Sunday, November 11, 2018

Of Scribes and Widows and a penny or two! Mark 12:38-44

I want to share the story of a humble priest…some of us read a little bit about him in book study Father Charles Coughlin he was an early supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's new deal.  In 1926, Coughlin began his radio broadcasts on station WJR, in response to cross burnings by the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds of his church. The KKK was near the peak of its membership and power in Detroit.
In January 1930, Coughlin began a series of attacks against socialism and Soviet Communism, which was strongly opposed by the Catholic Church. He also criticized capitalists in America whose greed had made communist ideology attractive to many Americans.[10] He warned, "Let not the workingman be able to say that he is driven into the ranks of socialism by the inordinate and grasping greed of the manufacturer."[11] Having gained a reputation as an outspoken anti-communist, in July 1930 Coughlin was given star billing as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
For a few years, the American public responded strongly: "Contributions which have flooded into his bank account as a result of these talks run into thousands of dollars weekly." This literally built the shrine. 
The tower built out of cement has a giant crucifix upon it. He is quoted as saying it is a cross the KKK couldn’t burn.
He eventually slowly drifted his stances into more and more antisemitic language and was eventually reprimanded and told to stick to being a parish priest and nothing more, which he did till his retirement.
Coughlin was mentioned in a verse of Woody Guthrie's pro-interventionist song "Lindbergh": "Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin' the silver chain, Cash on the stomach and Hitler on the brain." Not the greatest light to be remembered in…
Today's Gospel set the scribes in similar light I would say
Walter Brueggemann reminds us that; “A single scribe, like the one who asked about the first commandment, might be commended (12:28-34), but the habitual behavior of the scribes as a group comes in for severe criticism. Their pretentious practices-strolling about in long robes, seeking public acclaim, taking the best seats at the synagogues and local banquets, lengthy prayers-mask their ruthless exploitation of poor people, widows, who in a male-dominated society are left without defense. Jesus' denunciation of the scribes is reminiscent of the prophets who attack religious leaders for similar practices (for example, Isa. 10:1-2; Zech. 7:10).”[1]
The scribes here, with their ostentatious robes and prayers and their insistence on being first have lost their tether to the demands of God. Mark's Jesus has already told us that whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all (10:35), Jesus’ argument against the scribes here is well documented in Marks gospel.
Mark uses rather dark imagery here “by saying that they "gobble up" or "devour" the house of the widow. Mark tends to pair together technical words that help associate disparate passages in his gospel. He does this with the tearing of the heavens and the tearing of the veil of the temple. He also uses the same word to describe the young man who flees in the garden and who sits on the empty tomb in chapter 16.
Mark uses the word devour in a similar way. In 4:4 it refers to the birds who "gobble up" the seed that the sower has thrown on the ground in the parable of the sower. These birds are interpreted by Jesus as Satan.”[2] I cannot help but believe that for Mark, this is very intentional, and it is very poetic and subtle. He does not hurl insult but instead weaves in a slight that only a contemporary reader or a careful reader today may catch.
Now for us this story is divided into two parts the scribes and the widow however as one commentator points out
“Sometimes the headings in English Bibles hinder us from seeing necessary connections.
The break between Mark 12:40 and Mark 12:41 with captions such as “The Widow’s Offering” or “A Poor Widow’s Contribution” or “An Act of Faithfulness” prompt readers to read 12:41-44 as a separate, distinct story from what precedes.
But this was more than a story about faithful giving. Yes, this widow “put in everything she had.” Yes, this woman, in this act of giving, acts unselfishly (even if unwisely). Yes, this unnamed character did what she thought she needed to do.
Furthermore, Jesus made the act of giving the point of his teaching. While he may not have concluded the observation by saying, “So, should you give all of your possessions,” he did seem to imply such an idea with his comparison to those who gave only some of their abundance. Yet, the story seems to be about more than that. Rather, this was a story -- especially in Mark’s narrative order -- that exposed the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. And, it may just expose us all!”[3]
I am going to let you in on a little-known secret. Many of us pastors fear exposure. Throughout seminary and in many conversations since with fellow clergy there is this under lying fear that at some point someone is going to say, “You fraud, you do not belong her get out!” Because we are human, because we know we fail, I know I fail. But you see that is the difference between the good scribe and the scribes mark is criticizing here.
