“What’s It All For?”
Sunday, November 8, 2015
24th Sunday after Pentecost
[Sixth in series: “Service Make a Difference”]
This is not the first time that most of us have heard this story. It is often referred to as “The Story of the Widow’s Mite” and it is often held up as the shining example of sacrificial giving. Countless stewardship sermons have been preached using this simple text to show how Jesus points to this poor widow as a model for giving to the church. The thing is, I’m not sure that this use of the text actually grasps the whole of Jesus’ meaning. I think maybe Jesus has more for us to hear in this story; more than we may have heard before.
Let us pray…Lord, We come to your Word today with open minds and hearts, eager to hear what you have to say to us this morning. We pray that your Holy Spirit will lead us to a deeper understanding of your call on our lives. We come in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
It is interesting that the beginning of the scripture reading this morning consists of a critique of “the powers that be” in the Jewish culture. When Jesus warns the disciples about “the teachers of the Law”, he is talking about those who interpret and administer the laws of the church, not the civil government. Remember that we are talking about a very different culture from our own. In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time, the Scribes were members of the sect of the Pharisees and wielded immense power. They were the ones who taught Jewish Law to the people; that meant they were also the ones who decided what interpretation to teach. They frequently came into conflict with Jesus and his followers over religious doctrine. These were the leaders who did their best to get along with the Roman occupying forces. They had a vested interest in the status quo. They profited from the offerings made at the Temple by rich and poor alike. Jesus viewed this group as corrupt and condemned. These leaders of the Jewish community were sucking the life out of their poorest citizens. It was this corruption that caused Jesus to cleanse the Temple…
Matthew 21-12-13 tells us: “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
It was because of this corruption that Jesus pointed to the Temple and told the disciples: “Do you see all these buildings? Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2)
Jesus had harsh words for the ruling establishment of the Jewish people. The Jewish leaders were not only responsible for the spiritual lives of the people, but also their temporal lives. There was no separation of church and state for the Jews in Jesus’ time. Jesus found these leaders utterly corrupt and condemned them, like the Temple, to fall. The second half of the story introduces us to the poor widow who gives all that she has. She sacrifices everything to support this culture that Jesus identifies as utterly corrupt. This widow gives all that she has to an institution that is going to be completely destroyed. Is he pointing to her as a model for giving? Or, is he looking deeper at what it means to sacrifice everything for something that may seem irredeemable? I wonder if Jesus wants us to think about the widow’s offering and what it might mean in a culture of corruption and greed. Is it possible that Jesus points to the promise that the days are numbered for any religious regime that exists for its own profit? Is it possible that the widow represents those who are fooled into giving for the right reasons to the wrong group? Does Jesus foretell a time when all corruption, both inside and outside of the church, will be condemned as he returns?
I think it is important for us to try to understand who this widow might represent. If she is the model giver, then we need to be cautious not to take advantage of her giving. The church should be above reproach in its stewardship of the gifts it receives. If she is the one being taken advantage of by the corruption, then we need to “Beware of those scribes…” and stay away. But, let us take a wider view and consider this. The whole of humanity, the entire world was corrupt and filled with sinners. More than once in the Bible, God looks at Creation and declares it to be wicked. It would seem that we are the corrupt, irredeemable, and condemned. Yet, God sent Jesus to redeem us from our own sin. The story of our redemption is a story about someone giving all that he had, “the whole of his life,” for something that is corrupt and condemned: all of humanity; the whole world.
That is the context of this story…This is the end of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s Gospel. After this, Mark gives us the story of Jesus telling of the Temple’s destruction and then we move directly into the Last Supper and the Passion Narrative. Why does Jesus hold up the poor widow at this point in his own story? Perhaps it is because Jesus calls the disciples – the whole church – to himself and then he points out this poor widow and her way of giving. Could it be that Jesus compares her willingness to give everything to his own sacrifice? Could it be that her action reinforces the call of Christ to the church to give the whole of life for the sake of those who do not deserve such a gift? Is it possible that Jesus wants us to hear the call to be a sign in and for the world of a new reality which God makes available to people in Jesus Christ? Does this story point us to the hope that all our service to a world that seems not to change; a world that refuses to be redeemed…Is there hope that our service will change the world in Jesus’ name? I believe that is exactly what this story says.
Consider these words from the constitution of one mainline denomination: “The church will be a sign by healing and reconciling and binding up wounds…ministering to the needs of poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless…engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice…giving itself and its substance to the service of those who suffer…sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world. The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life.”[i]
It seems to me that this model for giving is much more than simply challenging us to give to the ministries of this church. This model is a call on our lives and the life of this congregation to give all that we have in service to God’s kingdom on earth. For six weeks we have discussed the promise we make to support the church with our service. We have looked at numerous scripture passages that call us to serve others. We have heard again that Jesus taught that love for God and love for others should be the basis for everything we do. We have gone out of our way to actually practice service to the community in which we live. And finally, today, we see what all this service is for…We are called to serve, to give our whole lives for that which is only worthy to be condemned. We are called to love as God loved and offer our service to people and to a world that may seem irredeemable. The truth is, we are all irredeemable and yet, our gracious God redeemed us anyway. That’s what it’s all for. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, Book of Order, 2005-2007 (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2005), G-3.0200-3.0400 (italics added).