24th Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2015
Mark 12: 38-44
How many of you have heard this story before? It’s kind of an old saw to those of us who grew up in church. It was often preached or taught when people talked about giving to church. This widow was lifted up as an prime example of how we ought to trust in God to supply everything we needed, and then we could cheerfully let go of our own earnings to support the church’s ministry – both keeping on the lights and reaching out into the world to do God’s work. We were supposed to admire the widow’s faith and faithfulness, and do likewise.
But there’s another possibility. Jesus has been talking about the famous and powerful teachers of the Law – the Biblical scholars and legal interpreters of how God’s Law should be applied to everyday life. They were among the elite of the church – and were the primary source of Jesus’ arguments with the “Church.” They are always trying to trap him into incriminating himself, so they can get the Romans to arrest and try him and get rid of him.
In our reading, he’s pretty scornful about the ‘faithfulness’ of the Scribes – those bigwigs who parade around expecting celebrity status. Does ‘devouring widow’s houses’ mean that they interpret the temple tax laws so strictly that widows and other poor people are deprived of their living? It could also mean that they have moved people into the homes of widows so that their tiny incomes are stretched to the limit? Remember that there is no social security or any sort of safety net for widows, orphans, or foreigners in that day. If you husband died, you lived on whatever was left, or you son provided for you, or you married again so that you didn’t starve. In this interpretation, Jesus accuses the Scribes of creating a system in which the last of her resources is used to meet their requirements.
In either interpretation there is and ‘ought.’ In the story of the widow as faithful the church’s requirement for the temple tax, we see her lifted up as the model of trust that God will provide. The message is that we ought to do the same. That’s OK, it’s a good message for those who need to become more generous, who need to participate more in the ministry of their church by financial support of it’s ministry, who need to get a chance to discover that in God’s economy, the giver always receives more than the one who receives.
In the interpretation of the story as an indictment of the Scribes, we see them lifted up as hardhearted and the widow as a victim of their lack of care for the least fortunate. We are reminded that we ought to be better at interpreting God’s intentions with generosity and care for those who need more from us.
I don’t think there’s room for ‘ought’ in church. As a Lutheran preacher, I am trained to preach Law and Gospel. The Law pinpoints our failures to live out of the love with which we have been loved. The Law accuses us of our self-involved living, seeing only what works for us, and not what the world needs and how we can help.
‘Ought’ is all about the law. What we ought to do, what we ought to think, and by pointing that out, driving us to ask for forgiveness. That‘s where the Gospel comes in. The Gospel tells us that God loves us anyway. The Gospel tells us that we are forgiven and treasured because of God’s grace, not because we have done something worthwhile, but in spite of our failures. The Gospel drives us into the arms of God’s love for us – so great that God was willing to give up everything that seems important to us in order to show us how enormous and faithful that love is.
So if this story is not about what we ought to do. If it is not the opportunity for the Gospel writer to shake his finger at us and say, “See, this is how it should be!,” then what is the message – the Gospel message?
In all the comings and goings in the temple, Jesus notices this woman. The rest of the world has taken no notice of her or her meager offering, as she quietly drops her whole life into the offering plate. Jesus sees her trust and perhaps her fear, while all the rich kids are showing off, perhaps at her expense. Her sacrifice does not go unnoticed. That’s the Gospel. That God sees even the tiniest offering of prayer, of commitment, of our pennies, as a response to the love that frees us from ‘ought’. This story comes right before Jesus’ arrest and trial, so perhaps Jesus sees himself in the offering of this woman, who is willing to give her whole life. He’s not about to give up his life because he ‘ought to,’ but because he can; because he loves God and loves us so much that he’s willing to risk it all. The lesson for us is that nothing we do out of love for God goes unnoticed. We are not graded on the largeness of the amount or even the effectiveness of our efforts. The message of the Gospel is never about ‘ought;’ it is always about love. So go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.