Well, here we go again. Today, we have one of those texts that present us with interpretative difficulties, problems of hermeneutical perspective. As I’ve said on, what must seem like to you now, countless other occasions, interpreting Scripture is a sticky process, just to the extent that we’re tempted to read ourselves into the wrong roles.
One of the most compelling ways Scripture operates is by presenting us with narratives, then beckoning us to get inside them, to try them on for size. The way the Gospels are presented, we become part of the story by imagining ourselves as part of the story.
That’s all well and good. In fact, if we don’t read ourselves into the text, we’re not doing it right.
Consequently, the problem isn’t that we don’t see ourselves in particular roles in the text. Our problems come when we see ourselves repeatedly in the wrong roles.
The most common readings of Scripture, and therefore the most common misreadings of Scripture, involve our penchant for imagining ourselves in the role of the hero. When it comes right down to it, people are much more apt to see themselves as one of the downtrodden, one of the outcasts that Jesus seems constantly to be holding up to us as models of the reign of God. You know, the good guys.
In our text for today, I’d venture a guess that if somehow we held out from seeing ourselves as the widow who put two pennies in the offering plate, we certainly didn’t see ourselves as one of the scribes who devours widow’s houses.
Granted, we have our fair share of the widowed in our congregation, many of whom give not from a storehouse of abundance. But most of us are not now, nor have we ever been, in the position of putting our last two pennies in the offering plate. Most of us—if we’re honest—are much more likely to see similarities between ourselves and the scribes.
Of course, we’re not Jeff Bezos—but neither were they. Just decent folks asking for a little respect—that’s all. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are. And while we don’t want any more than what we’ve got coming to us, we certainly don’t want any less.
More than likely, then, if Jesus has a word to say to us from this text, it’s not going to come in the form of reassurance that we just need to keep on doing what we’re doing. That is to say, if we really want to hear what Jesus wants to say to us, we’re probably better situated to hear it if we read ourselves into the role of the scribes, rather than the widow.
Because, let’s be honest, for most of us, it’s a tough sell to place ourselves next to needy in Syria, or Palestine, or Yemen, or people right here in Louisville, and convince them that we really have more in common with the woman who dumped the last bit of her Social Security check in the Salvation Army kettle before Christmas, than with the fat cat scribes who sit on the board of directors down at the temple.
What’s been going on as we come to this text in our Gospel? Well, back in chapter eleven we’re told that Jesus and the disciples—who’ve been on the way to Jerusalem for some time—finally arrive. Jesus rides into town on the back of a donkey, and heads right to the temple.
What’s the first thing Jesus does when he gets to the temple? He overturns the tables of the money changers, and calls everybody in charge a bunch of thieves.
As you might guess, that didn’t endear him to the local religious bosses. Jesus, as was his custom, didn’t waste any time rubbing the movers and shakers the wrong way. The chief priests and scribes had such a bad taste in their mouth from the whole episode that they started plotting ways to kill him. He left the temple.
But not long afterwards Jesus came back to the temple. And on the way there, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders approached him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you authority to do them?”
What happens next is that for the better part of a chapter and a half, Jesus and the temple big shots go at it tooth and nail. Jesus calls them illegitimate leaders, and they try to trap him into saying something inflammatory enough to get him killed.
A lot of back and forth. A lot of testosterone. We’ve read the ending so we know they’re playing a game with deadly stakes.
Immediately after stepping outside, one of his disciples observes that the temple is built with large stones. To which Jesus replies, “Do you see all these buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Then he launches into an extended discourse about what’s going to happen after he dies and is raised from the dead.
This is where we pick up our text for today. Let’s take a look at what Mark’s doing here. Jesus finally gets to Jerusalem, where all Mark’s readers (those who also know the story and how it will all end) expect Jesus to meet his untimely demise. He goes immediately to the temple, not unlike the babysitter in the horror movie who just has to go down in the basement after all the power has gone off.
While there, a variety of the keeper of the keys to the temple try to trip him up. Why do you think that is? Why do these religious types have it in for Jesus?
Think about it for a minute: If Jesus is the Messiah, current power arrangements are going to be disrupted. There’s a new sheriff in town. All of which would be one thing, if what he was there to do was to kick the Roman army out of Palestine, and underwrite the religious leaders’ present claims to privilege.
