Better to Give
A Homily from Mark 12:38-44
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Antioch Baptist Church, Godfrey, Georgia
November 9, 1997 (32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Our text today is comes from Mark’s description of the days just before Jesus was put to death. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, answering the questions of the scribes who had sought to prove that Jesus’ preposterous claims were false. Now as modern Christians we are perhaps a little harder on the scribes than they deserve, and that is because in the end they were responsible for the death of our Saviour.
They were not, however, evil or even necessarily malicious people. In a time when the priests often bent the religious laws to cater to Greek or Roman customs, the scribes were the ones who stood by the Scriptures. They claimed no higher authority than the Bible, and they dedicated their lives to careful, disciplined study of God’s Word. They knew that Scripture was the key to understanding the mind of God, and so they were uncompromising in their commitment to being faithful and obedient to those Scriptures. If they had lived in our own era, they would have been the people who published the study Bibles that many of us use in their private devotions. They were not bad people.
But they were wrong. they were wrong about something very important: the nature of the Messiah, and, thereby, the nature of God as well. How could that be? They dedicated their lives to the study of the Bible. The Scribes were saturated in its teachings. They answered to one authority alone, and that was the Word of God. How then could they be wrong?
William Sloane Coffin writes, “Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost, for support rather than for illumination.” That is how the Scribes went wrong. Instead of letting the Bible teach them, they looked for how the Bible supported their teachings. Instead of admitting that there were things that they did not know about the Bible, and letting God fill in the gaps; they brought what they did know to the Bible, and left no room for doubt or questions.
As a result, they did not even recognize the Messiah, for whom they waited their entire lives, even though he was right in front of them. Chapter 12 of Mark tells one story after another as Jesus tries to teach the Scribes how to look with different eyes. Time and time again he tries to draw them beyond their rigid, literal interpretations of Scripture into a deeper understanding of the truth. But they would not look up from their scrolls long enough to see the face of God standing right in front of them. In the end, their limitations lead to the death of Jesus of Nazareth, to the very execution of the God whom they were trying to serve. They just didn’t get it.
And so, in our text for today, Jesus turns from addressing his persecutors to addressing his followers. Interestingly, he builds his first example on the behavior of the very Scribes who have set themselves above him.
Let me set the scene for you. Jesus and his followers are in the outer court of the Temple of Jerusalem. The temple was the heart of the Jewish nation. It was at the center of their political structure, and of their religious life as well. It was the only place where God could be properly worshiped. In fact, it was the place where they could most clearly stand in the very presence of God. It was a holy place, and an important one.
Like all important places, the Temple drew all types of people. There were common believers who came simply to worship, or just to see the temple before they died. There were the soldiers, workers and servants who worked to maintain the temple. There were the merchants who sold the animals to be sacrificed, and there were the moneychangers who made sure that everyone could tithe the appropriate amount. There were also countless priests who performed the sacred rituals of the temple. Finally, there were the Scribes, from whom the ruling council of Israel was chosen. They were the elite, cherished for their knowledge and respected for their power.
I am certain that they stood out. They probably parked their Mercedes’ in reserved spaces, right next to the door of course. If that didn’t let you know how important they were, then the stack of scrolls in one hand and the cell phone in the other would have made it clear. If nothing else, you would have realized that they were people of importance by their expensive clothes, and the purposeful way that they strode across the temple grounds. I am sure that the huge crowds in the temple parted in front of them, and it was only proper, since they were the teachers of God’s word, they carried the power of the voice of God.
But there is one problem with all of that. The kingdom which Jesus came to proclaim is not about power, it is about service. The kingdom of Heaven is not about who you are, but whom you follow. It is not about what you have, but about what you give.
And so, Jesus points out that these leaders who love the honors that they receive, receive those honors at the cost of the least fortunate of all. He gives, as an example, the fact that the price for the riches and honor enjoyed by the Scribes is paid by the widows. One author has pointed out that the image of the widow in the New Testament represents the ultimate symbol of sorrow, vulnerability, and powerlessness. I wish I could say that this was true only in those days, but even today we have trouble hearing the Bible’s message that in Christ there is no male or female. A lone woman’s situation then, however, was far worse. In those days, a woman, past the age of child rearing and without a husband was completely dependent on the charity of those around her. She could not own anything, nor could she hold a job. She was completely powerless.
In verse 40, then, Jesus shows how seeking glory and power comes at the expense of the ones whom the Scribes should have known they were meant to help. The study of Scripture, the very study which made them so powerful, should certainly have told them that. Yet as they strutted about the Temple, the Scribes drew all eyes to themselves, and consequently drew all of the attention away from the weak and needy all around them.
