A Penny | Proper 27

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

A Penny

Our Gospel reading for today includes two parts of a larger story. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus hung out near the Temple, teaching people and his Disciples, arguing and discussing issues with religious leaders such as the Scribes. In verses 38-40, Jesus speaks harshly against the Scribes, or legal experts as the Common English Bible translates the word. But he didn’t suggest that all legal experts were bad. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus commended a Scribe, saying, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom” (Mark 12:34 CEB).

Yet, there are always those in every profession and walk of life who think they’re honest even as they act dishonestly, who think they’re righteous even as they act in ways that are unrighteous, and who think they’re ethical, moral, and just even as they act in ways that are unethical, immoral, and unjust. Self-delusion is possible in every profession, even amongst religious and legal professionals. In fact, I read once that the two kinds of academic libraries that have the most books stolen are seminary and law school libraries. Apparently, we religious and legal leaders-in-training can rationalize why we need a certain book, so we delude ourselves into thinking that it’s not really stealing.

It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in pastors and lawyers.

It’s important for us to note that the local language spoken in Judea and Galilee when Jesus lived was not Hebrew, but Aramaic. Most people spoke Greek, too, but Aramaic would have been the language used in people’s homes. Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have sung her baby to sleep in Aramaic lullabies. Greek was the language of commerce. Hebrew was the original language of the Holy Scriptures, though there was a Greek translation called the Septuagint, and there were Aramaic paraphrases and explanations of the Hebrew text called the Targumim. But few, if any, spoke Hebrew in conversational language.

It’s also important for us to note that the literacy rate in the ancient world was dismally low. Scribes, or legal experts, were the people in Ancient Israel who could read and write. That made Scribes both the legal and religious experts. Why? Because they read it and wrote it by making copies. When there was a question about a religious or legal matter, it was the Scribes who searched the Scriptures for the answer. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures because they handled them on a daily basis.

Because they could read and write, the Scribes were also the ones who kept the ledgers in the Temple and other areas of life. They recorded financial transactions, kept inventories, documented legal agreements and suits, and logged political policy. The work of Scribes was important and necessary.

Another thing we should note is that, in Ancient Israel, there was little—if any—separation between religious and legal or political matters. In the United States, we insist on keeping religion separate from law and politics—even to the point that some people think their religious leaders shouldn’t comment on legal or political matters. That kind of separation was unknown in Ancient Israel where the law was religion because the law was God’s Law. Scribes were the interpreters and teachers of God’s Law. Because of that, Scribes were respected members of society. But, as with any profession, not all Scribes were faithful in the ways that mattered most to God.

Jesus warned the people to watch out for the legal experts—the Scribes—because some of them weren’t living faithfully. Those who liked to walk around in their long robes, who dressed to impress, liked to do so to gain attention from others. Their fine clothes left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were important people. They liked to be greeted with honor in the marketplace. They longed for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. The marketplaces were public, secular areas. The synagogues were places of worship. And banquets often took place in people’s homes. So, Jesus suggested that, for some Scribes, the desire for honor covered all arenas of Jewish life: public, religious, and private.

Honor and shame shaped Jewish culture in ways that our broader modern American culture can’t really understand. Honor and shame still shape many Near, Middle, and Far Eastern cultures. So, for Jesus to accuse them of cheating and showing off would have shamed any Scribe. Not only were they accused of cheating, but they cheated widows out of their homes. They cheated the most vulnerable among them so they could continue to wear their long robes.

God’s Law consistently speaks about widows in ways that demand empathy and care from others (c.f. Deuteronomy 10:18-19; 14:29). Widows, along with immigrants and orphans, are constantly listed together as people for whom God is especially concerned. The Scriptures also consistently declare God’s immense displeasure with anyone who harms, neglects, or oppresses widows, immigrants, or orphans. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God indicted Jerusalem for failing to care for widows, immigrants, and orphans (c.f. Ezekiel 22:6-8, 25, 29). There is no exception to this rule.

