Sunday, November 11, 2012

When God's Chosen People Forget

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel is to do with a widow putting her last coins in the temple treasury; the widow’s offering is contrasted with the larger, but proportionately smaller, gifts of the rich folks. This reading has been thematically matched in our Lectionary cycle with the Old Testament reading from 1 Kings, which likewise features a generous (if reluctant) widow: the OT widow is asked to make a cake in order to feed the prophet Elijah, even though it will require, it seems, the very last of her oil and meal. The widow and her son are starving. But when Elijah says, “do not be afraid!”, the widow, like the widow in Mark’s gospel, gives all that she has.

When read together, the emerging message of the two widow stories goes something like this: give to the Lord not out of your abundance, but lay down your very life, all that you have, and the Lord will not let your jar run dry. Enter the stewardship chair with her graphs on per capita percentile giving within congregations; cue the ushers with pencils and pledge envelopes in hand; somebody lock the doors.

And all of this makes sense; it seems to fit - if all too predictably - our expectations for, and disappointments in, the Church. That is, we knew it would come to this. To be clear: that Christians are called to give sacrificially is the prevailing witness of Scripture, the example of the saints, and the clear teaching of Jesus: “...whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.” That’s clearly the widow. But we look at the widow and this story and something feels off. We had hoped for more. Is this the life abundant? The widow goes broke as the endowment gets fat?

We are clearly called to sacrificial giving as Christians. The question is whether that is what’s going on with the widow at the temple treasury. You may have guessed by now that I don’t think it is. Let me briefly share an alternative possibility.

Locating the story of the widow’s temple offering in the context of Mark’s whole gospel, we make a few, basic observations: we’re in chapter 12. At the end of chapter 11, Jesus chases the money changers out of the temple, calling them a den of robbers. At the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus curses a fig tree, and it withers; some scholars see this as a symbol-cursing of the temple. What follows is an extended dialogue with Jesus, the chief priests, Pharisees, Herodians, and scribes in which Jesus’ authority is openly questioned; for his part, Jesus uses a parable involving a vineyard and its tenants to name the unfaithfulness of the temple leaders and predict his crucifixion at their hands; then a series of additional traps set for Jesus, all culminating with Jesus teaching in the temple courts - and here you’ll recognize the front half of today’s lesson: “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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.’”

When the widow finally steps up to the treasury box to drop in her coins, she walks somewhat unwittingly into the middle of this larger anti-temple dispute. To emphasize the point, Mark tells us that Jesus watches the widow as he sits opposite - or literally “over against” - the place where the offerings are made. And immediately following the widow’s offering, Jesus foretells the temple’s destruction.

The “here, there, and in between” of this poor widow and her offering is Jesus’ prophetic challenge to the temple establishment, chiefly on the grounds that it devours the homes of widows; so it becomes increasingly difficult to see Jesus as lifting up the widow’s giving to the temple as an example for us to follow. Indeed, it becomes difficult to imagine that Jesus is primarily talking about the widow at all, except as an illustration of the brokenness of the temple system as it is presently ordered.

It would be as if the slick televangelist on the 700 Club successfully snookered Grandma out of her savings, and the moral of the story was to give like Grandma gave.

But if Mark’s gospel is not about giving all you have to the religious establishment, what is it about?

I think Mark’s gospel this evening is about remembering what it is to be blessed; remembering what it is to be chosen; remembering what it is to be God’s holy people. I think Jesus thinks that the people of Israel in his day, as embodied in the temple leadership, had forgotten what it was to be blessed, chosen, and God’s holy people.

So just what does it mean to be chosen by God? Does it bother us that God chooses some and not others? And what of the Bible’s disturbing trend in which those who are chosen are chosen precisely to share the blessing of God to the ones who don’t appear to be chosen?

Last Thursday night at dinner on the Terrace, the notion of discernment came up. Who is God calling me to be? What am I called to do? These are versions of the question “What does it mean to be chosen by God?” And with it, the follow-up: how do God’s people live that calling out?

The Israel of temple worship was to be a people of praise whose life, worship, and example, pointed the glory of God. Israel has been chosen, blessed, to extend the blessing of God; along the way, Israel struggled to comprehend how the blessing could be shared without its blessing being lost. If I give it to you, what’s left for me? This is the fear that is present when widows’ homes are devoured for the protection of one’s sense of being holy, set apart. It is the fear that there isn’t enough, and that blessings are not true or lasting, that God might be as unfaithful as we know ourselves to be. But God is true. There is enough. And God’s chosen are chosen to share the blessing of God with those who are sure they have not been chosen. And this vocation, this calling, the calling of Israel, is most concentrated, most fulfilled, say the gospels, in the person of Jesus, whose Holy Spirit we share.

Such a vision for blessing out of blessing - the conviction that we, as the people of God grafted into Israel by the mercies of Christ, have been blessed to be a blessing - must form our imagination for the priorities of the people of God and how we live those out: as Mark’s gospel reminds us, the Church must always stand with the poor.

So finally, as you mature in the faith, growing into the full stature of Christ, I do pray you will always give to your church, and generously, but also that you will challenge your church to be as lavishly generous as she wants you to be. That you will prod the Body of Christ to seek out and stand with the lost. To stoop down and anoint, to bind up, the broken. To risk even financial vulnerability. To always ask how the blessing might be shared, the Good News enacted, especially with those who don’t feel much like chosen. There are a great many people out there who don’t feel much like chosen. They are on street corners, in dorm rooms; they are your professors, your friends. They are the strangers; they are your sisters, your brothers; and they are your calling, because they are God’s delight.

You are, too. You are God’s chosen. God’s chosen are chosen to share the blessing of God with those who are certain they cannot be chosen.


SFH. 11/11/12


  1. I agree that Jesus did not point out the widow's offering to encourage more gifts to the temple. I think he wanted to contrast her gifts with those of the rich. For even after the rich gave (a tithe?) they still had a lot left for themselves, while the widow had nothing left for herself. So the point is: it's not so much how much you give as how much you keep for yourself.

    When Jesus did target those to give to, it was usually the poor (and never the temple or synagogue). So should our giving now not go primarily to the poor rather than to the "church" (salaries and buildings)? The N.T. churches did give priority to the poor among them, including poor leaders, and also extended their love our to those "not chosen."

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Your reading of the passage echoes Jesus' instruction to the rich young ruler (sell all you have, give to the poor, follow me). There's a lot going for that reading, I think; the tension is that Jesus appears to be critiquing the faithfulness, not the fact or mere existence, of the religious leaders.

    As you observe, there is ample New Testament warrant for a corporate response to the poor - one that is only possible if members of the Church entrust their possessions to the faith community. Whether salaries and/or buildings are faithful ministrations of that trust is a fair question, but neither buildings nor salary seem to be, in and of themselves, in fundamental opposition to the needs of the poor.

    Still, asking how all of ministrations of that trust can be made to serve the poor is a good and constant question for the Church. We (Church) can/should do much to push ourselves on this question.


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