Mark 12: 38-44
“Beware of Dog” is not an uncommon sign to see in any neighborhood. It’s there to let you know that you should be careful when you are in a dog’s presence, even a dog you may know well. I’ve seen other signs that say “Beware of Attack Cat!” in people’s homes or “Beware, two year-old at play.” All of these signs caution us about what we are about to encounter, but I have never seen a sign based on Jesus’ teachings for this morning. “Beware of the scribes.”
It seems like an odd thing to say doesn’t it? “Beware of the religious leaders.” We typically have thought of religious leaders as someone worth trusting. In Jesus’ time the scribes were teachers of the law. Their opinions mattered on just about everything in your spiritual and physical life. The priests trusted them so they should have been trusted and respected by the common folk. Even in our society, where clergy have been tarnished by scandals recently, there is still a level of trust with a religious leader that you might not give your everyday stranger. So why is it that Jesus says to beware of the scribes?
It is important to point out that Jesus did not make a blanket statement to beware of all the scribes. After all just verses ago Jesus tells one scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of God. Jesus points to specific actions of those to beware of. He says, “beware of those who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace, and to have the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets.”
I must be honest with you and say that there isn’t much on this list that couldn’t describe most preachers I know, even myself. I love to wear my long robe, I appreciate being treated with respect in public, I sit up front, the best seat in the house at church, and you all have done a fine job of letting Steve, the kids and I go first at every potluck we’ve had at Christ Church! These things are usually associated with being a clergy person.
These would have been normal benefits for any scribe or high priest. These actions themselves are not the problems, rather the motivations behind them.
The scribes cautioned against wore their clothing so that people would notice them. They sought out people’s attention in public for personal gain. They sat in the best seats so that everyone would see them and comment on their piety, and they coveted the best seats at a banquet so that others would know their high place in society. While they do these things, Jesus gives us an insight into their hearts.
“They devour widows houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Many scholars tell us that the scribes might have been put in charge of widows trusts if she had no male relatives to care for her after the death of her husband. The law commanded that the synagogue care for widows and orphans. Yet here Jesus accuses the scribes of taking everything away from widows. Perhaps that is how some gained their fortunes, by skimming off of the top of the widows’ retirement assets. Jesus also accuses them of praying for the sake of appearances. They seem to be saying “Look at me, I can pray and talk to God for long periods of time because of my goodness and closeness to God!” They prayed out loud and in public so as to be noticed.
I believe that Jesus teaches to beware of the scribes as a way of telling his disciples what not to do. He knows that the disciples will be the leaders of the faith and he does not want them to fall into the same patterns of behaviors as these particular scribes. Jesus emphasized service over self and that message is one we still need to hear today. We, as Jesus’ disciples in the world today need to be outwardly focused. We need to be serving others rather than our own egos. As if this were not plain enough teaching, Jesus continues by moving over across from the treasury tables in the temple and giving the disciples an object lesson.
They crowd was passing through the temple and stopping at the treasury to pay their temple tithes or taxes. The coins of the day had ceaser’s picture on them so they had to be exchanged for “temple coins” in order to be paid to the temple. So there would have been several places that moneychangers sat at tables exchanging roman coins for temple coins. Anyone giving to the temple would have visited a moneychanger first. The treasury might have been a place people gathered waiting to exchange their money, to give their money, or perhaps to see how much your neighbor was putting into the pot. So while everyone is watching the rich people pouring their money into the treasury here comes a widow who drops in two little coins.
I am sure that had this been an ordinary day, the widow’s act would never have been noticed. In fact I think that most of the time this widow was all but invisible. I wonder what she was thinking when she gave everything she had to the temple. I was taught in Sunday school that she was generous and gave “cheerfully.” But that’s not found anywhere in the text. In fact, given the fact that Jesus has just told us that scribes “devoured widows houses” and scribes were a part of the oppressive temple system, I doubt that her giving was cheerful. I tend to see her as angry. Maybe even shaking her fist at the leaders thinking, “You’ve taken everything I have but these two coins. What can I buy with less than a penny? You might as well take it all!” She gives all that she has, what little bit it is, and goes on her way, relying on God to care for her, because she knows she cannot rely on humankind.
She reminds me a little of the widow in 1 Kings 17 who meets Elijah. Elijah asks her for water and a piece of bread. There has been no rain in the land and the woman has very little to live on. She tells Elijah that she only has enough flour and oil to make a small meal for herself and her son to eat and then they will die. Elijah promises her that if she feeds him first then God will not let her run out of food until it rains again. She had nothing left to loose, she and her son where going to starve, but she gives up everything and in the end does experience a miracle from the Lord. The widow in Mark does not have a prophet standing in front of her promising good things for her gift. She just gives it. There is no promise for food and oil tomorrow, there is only today.
Jesus calls the disciples together and praises this woman. She has given everything she had to live on to the very system that devours widows’ houses. She has given more than anyone else.
So what can we learn from this widow? There are so many things. There is the point to be made about sacrificial giving. She gave everything and in a few short days after this teaching Jesus would give all he had to give on a Roman Cross overlooking this very temple. There is the point to be made about trust. Even though she did not have anything else she still gave trusting that God would provide. Bu the lesson that strikes me the most is the lesson of faith. She gave to the very organization that should have been giving to her. She did not excuse herself from giving because she had been hurt. She did not choose to send her money elsewhere because she didn’t like the leadership. She did not punish God for the acts of created beings.
When it gets right down to it, that is who we give to. Not humanity, not buildings or organizations or programs, but to God. To our creator. And when God has given so much, who are we to hold anything back?