As it is, Jesus is in the business of kicking over tables, disrupting systems meant to maintain the power and wealth of a few…at the expense of the many.
So, Jesus says, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
Having said that, Jesus launches into an observation about a widow at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder giving what she doesn’t have, so that God’s work can continue…having her house devoured by some of the very people who are busy trying to trip him up.
But right here is where the church has so often gotten it wrong. It has encouraged people to read themselves into this story in the part of the widow as an exhortation to Christians to be more like her, ready to give…and then give some more.
“You too could be righteous! Just take out your checkbook, and give…give until it feels good! This is a limited time offer. Call now. Operators are standing by. Offer not valid in Nebraska or California.”
And while I consider “sacrificial giving” an honorable act, I think that’s only a secondary point here. Given the way Mark sets up this story, I think he has his sights set a bit higher up the socio-economic ladder.
I’ve got a question for you: What if this story isn’t about the widow? What if this story is a scathing critique of a system that grinds the last five bucks from a woman who’s trying to figure out if the three cans of sardines she keeps in her purse will be enough to get her through till the first of the month?
What if this is a story about an economic system that manipulates the poor and “devours widows’ houses”—an economic system that’s not only not challenged by God’s people, but depends on the cover given by God’s people to remain in existence?
What if the point Jesus is making isn’t: Be more like the widow?
What if the point he’s making is: Don’t prop up systems that hungrily seek the last pennies of those who can afford it least?
In other words, perhaps Jesus’ scorn is aimed not just at the fact that the wealthy contribute relatively little as a percentage of what they own compared to the poor, but that the wealthy and the powerful help to perpetuate a structure that leaves the poor and the powerless feeling like they have to surrender every last cent in order to be full participants. Making those at the bottom feel less than human so they’ll cough up more to keep those at the top from having to “sacrifice” more…is an abomination according to Jesus. In fact, read this way, the next two verses about the destruction of the temple suggest not just some prophecy about the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., or a supercessionist end to traditional Judaism where Christianity prevails over its older sibling, or even an oblique reference to the resurrection, but a commentary on how the current system of power arrangements that revolves around a structure that pressures the poor to sacrifice even more of what they don’t have in order to be considered participants will be overthrown in the coming reign of God. So what? What does that mean for us? What if, after we do all we know to do to change that system, what if the widow still gives her last little bit? What responsibility does that place on us? A friend of mine called me one time. He was the treasurer for a prison ministry.
My friend said, “Derek, I’ve got a problem.”
I said, “What’s that?”
“Well, there’s a guy who sends a check every week for twelve to fifteen dollars. Like clockwork.”
“How’s that a problem?”
“The thing is…the guy’s an inmate. And I know he only makes fifty cents an hour. He’s sending in just about everything he has.”
“Yeah, ‘Wow!’ Here’s the problem: I love the work we do, but we’re sure not worth that. I want to tell him, ‘Look, you need to keep that money. We’re not worth giving everything you have.’ But then I think, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t tell this guy what to do with his money. It would sound too much like I thought his money isn’t good enough. I just don’t know what to do.’”
“Yeah, that’s pretty sticky. So, what are you going to do?”
“The only thing I can think is that we’d better get busy, so that one day maybe we can be a church worth what this guy’s giving us.”
We can’t control what people do with their money. What are we supposed to do?
Two things: First, we need to advocate for a just economic system that looks out for the needs of those on the margins, that refuses to devour widows houses—that refuses to make the poor feel like they’re not full participants until they cough up their last five bucks until payday.
Second, in the meantime, we need to work like crazy to be a church worthy of the kind of financial sacrifices people make.
She gave everything she had—which puts her on the same team with Jesus, who after a very full week in Jerusalem, ended up giving up everything he had.
When it’s all said and done, I guess our response to all this giving is to work to try to be a presence in an often unjust world…worthy of all this trust placed in us—knowing that we never will, but knowing that we can’t ever quit trying. We owe it to those who come to us, who trust us to receive them and their gifts like Jesus did.
In fact, I know about a guy who’s doing time, a guy who’s betting everything he’s got that we’ll succeed.
There’s an awful lot riding on the gifts entrusted to us.