It is Tuesday of Holy Week, and Jesus’ full rhetorical powers are on display.
In Mark’s gospel, it’s the first time Jesus has been to Jerusalem. After the triumphal entry into the city on what we now call Palm Sunday at the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus heads to Bethany, staying outside the city walls with his friends. He dares to return the next morning, knowing there are already leaders there who want him dead, strides right into the temple, tossing tables aside – people scurrying out of the way, animals rushing for cover, birds flying in the air, coins hurled as he screams: "Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,’ but YOU have made it a den of robbers!"1 They escape the city again.
Tuesday morning comes, and with it the longest day of Holy Week that Mark records. The chief priests, the scribes, the elders pepper him with questions, knowing all they need is one wrong answer – he’ll give them all the evidence they need for the arrest. "By what authority do you do [all] these things?" they ask. Jesus tells a parable of wicked and greedy tenants who reject the one sent to them with a crucial message. They ask him about taxes and Jesus parries, telling them to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. They pose tedious theological questions about the resurrection; they ask him to summarize ALL the law. One scribe replies that we should love God with all of our heart and strength and mind, our neighbor as ourselves. This, the scribe says, is more important than burnt offerings. Jesus smiles, ending this episode pointing at this scribe and saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."2 You’re close. You’re almost there.
Then Jesus takes control. He is in the temple courtyard, with a group around him but also in the larger scene of people coming and going, crowds moving around this massive space. He is being playful here as today’s text begins. How can the scribes say the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One who is to come redeem Israel, is the son of David? Jesus plucks a verse from Psalm 110:1, in which David declares that the Lord (God?) says something to my Lord, (David referring to himself?). Did David call himself the Lord, Jesus asked? Then how can the messiah also be David’s son? Jesus bats the words about, playfully, sticking his thumb in the eye of those scribes and Pharisees who are always so confident they know the answer to any question. "God is bigger than your narrow categories," Jesus seems to be saying, with a smile. God is more.
As the crowds chuckle, Jesus leans in. He points at a scribe. I know they look important, with their fancy robes and places of prominence. But they are too often about themselves, he says, and what power they have not only to ignore, but to take advantage of those we are supposed to be caring for. They will receive the greater condemnation. They devour widows’ houses. Most likely, John Dominic Crossan argues, the reference is to the scribes’ activity as a literate class working for the wealthy; they would have administered loan agreements then foreclosed on widow’s property when the loan could not be repaid.3 Regardless, whenever you see the word widow, your brain should jump to a picture of the most vulnerable ones. In a male dominated society, widows and orphans stand in for all those who don’t have anyone to take care of them, to look out for them. I wonder who widows and orphans might be today – some widows and orphans, to be sure, the refugee family fleeing Syria, the gay teenager cast out of his home, the single mom in public housing whose car has broken down. Regardless, the scribes abused their position to defraud, or as the text says, devour. Consume. Treat them as if they didn’t matter like the rest of us.
Then, in the midst of all of the strong walls and lush courtyards fill with well-dressed and well-mannered people, Jesus stops. Wait, he says. Look. Look at her. At first they have no idea what he’s talking about, it’s so noisy. Jesus, Mark says, is sitting opposite one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped offering boxes, which were considered part of the treasury since they fed the coffers.4 These receptacles were shaped like a trumpet or tuba with a wide mouth and narrow neck to discourage busy hands from taking out rather than putting in.5 Beside the big receptacles the priest was doing what was a common practice, standing by the big horn for gifts and calling out the name and amount.6 "Mr. Johnson, five thousand. Mr. Anderson, six thousand, Mr. Hilton, twelve thousand." In the midst of the crowds and the chaos of the temple courtyard, the show, the sound of the coins of the proud givers finding their way into the treasury. Look, Jesus says. A poor widow walks up and puts in two small copper coins. Clink, clink. The Greek word used here is lepta. A lepta was not an official denomination, but a general term for lightweight (NOT noisy) money of little value.7 Two lepta were about 1/64 of a denarius, the daily wage for a laborer.8 Barely enough money to matter.
But it does matter, Jesus says. He points, and they can barely make her out, walking close to the wall, bent over a staff, cloth shielding her face. They barely hear the clink, clink. He gathers the disciples together. This poor widow, he says, has put in more than ALL who are contributing to the treasury. More than ALL. For they have contributed out of their abundance, their extra, whatever is leftover after the bills have been paid and the trips have been planned, after tuition, after soccer, after we make our plans for everything we want to do and see what’s left. But SHE, Jesus says. But she out of her poverty, out of her lack, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. The Greek is bios. She gives her life.
Jesus is drawing a stark and sometimes painful contrast for those of us who seek to be his disciples. Will you give – not just your pledge as we shift into follow-up mode for stewardship season – will you give to your church, your family, your neighborhood, your community, God’s world, out of your abundance, or with your LIFE? Of the money God has given you for this season, yes. But it’s about everything, the totality of who God has created and called you to be. Of your time, knowing we’re all too busy. Of the gifts God has given you in spades to organize and plan and teach and listen and cook and pray. It’s not in holding back, keeping some for yourselves, carving out space God can’t get to. It is a challenge to us as people who seek to follow Jesus. It’s also a challenge to the temple system, to the church, to be a place worthy of her gift. Do you all remember back in October, when many of us were supposed to be on the All Church Retreat and it rained enough to make us wonder if it was time to get to work on an ark, that first Sunday in October Haywood preached on sections from chapters 9 and 10 in Mark, not far before today’s text, in which Jesus welcomes children, and says, if you want to know something about what the kingdom of God looks like, look at these children, head to the nursery. You’ll see. I think Jesus is employing a similar tactic here. He looks at the disciples and says – It’s not about all of these fancy people and their parading, it’s not about the SHOW, of our world filled with too much noise and posturing and pomp. You want to know something about who God is? Look at her, at her generosity, her unparalleled commitment to being generous, to offering herself to the world, no matter if the church or the world or the people deserve it. It begins with shopping with intentionality for Share Your Christmas or next week in our Alternative Gift Fair. It continues in looking for her, for the lonely and left out, in the line at Urban Ministries, standing in the corner of the fellowship hall alone at an event. It is in the streets of Port-au-Prince, as we pray over our Haiti team, in all they will do and see, in the Christ to whom they will bear witness. It is in the giving of YOUR LIFE your life, for the One who came and lived and died and calls us to follow.
This text is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. From here all that remains in Mark’s telling is the temple discourse and the passion narrative.9 "This widow offers a glimpse into what Jesus is about…He calls the disciples, the church, to himself."10 He doesn’t give us an easy answer, a simple formula. But he says, look. Look at the temple, beautiful and tall, he says. Then look at her, hunched over, nearly forgotten. Clink. Clink. Which one, Jesus asks, will you be about?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Mark 11:17, from Isaiah 56:7.
2. Mark 12:34.
3. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, "The Last Week," (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p 74.
4. Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 The Anchor Yale Bible, from the Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin’s paper on this text for The Well, Montreat, 2012.
5. Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), 202.
6. From the Rev. Michael Kirby’s paper on this text for The Well, Austin, 2009.
7. Marcus, from Meg’s paper.
8. Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark, from Meg’s excellent paper.
9. Lamar Williamson, Mark: Interpretation Series, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 234.
10. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, "Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), Pete Peery, Homiletical Perspective, 289.