The scribes here place themselves on a pedestal, lift themselves up as the example of how to live and more than that proclaim no one is better more righteous more holy than them.  Yes, they are literally holier than thou! 
“They get the center of the meat, cushions on the seat
Houses on the street where it's sunny
Summers by the sea, winters warm and free
All of this and we get the rest!”
The scribes and Jesus were in tension throughout Mark’s Gospel. This tension was established right in the beginning of Mark’s story. A group of people classified Jesus’ teaching as possessing an “authority” the scribes they knew didn’t have. Oftentimes the scribes mistrusted Jesus’ various activities. In return, Jesus and his disciples questioned the influence of scribal teaching. At one point, the disciples, without Jesus’ around, argued with scribes over an ailing child. As his mission continued, Jesus recognized their antagonism, predicting that they would “reject” him and, eventually, “condemn him to death.” So, Jesus’ public critique, in 12:38-40, fit into the larger pattern of conflict that Mark portrays. Within this portrayal, the only exception to the theme was the one individual scribe who agreed with Jesus over the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor.[4]
“We'd like to identify ourselves with the widow of verses 41-44, but most of us North American Christians are the scribes of verses 38-40. Even when we live simply, we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world. And no length of prayers can hide us and our love of what we have and what we've accomplished.”[5]
I believe this reality is staring us in the face today.  Our accusers are in the fellowship hall. The artists from around the globe who handmade items are being sold. Being sold at fair value. Which honestly is rarely the case.
“Serrv International is a nonprofit dedicated to fighting global poverty through fair and ethical trade.
Poverty remains a terrible reality for many of our world's citizens. While it exists everywhere, it's most severe in developing countries, where more than 700 million people—half of them children—live on less than $1.90 a day.
At Serrv, we work to fight poverty and improve lives through handwork. Behind every fair-trade handcraft, we sell, there's a story of positive change. And after nearly 70 years, we've seen what trading fair can do. Marginalized artisans and farmers who are empowered by sustainable employment, fair wages and safe working conditions find security and dignity in their work. They create stronger and healthier communities. They send their children to school. They hand down traditions of cultural craft.
History & Impact
One of the first fair trade organizations in the United States, Serrv was established in 1949 to help displaced refugees trade their handcrafts for income after the Second World War. As a founding member of both the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair-Trade Federation, we've steadily increased our impact in the fight against global poverty. Today we employ and empower nearly 8,000 artisans and farmers in 24 countries.”[6]
I know this sounds like a commercial for our fair-trade fair but, what I am trying to do is draw in the lesson we are supposed to be paying attention too.  It is not about the gifts…It is not about the shopping experience…it is about working to create a fair and just world…
Each and every item in there was hand made by an artist, crafts person, skilled labor that is getting a fair wage for the art they create.  These are not sweat shops…these are not factory mass produced appropriations of someone’s culture. These are items made one at a time with love care and pride that allow people to provide for their families.  They create out of their need to survive we shop because in our abundance we can help monetarily but also spiritually.
One of my favorite items from fair trade is my terracotta candle holder that is inscribed upon it “I am Dipali Rani Paul. My father is the late Sachindra Chandra Paul. From my childhood I was inspired by seeing my father’s devotion to his work with terracotta.  I am dedicated to keeping up my father’s reputation. Today on his blessing I live on making terracotta goods. The trade keeps us alive.”
As we look at the story Jesus uses the example of the widow to continue his condemnation of the Scribes for she has nothing left to give but her last two coins. She stands in direct contrast to the scribes who seek praise who seek honor and glory. The widow gives out of her want.  She supports the church out of her need. Trusting that God will support her.
Notice id did not say trusting the Church would support her. Walter Brueggemann again asks a few poignant questions. “Does the story explicitly praise the widow’s actions?
