybe that is the point.  And maybe that is the starting point of loving our neighbor.  Amen.

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