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Sunday, November 8, 2015

No More Poor Sermons about the Poor Widow Woman

This passage is probably familiar to us; we’ve heard it preached in countless sermons, read it in numerous devotionals, and faith-based fundraising appeals. We’ve heard, over and over again, the repeated panegyrics for this poor widow woman who gave and gave and gave some more. The church has venerated her and her sacrificial giving and held her up as an example for us to emulate in our daily lives. Yet, for all its oft repeated familiarity, I have rarely heard the passage preached or taught correctly from its context.

Contrary to much of what we have heard over the years, the import of this passage is not in praise for her sacrificial giving (though that is a laudable virtue for the person of faith and those who deny themselves in order to give sacrificially should be commended) but in a stern condemnation of those religious leaders who value the established power system (and their place within it) over the care and protection of those they have been called to serve.

So this morning, let’s do what has been neglected; let’s begin by looking at the larger context of that poor widow’s story. Jesus is teaching within the temple courts (Mark 12: 35). We spoke a bit during last week’s sermon (Hebrews 9: 11 – 14) about the great importance the Temple in Jerusalem held for the followers of Judaism. The temple was important and because it was so important it was also very divisive.

There were some who believed that the temple was so singular and so holy because it had been built by God with his own two hands.[i] Others, like the Christian martyr, Stephen, flatly rejected this and said that God did not dwell in “a house that human hands have built… ‘What house will you build for me, says the Lord, what place for me to rest?’” (Acts 7: 47 – 50 NJB). The Essenes (who may or may not be responsible for the writings known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, found at Qumran) went so far as to pull themselves away from the rest of Judaism because they believed that the priesthood had become corrupt, and that the Temple had been defiled. They separated themselves away from Jerusalem, and set themselves to living by a high standard of ritual purity while they waited for the One who would set things right.

The temple was the center of Judaism’s ritual, even for those who separated themselves from the rest of their fellow believers. They did so because they believed the temple to be of the highest importance. Jesus arrives in the temple at the end of chapter 11 (11: 27) and he stays there through all of chapter 12, teaching and telling parables, and irritating the elites among the various religious groups. When Jesus and his disciples finally leave the temple, at the beginning of chapter 13, they comment to him, “Master, look at the size of those stones! Look at the size of those buildings!” (13: 1 NJB) at which point Jesus launches into a fierce denunciation of the temple and a prediction of its imminent destruction.

“You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left one on another; everything will be pulled down.” (Mark 13:2 NJB)

Now keep in mind that it was the perceived disloyalty against the Temple in Jerusalem that got the prophet Jeremiah in so much trouble. In Jeremiah 26 the prophet preached a sermon on the Temple steps, wherein he prophesied its destruction if the people would not repent. For this the priests and the prophets and all the people grabbed him and said, “You shall die!” (Jeremiah 26: 8).  They brought the prophet of God up on charges of disloyalty before the princes and said, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this house and this city.” (26: 11)

Mark chapter 12 is also full of Jesus’ confrontations with the various Jewish groups; he squares off against the chief priests and scribes and elders (11: 27), the Pharisees and the Herodians (an odd partnership if there ever was one) (12: 13-17), the Sadducees (18 – 27) and the scribes (28 – 44). He speaks roughly to them, chiding them, correcting them – disrespecting them, even… at least, that’s how they certainly perceived his words.

So we find the story of our beloved widow, she of such great generosity and sacrificial giving, within a broader context of condemnation of the religious rulers and of the temple complex. We must read this story, not as a praise of this poor widow woman (though she is to be praised) but as a condemnation of those who would value the power that they wield and the respect they feel they deserve within the religious system over people under their influence.

Our reading this morning begins with Jesus’ ominous words, “Beware of the scribes…” (Mark 12: 38 NJB)

The scribes were those who knew how to read and write – something we sort of take for granted these days, but was a highly prized but not ubiquitous skill in those days.  Intellectuals from the Jerusalem aristocracy and professional scribes, as well as those Pharisees who came from the town ‘bourgeoisie’ would have been able to read, but peasants in the villages didn’t enjoy that same luxury – and women were rarely given the opportunity to learn (Meier “Roots of the Problem” 275). Originally the scribes were those royal officials tasked with recording the events and histories of the royal court but beginning with “Ezra, who established postexilic Judaism upon the Law” (Lohse 115) they eventually they became not only those who could read and write the scriptures, but were charged with preserving tradition as well as interpreting and teaching the scriptures and traditions to others. And because the torah covered every aspect of Jewish life, they decided both theological and legal questions. They had a place of respect among the Jewish community as befitted their lofty calling: they were called, “wise men, teachers of the Law, and masters,” (Lohse 116) as well as Rabbi (teacher).

The professional scribe is praised in the deuterocanonical book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) (39: 1- 11) written about 200 years before the time of Jesus:

“He will grow upright in purpose and learning,
he will ponder the Lord’s hidden mysteries.
He will display the instruction he has received,
taking pride in the Law of the Lord’s covenant.
Many will praise his intelligence
and it will never be forgotten.
His memory will not disappear,
generation after generation his name will live.
Nations will proclaim his wisdom,
the assembly will celebrate his praises.
If he lives long, his name will be more glorious than a thousand others,
and if he dies that will satisfy him just as well.”
(Ecclesiasticus 39: 7 – 11 NJB)

That’s pretty high praise for the office of the scribe, but instead of treating them with the dignified respect, and adulation the scribes seem to have come to expect, Jesus says to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes[ii], who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12: 28 – 40)

Jesus did not give them a deferential greeting; he did not recognize their dignity. Instead he criticized them for valuing their position of prestige in the community and the service of the temple in Jerusalem, at the expense of the poorest in the community.

The Law, which these scribes purported to value, said: “There must, then, be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4 NJB). The torah of God placed firm obligations on them to care for the poor and the helpless, the orphans and the widows.  This was the important thing – to love God and to love others – to love God by loving others.

But these religious leaders had come to value their power, their prestige, their honor, their dignity, their authority over the care of the poor. Instead of caring for the poor, they “devoured widow’s houses” and drove people, like our “poor widow” to give their last two copper pennies to the care and maintenance of the symbol of their religious authority.  She gave, out of her poverty, she gave the last little bit of what she had to maintain their glorious prestige – because they had convinced her that it was her religious obligation to do so. They ignored the law that said, “There should be no poor among you,” and used guilt and religious fear to sustain themselves and the exploitative temple complex at the expense of the poor. They devoured the poor.

While the poor widow who gave her last mite might be laudable for her sacrificial giving, those who maintained a system to exploit her mite are mightily condemned. Woe to those who value the system over the message, and their place within the power structure over justice.

Lohse, Eduard. (Translated by John E. Steely) The New Testament Environment, Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press. 1976.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew Vol.1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, New York, NY, Doubleday, 1991.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew Vol. 3: Companions and Competitors, New York, NY, Doubleday, 2001.

New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY. Doubleday. 1999.

"Scribes." Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d. Web.

[i] If we may take Mekilta Shirata 10. 29 – 42 as helpful even if it was written much later.

[ii] We should keep in mind, however, that the Scribes were not a “homogenous religious group with a united theological agenda,” and that it is unlikely, despite their characterization in the synoptic gospels, that they presented “a united front against Jesus” (Meier “Companions and Competitors” 560).

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