But Jesus was not fooled by appearances, and his eyes never failed to see the weak, the poor, or the oppressed. And so, he shifts our focus from the prancing Scribes to a frail woman. All around her stood the rich and powerful as they came to give their offerings. I imagine that it was quite a show. They couldn’t just write a check and put it in the offering plate. Instead, if they tithed a lot of money, it looked like a lot of money. I can just picture them proudly displaying large sacks of gold coins, intentionally making loud noises as they hefted their “gifts” into the offering box. Perhaps they even pushed the bags in a little harder than necessary, so that even those who couldn’t see the bag would at least hear how loudly it thumped.
And in the midst of all of this noise and self promotion there was a quiet, small figure. A woman, alone, which meant that no one except Jesus would have noticed her. Her clothes would certainly have been gray and dingy, she could have afforded no better. She was probably bumped out of the way a few times, as more important donors and their entourages made their way to the offering box. Certainly her two tiny coins would have made hardly a sound amidst the loud crashes of sacks of money.
But Jesus heard those two little coins, and he sets that weak and pitiful widow before us, and makes her our standard for giving. He places her above those who had made the Scriptures their life, and he places her above the successful and powerful people who filled that courtyard. Earlier, in chapter 10 of Mark, Jesus said, “…whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Here, the widow becomes the example of what that type of service, of what that type of giving means.
What can we learn from her gift?
Well, first of all, it was everything that she had. Jesus explains that it was all that she had to live on. What she gave, was her life. Now, as tempting as it may be at this point to tell you to run home, empty your savings accounts, and give that money to the church, that is not what I am saying. Not that I’d stop you. I think that a new Jacuzzi would look great in the pastor’s office.
This parable is not just about money. It is about what it means to be alive, and what it means to live that life in the worship of God. It is not how much we have or what we are that defines us. It is what we give, and God calls us to give our very lives. To gain life, we must lose it. We have no greater example of that than in a Saviour who gave up his life, that we might have life abundantly.
This passage calls us to examine our lives: our marriages, our families, our friendships, our communities – every point where our lives touch those of another person – and ask: What defines who I am? Is it what I have done and what I have gained, or is it what I give? And, Is what I give just a token, or am I giving my very life. It sounds like a lot to ask, and it is more than we can ever live up to, but as Christians, we are called to ask these hard questions of ourselves, and to remember that no matter how much we give, we can always give more.
There is more that we can learn, however, from the widow’s gift. You see, she gave to the Temple, but the temple offered very little for her. At least, the Temple offered did not offer her as much as it would have if she were a man, and certainly not as much as if she were a priest. You see, the Temple was basically a collection of buildings one within the other. At the center was the Holy of Holies, were God would appear. Once a year, the High Priest was allowed to go near there. Around that, was the Court of the Priests, which only the priests could enter. Beyond that, was the Court of the Men, where women were forbidden. Beyond that was the Court where the women were allowed to worship, as far removed as possible from the dwelling place of God.
Yet the woman gave her life to the Temple that kept her away, to the Temple that would not even let her get back the full benefits of what she had given. How often this is true in our own lives. We too are sometimes called to give, in situations where we know we will not get back any benefit from the gift which we have given. Yet we are called to give anyway. Because giving in the service of God is not about what we give, it is about faithfulness and obedience. It is about following a God who suffered and died, not fot the benefits, but for us. We do not give to receive. We give because god gives.
But that can be frustrating. No as frustrating, however, as when the gift seems to mean nothing at all. If you read the first few verses of Chapter 13, Jesus predicts the total destruction of the Temple, which happened about 40 years after His death and resurrection. Think about that for a moment. This woman has just given her very life for this temple, and its going to be destroyed? It’s going to be as if the Temple, and therefore her gift, never even existed. Her gift, then, doesn’t really seem to matter at all, when you think about it.
So why does Jesus bother to tell us the story? Because giving is not about the gift, it is about the giver. If accomplishment mattered, then the people who gave enough to rebuild half the Temple would have counted the most. Instead, Jesus lifts up this woman’s two pennies and names them the greatest gift of all. Not because of what they did for the Temple, but because of what they did for her.
What are we called to give? Our lives. What are we guaranteed in return? Nothing. Why do we give? Because God gives, every moment of every day.
Please do not hear this as a sermon about tithing, or about charity work. Those are ways to give, but this passage is about so much more. It is about how we see ourselves. It is about how we define who we are. It about how we set ourselves apart.
I cannot tell you what you have to give, or what you should give or how much. I can say that this text reminds us that, our wealth comes not from what we keep, but from what we share.