The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 11 November 2018
A Sermon on Mark 12:38-44 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS
Mark 12:38-44 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
38 And in his teaching, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” The Gospel of the Lord.
[I found Professor Jeff Gibbs comments very helpful: https://concordiatheology.org/lalp/#/10683/822/2-5-27/2018-11-11]
Confessing Christ: Trustingly
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is not a money text. This is a heart text. This is not a moralistic text. This is largely a judgment text. So, we don’t want our context to overrule St. Mark’s context as we listen.
For many years, Lutheran congregations have made November the time for pledging money. Congregational budgets are typically approved around the beginning of a new calendar year, and so leaders need to know how much to budget. But why in November? At one time, Lutheran churches were largely located in rural areas with many of our people farming and ranching, where the economy was built around agriculture. Because farmers are paid at harvest, the fall was the time for settling debts and for giving back to God. Some of us older Lutherans remember congregational mission festivals when the congregational potluck featured the fruits of gardens and a missionary was invited in to speak and to receive a special offering. The oldest members may remember when farmers paid their “dues” after harvest and the list of givers was posted in the narthex so that peer pressure would ensure everyone gave when they were paid.
Pledging in the fall, like weekly giving envelopes, is rooted in an earlier time and way of life when more people derived their income from an agrarian culture and hourly workers were paid on Fridays. This year, our Finance Team recommended approving the 2019 budget at the annual meeting in December, and so the Stewardship Team began the pledge drive in October. We are such creatures of habit that pledges for operating and building budgets have come in slower. But stewardship, very much like the widow in the Gospel lesson, is not about the amount one gives.
So, when we hear this text, we need to understand it’s not about how much money you give!
Jesus’ Context and Mark’s
Six hundred years before the Word of God became flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb, God’s people experienced His judgment on their fearing, loving, and trusting in other gods. God let the Chaldeans (Babylonians) conquer Jerusalem and carry off into exile their king and leadership class. Ten years later, the Chaldeans destroyed Jerusalem, its Temple, and blinded the weaker king they had placed on the throne after making him watch the killing of all his sons, his dynasty.
The crisis of the Babylonian exile with the loss of the king, the Temple, and the promised land was so catastrophic to the Jews in Babylon, that they vowed to practice the worship of one God in one place more faithfully after their return from Babylon. Living under a succession of foreign rulers, the Jewish people had no king from David’s family for centuries, and so they turned to the priests as the de facto leaders of God’s people. By the time of our Lord Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jerusalem’s economy was Temple based and its huge priestly and scholarly class enjoyed a status of power and prestige among their people. The wealthiest families in Jerusalem were also numbered among the Sanhedrin, the body that governed the daily life and practice of the Jewish people, who were under Roman military occupation. The priestly class, supported by the Temple tax, was so large, each division only sacrificed one week per year.
Mark’s gospel only has 16 chapters with the Passion account occurring in chapters 14-15. Our text comes within that section where the hostility of the religious leaders toward Jesus is rapidly building. Next week, in chapter 13, our Lord will warn about Jerusalem and the Temple being destroyed again. God, Incorporated has become so bloated and has gone so totally off the rails, that the Son of God cannot find a favorable hearing from the religious leaders. And, they have forgotten who and Whose they are. How about us? Have we lost our way as the people of God?
Our Context, Again
Each week we begin worship with a confession of sins. We say words like, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” We hear the Words of Institution “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” but I wonder if we don’t often treat these, as they did in medieval Christianity, as spiritual transactions. I confess, so God forgives. I commune, so God forgives. This is not far from the synergistic spiritual transactions of evangelical Protestants, “I ask Jesus into my heart after confessing my sins, so God forgives.” Notice where the emphasis lies – on ME, on US! That, dear ones, is wasting the death of Jesus for sinners.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the religious leaders love their rock-star status. They love to strut around in their expensive robes. They love to be greeted deferentially. They love being at the head table at the big feasts. They love the prominence they enjoy as God’s All Stars, All Pros. And the wealthiest love to make a show out of how much money they are giving to God as they enter into the Temple proper. It’s like one late former member who was in worship on Easter and Christmas and always made a big deal out of the $100 bill he threw into the offering plate. One poor widow worshiped every week, gave $5 a week, and gave more than the guy with Franklins.
A preacher in jeans and a polo shirt can be more of a showboat than a cardinal in custom robes. A preacher who makes a big deal out of his tithing can be every bit a pompous ass as a rich guy who gives God several million dollars but keeps tens of millions for himself. A preacher who loves to be fawned over and pampered by his flock can be as stinky in God’s nostrils as the lamentable billionaires, the pezzonovante in The Godfather’s words, who control the messages people hear and pull pathetic politicians’ strings. The judgment of God is already on all of these.