Psalm 94 even speaks of God as an avenger and, regarding those who fail to follow God’s Law on this matter, the Psalmist says, “They kill widows and immigrants; they murder orphans, saying all the while, ‘The LORD can’t see it; Jacob’s God doesn’t know what’s going on!’ You ignorant people better learn quickly. You fools—when will you get some sense?” (Ps. 94:6-8 CEB). To defraud, cheat, oppress, or neglect widows, immigrants, or orphans is the same as murdering them because such a person makes already dire circumstances impossible worse.

To cheat widows out of their homes in order to maintain a system that provides wealth and privilege is the height of hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter how many long prayers we can say, what finery we’re wearing, or what honor we receive in public, religious, or private settings; those who cheat the vulnerable instead of providing care for them—as the Law requires—will be judged with exceeding harshness.

Then, Jesus sat across from the collection box for the Temple treasury and did some people watching. He observed how the crowd gave their money. He noticed that many rich people were giving lots of money. But he also noticed how a poor widow gave two half-pennies. So, he called his disciples together and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (Mk. 12:43-44 CEB).

Now, some interpreters have lifted this widow up as someone to emulate as an example of truly faithful and sacrificial giving. Such an interpretation suggests that we should give until it hurts, no matter how poor we are. However, there are a few clues in the text which suggest that Jesus’ message is more complicated than that.

Firstly, Jesus had just criticized people in positions of power who, under the guise of religion, cheat widows by taking their homes. In light of that criticism, it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus would commend a widow for giving her last penny to a Temple system that supported those Scribes and provided them with enough income that they could strut about in their long robes while she remained poor.

Secondly, even if all the widow had was a penny, there wasn’t much she could have bought for herself with those two coppers anyway. I have a jar of pennies at home that I haven’t bothered counting or depositing in the bank because it takes a LOT of pennies to count for anything, and it would almost be more work that it’s worth to bother with them.

While we can’t know the widow’s intention in giving, there are a few ways to look at it. One way of looking at her gift is one of true faithfulness in which she entrusted herself wholly to God. Another viewpoint might be that she was trying to buy a little divine favor, as if such favor could be purchased. Afterall, desperate circumstances can lead people to try desperate schemes and hold fast to desperate hope. A third way of looking at her gift is one of indictment. The Temple system should have been helping her, but all she had were two mostly-worthless coppers that wouldn’t buy her a crumb of bread. Maybe her gift was the widow’s way of saying, Thanks for nothing. Here. You can have your coppers back.

The second view of the widow’s giving probably would not have earned a commendation from Jesus. The third one, maybe, since it would have been a very prophetic thing to do. And, while the first one might have earned a commendation, the scenario—as a whole—still highlights that the Temple utterly failed this woman.

Perhaps that’s aiming nearer to the point. Maybe this widow and her small-yet-mighty gift point out the nature of integrity in the face of hypocrisy. While we can’t know the intentions of the wealthy givers: whether they gave for the sake of notoriety or out of a sense of true devotion, we do have Jesus’ words warning the people about the hypocrisy of the Scribes who should have known the Law better than anyone, yet they cheated widows out of their houses and showed off with long prayers.

A system that would allow a widow to give her last penny; a system that would allow her to walk away hopelessly poor; a system that would fail to take care of someone so desperately in need: that’s not merely a system that has failed, but a community of faith that has failed.

Far from keeping its nose out of law and politics, the church must come to understand that the ministry we do and the care we provide for others—especially ministry with the poor: these are spiritual disciplines that flow out of our worship of the God who loves the vulnerable and marginalized, and who consistently sides with widows, immigrants, and orphans over the well-to-do. Through our ministry and service alongside the marginalized and vulnerable, the church emphasizes a different kind of politic and a different kind of law: a politic that is, itself, righteousness, and a law that is love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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