The Way of Giving

Mark 12:38-44

The Rev. Helen Havlik

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 11, 2018

When Jesus called his disciples, he had in mind a community of believers working together to share the good news of God’s love and forgiveness. Working together requires certain things of us: to live in community, to live simply, to serve humbly and to trust God and each other are just the beginning. In our Gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples have arrived in Jerusalem. They’ve been spending their time in the Temple, where Jesus has attracted attention from both religious leaders and crowds of people who are there for the Passover feast. At one point, Jesus is watching people give their offerings. I’m reading from Mark, Ch. 12, beginning with vs. 38. Listen with me to God’s holy word.

My dad was a people watcher. Every time he and my mom went over to Woodland Mall, she would shop and he would sit on a bench and watch people.   Sometimes I’d watch with him—and he’d point out what he noticed about people.  What they were wearing, how they walked, how fast they were moving. See—someone forgot something important and rushed back into that store! Look—that person has twins! That person looks pretty sad! That person just pulled out a wad of bills! Sometimes he’d strike up conversations, to find out if his impressions were correct. “Well, now that lady looked sad because her daughter just moved to Denver with the youngest grandkids who used to come over three mornings a week. She retired 12 years ago, so the grandkids are really important to her. She worked on the line at Steelcase and her husband was an electrician, just like me.” My dad could get more information out of someone in five minutes than a police detective could in a week! More often than not, though, he’d just watch people going by and wonder about them and draw conclusions based on what he saw. Do that long enough and you could get pretty good at figuring out what makes some people tick. The things about ourselves that we show to the world, on purpose and when we’re not aware of it. I don’t know how many of those people knew what my dad was doing—or even cared much. They were just going about their business.

People watching is what I imagine Jesus is doing that day in the Temple. It’s Passover, one of three holy days of the year that demanded personal attendance and sacrifice at the Temple. Mark says Jesus had been looking around ever since arriving in Jerusalem. The place is packed with thousands of people, from all over Palestine and as far away as places like Egypt and Ethiopia. So Jesus sees the full range of humanity gathered for this festival of remembrance of God’s saving the people of Israel from the hands of Pharaoh: the humble, devout people from his home area of Galilee—fishermen and farmers, fruit growers, potters, midwives—along with priests and wealthy business owners and scribes.

Jesus can’t help but notice the scribes because they are at the center of all the Temple activity—and more than anyone in this crowd of Passover pilgrims, they often attract more than their share of interest. They are the powerful, the celebrated of his day—conversation stops, heads turn as they walk the porticoes and hallways of the Temple. And what’s more, like our 21st century celebrities, many of them probably didn’t mind being noticed. They like all the attention—in fact, in the scribes’ case, they live off such attention. The scribes are the church lawyers—the people who study hard and dispense advice on all matters of living a godly life. The only thing is they aren’t allowed to be paid for this—so they depend on the gifts of wealthy patrons. If a husband dies, it’s often a scribe who steps in to handle the wife’s financial affairs—and it’s not unusual in Jesus’ time to see a widow’s income dwindle away as it ends up paraded around in a scribe’s long, expensive robes. As with the political and business scandals we hear about daily in our news, scribes know the law and yet somehow believe themselves to be above the law. While not all scribes acted this way, Jesus is talking about those who feel little or no obligation to practice what they preach.

While others might focus solely on these 1st century icons, Jesus looks not only at the center of the crowd’s attention—he looks to the edges, too. At the people no one looks at. As Jesus sits by the Treasury, we expect him to notice the rich people who put in large sums. But it’s the small sum that catches Jesus’ attention—enough to comment on it. He doesn’t praise the widow so much as compare her to the bigger donors. It’s not how much a person puts in the collection plate—it’s what kind of sacrifice he or she makes to do it that matters. It’s generosity of heart that counts. Like any good people watcher, Jesus sees very clearly, maybe by how she’s dressed, maybe by her weariness, but probably because he sees into her heart, that she is making the ultimate sacrifice, giving all of herself to God, putting herself completely in God’s hands. And I think he’s especially interested in this because, in fact, that’s exactly what he is about to do.

Throughout Scripture, this message rings out loud and clear: those who appear to be at the bottom of the list are actually at the top! The ones who appear to be the weakest, the weariest, the lowest on the totem pole, yet who declare their dependence on God by giving all of who they are, are actually the ones who do great things for God and humanity. They do this because there’s nothing standing in the way of God working with them and in them and through them. Jacob is the smaller of two twins who becomes Israel, father of the 12 tribes. David is the scrawny shepherd boy who becomes the greatest king of Israel. Hannah is a childless woman with no power and no voice, who becomes the mother of Samuel, one of the greatest prophets in Israel. Mary, probably not even out of her teens, becomes the mother of Jesus. Jesus, himself a homeless rabbi from off-the-beaten-path Galilee, is actually the savior of the world.

The widow’s sacrifice foreshadows the living sacrifice Jesus will make in just four short days. As she gives her all—so will he: a backwater rabbi, small by the world’s standards, but by God’s standards? By God’s standards, Jesus is Savior of the world. The Apostle Paul says to the church in Corinth: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God….in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” This is the backwards way God does things: the more we give away, the more we have! This way of giving calls us to offer God our time, talent and treasure, not to boast about ourselves, but to honor and serve God. This way of giving requires us to be generous toward each other, toward the work and ministry of this congregation, toward the needs outside these walls. This way of giving depends on our willingness to trust and depend on God and to, when needed, sacrifice for God’s purposes. We can never reach the level of sacrifice offered on our behalf by Jesus Christ, but we can continue to respond to God’s great blessings, challenging ourselves as individuals and as a congregation to trust in God’s leading and guidance, knowing that God’s interest always is not in how much we have but what we do with it.

I’m sure very few people ever noticed that my dad was watching them as they shopped at the mall—I doubt the widow knew that she would forever be known for her generosity and sacrifice simply because Jesus saw her. A question you might consider as we think about our stewardship pledges for the coming year: if Jesus is watching you and me, and we can be sure he is, what would he say about us?

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