But what about you and me? Is our praying, worshiping, Bible reading, serving, friending, and giving all about us? Are we here because we’re trying to curry God’s favor? Here to secure His blessings? Do we practice the faith only for whatever benefits we can get out of it?
How can we who are born sinful and unclean, under a death sentence, offer God anything else but our sin and our death?
Proclaiming Christ Crucified for Us and Our Salvation
God’s Son Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary to live the life of total obedience we cannot live and to die the innocent death we cannot die that we may be His. With a heart filled with love for His Father and love for His neighbor, the Lord Jesus gave His life a ransom for many. We have nothing that is ours to offer Him but our sin and our death. We are born under a death sentence.
When we are baptized into the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection, we die the only death we will ever die and now share in the eternal life He shares with His Father and the Holy Spirit. The one, true God is a community within Himself. He offers what none can buy – His life and love.
The widow with her tiny monetary offering gave more than those who gave hundreds, thousands, and millions. We do well to remember her when we get too full of ourselves. That poor widow was closer to the Kingdom of God, because she loved the Lord with her heart and trusted He would take care of her. She knew in Whose hands she would be. And you? And me?
For every dollar you give, how much do you keep? For every hour you serve, how much do you keep? For every sharing of your talents, how much do you keep for yourself? If you knew today was the last day you were ever going to have in this life, how would you spend it? How?
On his death bed, Martin Luther’s last words were: “We are beggars!” And so we are, and so we shall be. That is why we lift our empty, sin-sick hands at the altar making a throne for King Jesus. He says: “This is my Body. This is my Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” We have nothing to offer Him that is ours but our sin and our death. We are beggars!
Dear ones, we joyfully serve God and our neighbors, because God has withheld nothing from us – not even His own life on the cross. We trust, like the widow trusted, that God’s promises are true. We are leaning on the everlasting arms of Jesus. We confess Christ trustingly, because there is no place else to turn. There is no other Who can save us from sin, death, and the evil one!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©The Rev. Dr. Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
Confessing Christ: Trustingly
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 1529).
Mark 12:38 ” Beware of the scribes…”
Hegemonius [4th century author of the Acts of Archelaus, a writing against Manichaeism, a syncretistic Persian sect]: “While devoting great care to the things which were external, they overlooked those which bore upon salvation of the soul…To them the Lord Jesus, knowing their perdition, made this declaration: that they attended to those things only which were external, and despised as strange those things which were within, and did not understand that he who made the body made also the soul” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, 176).
Mark 12:42 “And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.”
St. John Chrysostom [late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople]: “Do not despair. One cannot buy heavenly things with money…. If money could purchase such things, then the woman who deposited the two small copper coins would have received nothing very large. But since it was not money but rather her intention that prevailed, that woman received everything because she demonstrated firm conviction. Therefore, let us not say that the kingdom may be bought with money” (177).
Mark 12:43 “…this poor widow has put in more than…those…contributing to the offering box.”
St. John Chrysostom: “When alms are given, we attend to nothing else except the disposition required. And if you say that money is needed, and houses and clothes and shoes, read those words of Christ, which he spoke concerning the widow, and stop being anxious. For even if you are extremely poor, and among those that beg, if you cast in your two small coins, you have done all in your power. Though you offer only a barley cake, having only this, you will have arrived at the heart of the matter” (178).
Mark 12:44 “For they all contributed out of their abundance….”
Evagrius Ponticus [4th century monk, born in Turkey, died in Egypt]: “Likewise, anyone who wishes to embark on the labors of the virtuous life should train himself gently, until he gradually reaches the full extent of his abilities. Do not be perplexed by the many paths walked by our fathers of old, each different from the other. Do not overzealously try to imitate them all – this would only upset your way of life. Rather, choose a way of life that suits your feeble state; travel on that, and you will live, for your Lord is merciful and he will receive you, not because of your achievements, but because of your intention, just as he received the destitute woman’s gift” (179).
1. Am I generous in my heart with myself but stingy with the Lord who gives me everything?
The Ten Commandments (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.
The Ninth Commandment
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way which only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.
1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how the 9th commandment challenges Christians to serve joyfully our neighbor by helping to protect him from unscrupulous persons who would try to steal his property.
4. Join with our new Mission Team to serve neighbors whose property has been damaged by Hurricane Florence. Sign up in the Commons to provide a meal for an incoming mission team from another congregation or to join in recovery efforts.
5. If you have coveted your neighbor’s goods, consider how this coveting has made property an idol that cannot deliver what you most need.
6. Practice the freedom of being God’s child in Christ this week, with the Holy Spirit’s help, by letting go of things you do not need. Have you made estate plans?
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.