38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
I don’t think it will be too controversial to suggest that we, as humans, don’t always keep our priorities straight, that we are easily distracted by the wrong things. And this, of course, is not intended to just make you feel bad or guilty or something like that, but this is the place where we try our best to tell the truth about who we are. So yeah, we get distracted by the wrong things, and we do so pretty constantly. We just have a difficult time avoiding spectacles, averting our eyes from glitz and glamour; in the end, after all, we like to be entertained. This is not intended as a cheap shot, but when you think about all the hungry people in the world and the fact that, as a country, we just watched two campaigns spend 2 billion dollars in their bids for the White House, one sort of begins to get the point. Would that the church could get people to line up to help the poor and suffering in our midst the way that Apple is able to generate lines for the release of the new Iphone. And this not to say that we mess things up all the time, or that we don’t overcome our own addiction to glitz and newness. One thinks here of the incredible generosity occasioned by any tragic event. A couple Fridays back, it took NBC a couple hours and a few talented musicians to raise 23 million dollars for the Red Cross’s efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. So the point is not that we are always messing up our priorities, just that we are always in danger of doing so. Vigilance, then, is always required.
Which seems to be the same point that Jesus is making here in Mark’s Gospel. Now let’s back up just a bit to get some context for what is happening. Though we skipped over the triumphant entry and all the rest, we are in the part of the story that is leading right to the crucifixion. We here are in Jesus’ last week before that gruesome proclamation that he has made three times will come to pass. He and his disciples have come to Jerusalem, come right to the nerve center and there is trouble everywhere brewing. So when Jesus speaks ill of the Scribes, he is putting in the verbal knife to the very people that are presently conspiring to put him to death. It’s fair to say that the guy is not easily intimidated, huh? So, as Jesus surveys the religious scene that is he knows will, in some way, lead to his death, the contents of his words take on a different tone, a more urgent tone. Be on guard he says: do not let the flash of the scribes fool you. Don’t be overly impressed by the length of the words or the beauty of their robes, don’t begin to genuflect just because they have the VIP seats. Appearances can be deceiving afterall. Reality is rarely, if ever, what it initially appears to be. Because it is these same jokers who will steal a widow’s last penny to buy a new suit, and so really don’t buy into their piety that rings so false and hollow. Those long and sanctimonious prayers, those are only said so that you, you and not God, may hear them and think better of the men saying them. This is not true religion.
And here we should be a troubled; our own presumptions thoroughly challenged. Our own notions of respectability and values torn apart like the heavens at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Because what is at stake is whether or not we can see, can perceive, correctly. Whether we can, in the words of Martin Luther, call a thing what it is. And this becomes all the more difficult when we are asked to take up this task against even ourselves. I mean, how deep our participation in that which can only commend itself to us by its glitz and glamour. Let’s be honest for a moment, if Peyton Manning and a woman, and for the heck of it, let’s say a woman who hadn’t showered for a bit, whose clothes were ratty and her speech slurred, yes, what if they both came in off the street walked in at the same time, who among us would not prefer that Mr. Manning, and not this woman, would sit down in the pew next to us? You cannot better believe that, in this scenario, I would do whatever it took to make Mr. Manning comfortable (can you imagine the tithe that guy could provide?), and whatever happened to this woman, well, it wouldn’t be the first time she was ignored, huh? A quick prayer for forgiveness, a momentary thought given to this poor suffering woman and away we go. And here’s the thing, our whole culture is based on this sort of thing, based on us understanding our own value in relationship to the glitz and the glamour, our nearness to powerful and beautiful people. I mean, I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I have been during my few brief handshakes with mid-level rock musicians, how that made me feel like I was discovering something new and wonderful about myself.
But beware. Beware because in the Kingdom of God, Peyton Manning or the religious professional or the powerful CEO, none of these are more or less than important than the poor widow. And what is more, genuine participation in the Kingdom of God is dependent on this realization, on realizing that the Kingdom of God is not be found in the glitz and the glamour, not in rubbing up against the powerful and prestigious, not in ourselves becoming powerful and prestigious, not in our being noticed, but rather first in the small and humble. In the woman tossing in a few pennies that was all she had to live on. This insanity, this is most closer to the Kingdom than the well-thought out and well managed giving programs of the wealthy around her. And this is because the Kingdom must render to us its Kings, a God who, in Christ, will also not without anything. Will give wildly and recklessly and will do so at the cross. The Kingdom is to be found in the place where this Christ is headed, to the cross where sin will be judged and forgiven, the place where divine anger and divine mercy will be poured out. This place where the proud scribe will be brought low and the poor woman raised up. This is where the Kingdom of God will break in, will break up our destructive patterns of being beholden to things that initially give us a thrill but don’t mean that much in the final analysis. Yes, in that which initially appears small and meager, things like wine poured out and bread broken, things like these words: “for Christ’s sake, you are forgiven, you are loved.” And this is the miracle of the Kingdom, these things that start off small, and yet, in their smallness, will render unto you the very eternity of God. That in the gifts of bread, wine and Word, the Christ will toss his righteousness into our very lives, and will break us open to view and care for all in our midst, be it an MVP quarterback or the heartbreakingly average. And so, as we begin to think about stewardship for this coming year, this is the place that we must start. Not in the amount of money that we can or can’t give for this year, not in thinking that the church, like so many other organizations, is yet another drain on our resources. Rather, this is where we start: in the love of a God who withholds nothing to give us the Kingdom. A God, who out of sheer and reckless love, has claimed us in the cross and grave. A God who has thrown in his lot with us poor and trembling sinners and will remain with us until all is accomplished. Yes, so what does it mean to relate to our time, to our money, to our skills and ability, to our familial and other relationships, yes what does it mean to relate to these things as those claimed by this God’s fierce love? If we are honest, it might look a lot closer to that widow than we are comfortable with. In Jesus’ name, amen.