“And sitting opposite the Treasury, he was gazing at how the crowd threw their change into the Treasury. And lots of wealthy people put in lots. Then there came a single destitute widow-woman: and she threw in two tiny. [coins], a farthing.
And summoning his disciples, he told them, ‘Amen I tell you: this widow, the destitute woman, threw more than all who threw [money] into the Treasury. You see, they all threw [in] from their surplus. But everything she, from her poverty, threw [in] everything she had, her whole life.'”[7]
I have heard sermons about giving out of our abundance just as the widow gave out of her need but, the question asked does the story explicitly praise the widow’s actions?  I must answer no…her actions are used to condemn the others, to condemn the scribes who devour widows’ houses.
The questions go on; “Why would she be commended for giving to a Temple whose destruction was at hand? Does she not rather serve as a concrete example of how innocent people are victimized by the Temple authorities? Jesus’ comments about the widow are really a lament about her plight and continue the denunciation of the scribes, who instead of caring for this woman as the law directed them to do are robbing her of her last dime.”[8]
When it comes to applying this today, how do you judge someone's intentions? How do you know a long prayer is for appearance rather than genuine piety? How do oyu know when someone is giving out of surplus or out of need?  Who are we to judge anyway? I do not think these are the questions we should be asking instead, what seems clear is Mark's intention to reevaluate value. In the Kingdom of God, what is valued and important is different from that of the human kingdom(s).
You see in this short story; the offering of the rich people is rendered unimportant or insignificant. It is budgeted there appears to be no effort or thought behind it. Yet, A poor widow, who gives everything she has, Jesus holds up as an example. Does this mean everyone should give everything they have? Maybe.
Remember much of Marks writing is about God’s Kingdom. When we view this part of the Gospel through this lense we see that Jesus is saying: where you put your money will show your allegiance. In other words, if you think it really belongs to Caesar, then go ahead and give it to him. Or if you think your money should be going to an institution that is hypocritical and ignoring its own commandments or better yet ignoring the greatest commandments. Love of God and Love of Neighbor then go ahead and throw your money away.
“This text isn't necessarily saying that everyone needs always to give everything. Instead, the widow has decided that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. This text, then, consistent with Mark's overall agenda, is about perspective and reevaluation. Those things that are valued in the kingdom of God differ from that in wider society.”[9]
The woman can represent those who see past the church’s failings, see past the buildings and the worship and the coffee hours. She sees and trusts in a church that represents God and God’s Kingdom here on earth.
“The things that are valued in the Kingdom of God differ from the human realm. Should we give our money to fund a new air-conditioning unit for the church? Should we give money so that our name goes on a plaque inside the door as a cornerstone giver? Are those the things valued in the kingdom? Or, should money be given to relief organization? Food pantries? Homeless shelters?”[10]
This is why we are a 5 by 5 church.  Yes, our money goes to the practical stuff but more importantly our money goes to our Churches wider mission. We are both practical that we need to keep up our place of worship we need a place to gather as community and yet… we need to reach out and serve our neighbors in need.
Finally, what may be more of an interesting challenge is well as they say “Time is money. What if, for us today, it is our time that is analogous to the widow? Helping those in need, doing something constructive with all of our resources, not just our money, might be a better way to embody this text than simply filling out a direct-deposit slip”[11] 
Talk about a penny for your thoughts…
This is a dualistic lesson it condemns the high and mighty and yet says to the high and mighty there is a better way… a different way it says though you have abundance you can still be on the right path.  I pray htat this community continues its wonderful journey of finding ways to meet the needs and the call of the community around us.
May we each find our own path to walk the way of Christ and to bring about Gods kingdom here and now amen.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter, and Charles B. Cousar. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. Pg. 584
[7] King, Nicholas. The Bible: A Study Bible. Buxhall, Stowmarket, Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew, 2013.
[8] Brueggemann, Walter, and Charles B. Cousar. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993. Pg. 584
[10] Ditto
[11] Ditto

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