Psalm 146
Mark 12:38-44 

It was Passover in Jerusalem, and everyone who was anyone was paying attention.

Here in Mark we are a day removed from the parades of what the church calls Palm Sunday, from – just the day before – the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, coming in the gates of the city, mounted horses, swords gleaming. The traveling press bumped up against the cheering crowds as they shouted questions: Governor Pilate, Governor, what do you think about the rumors of a Jewish uprising? What intelligence have you gotten from Rome? Are you bringing in extra soldiers? Governor! It was chaotic, and exhilarating. The other side of the city was host to a peasant gathering, you could barely call it a parade, a walk, with the son of a carpenter riding a donkey, a handful of his friends waving palm branches. They left, quickly, to spend the night on the hillside, but early the next morning were back. Jesus causes some problems in the Temple, knocking over tables, teaching his followers, verbally jousting with the religious leaders, fancy preachers with all their book-learning. He tells them to ‘render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s.’ The intense week, that Holy Week, settles in.

In today’s text Jesus has taken up residence outside the Temple. He begins by telling those gathered to watch out for the scribes. Perhaps the political pundits of the day, they received stipends to use their legal and theological training to make judgments about Jewish law.[1] It was a position that was easy to abuse for a little cash on the side. Jesus starts with their robes, intended only for special occasions. It’s like me wearing my clergy robe to meet some of you for lunch across the street. Maybe Taylor, Betty, and I can wear them around the office. We have a number of academics, why don’t you wear your academic regalia to church next week? We’ll sit you down front in the best seats – literally "first couches"[2] – turn these pews around and, while we preach, you can sit up straight, making sure everyone knows you are here, making sure we see how impressive you look.

But the scribes’ showy manner was just the beginning. They devour, chew up, widows [bible code for the most poor, most vulnerable], their homes, their possessions. Part of the job of these scribes was to act as guardians for these widows, trustees for the estates of those who don’t have anyone else.[3] Think bankers creating obscure financial products, selling them to unwitting investors of teacher’s pension funds. Think lenders offering poor people mortgages they know they aren’t going to be able to afford. Gary Charles, in his and Brian Blount’s great book "Preaching Mark in Two Voices," puts it this way: Jesus, in effect, does something like walking into the halls of Congress and saying ‘Beware of Senators and Congress people who love their stretch limos but who close their eyes to the homeless stretched out on Constitution Ave."[4] "They," Jesus says, "will receive the greater condemnation."

Jesus sat opposite the treasury, across from it, in opposition to it,[5] watching. In those days, they didn’t pass the plate; they didn’t pass stewardship packets from neighbor to neighbor. Nobody mailed things in or did automatic withdrawal from their checking account. When the harvest came in and they took it to market, the tithe, the first fruits, came to the Temple. Folks would announce their offering to the priest and then deposit it into one of thirteen shofar chests. These chests were designed like a tuba with a wide mouth and a narrow tube to discourage busy hands from taking out rather than putting in. Folks come, talk to the priest, give their offerings. But add to what they see what they would hear. These metal tubas set up to receive the offerings made noise when you put money in, the Greek word for money here literally is metal, the metal that makes the coins.[6] Rich people giving large sums made a lot of noise. Add scribes parading around and the rich people dropping piles of coins in the tubes, and you have one heck of a show.

But in the midst of it, unless you were paying really close attention, you’d miss her. Many rich people put in large sums until, you could easily miss her, a poor widow, carefully avoiding the rich people strutting about, mumbles a few words to the priest, shuffles over. Clink. Clink. And Jesus makes sure they notice…guys, stop, look THERE. You could barely hear it, two lepta, not an official denomination but a general term for lightweight (NOT noisy) money of little value. Two lepta were roughly the equivalent of 1/64 of a denarius, the daily wage for a laborer.[7] A ridiculously small amount of money. "Truly I tell you," Jesus says to them, "this poor widow has put in more than all of these other folks contributing to the treasury." For they contributed out of their abundance, their leftovers. Nice, but without heart. They gave enough. But she did something different, she gave everything she had, her whole life. "All she had to live on."

I think it is important to note that Jesus wasn’t saying to the disciples that they should be just like the poor widow. Too many preachers – and I admit I have been one of them – have dimmed the lights during stewardship season, saying, oh, look at the poor widow, even as hard as things are she still gives to the church. And then the light pans out at the rest of us, the preacher says: can you do anything less? I admire the widow, to be sure. We all know faithful folks like her. But I think this text is less about her and more about the scribes and the rest of those, of us, contributing to the Temple. It is about the contrast. "While the scribes (the powerful) focus on what special privilege they can garner," Donald Juel writes, "the nameless widow (the least powerful person in the Temple – a woman, a widow, an impoverished widow) gives away all she has to sustain an institution whose practices leave her destitute."[8] Jesus points out the absurdity of the privileged, and then calls everyone over. Stop, Jesus says. Look at her.

I must confess that in the last few months I have been wrapped up in the parade this election season. Crowds have gathered, sometimes in places other than Ohio. Staff does setup, the traveling press find their place. Most of the last weeks each campaign has had a star headliner: Kid Rock traveled with Governor Romney, Bruce Springsteen with President Obama. Everyone gets all riled up, not really listening to the heart of anyone’s content, caught up in the emotion, straining for the next applause line. Both sides convinced the world is going to end if their opponent wins. The anxiety of election night, and each network’s multicolored maps. Then a result, and we have moved immediately into reading the tea leaves: what does this mean for the future of the Republican Party? Will the President lead differently? Is there any hope people will sit down and talk to each other in the midst of the posturing? We do delicate exegesis on each press statement, looking for signals.

But I think what this text is telling us today is to be very, very careful. It’s easy to get caught up in the show. Even though the ads have been obnoxious, it’s kind of nice to be a battleground state. I like the attention. But we must make our focus clear. In the midst of all of the pomp and circumstance, we, as followers of this same Jesus, must make sure our focus is on that widow, on the poor, on those who, no matter how loudly they speak, can’t ever get a reporter to show up. I think it is a wonderful thing that on this Sunday after the election our fellowship hall is packed with representatives from all sorts of amazing community partners, folks who spend every single day taking care of people. And you can head over and give them a gift, support the work we do, together. Or buy a bag made from recycled mosquito netting, made from victims of land mines in Cambodia. Or recycled jewelry made in a cooperative that helps young women learn business skills in Kenya. And we have a chance to, as election season blurs right into the beginning of the holidays, live what we say we are to be about. As we follow the God that came to earth and walked among us, and gave it His own life on a cross. Right smack in the middle of the fancy crowds, Jesus tells us to stop. Don’t be distracted by them. Come here, look at her. Notice her. She is who we are to be about.

All praise be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] John Donahue and Daniel Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark page 362. From the Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin’s paper on this text for the 2012 gathering of The Well, Montreat, NC.
[2] Donahue and Harrington, again from Meg’s paper.
[3] From Meg’s paper.
[4] Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), p 201.
[5] This is also Meg’s good point.
[6] Donahue and Harrington, again from Meg’s paper
[7] Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark.
[8] Donald Juel, Gospel of Mark, 132, as quoted in Brian Blount and Gary Charles’ "Preaching Mark in Two Voices," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), p 198.