Monday, November 09, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 12:38-44

What About Widows?
November 8th, 2015
Mark 12:38-44

Today's Gospel reading comes from Jesus' teachings in the temple during Holy Week.  In those days, he taught many things recorded for us in the Gospels.  But today, we focus on two main ideas – both which set before us the widow.

In the first, Jesus warns against the Scribes, who “devour widow's houses”.  And in the second thought, Jesus commends the widow who offered her mites, or small coins to the temple treasury.

Let's take a closer look at how the widows fit in to Jesus' teaching in today's reading.

For starters, some background on what it means to be a widow.  By definition, a widow is someone who has faced death, up close and personal.  Some of you, even here today, know what this means.  You've lived it.  To be a widow, then, as now, means weeping and mourning.  It is to face sorrow and grief, which may dull over the years but will hardly be forgotten.

The fact that we have husbands and wives who are separated by death after years of life and love together – is another dread reminder of the fallen, sinful world in which we live.  Without the sin of Adam and Eve, which we inherit and perpetuate, there would be no such thing as widows, for there would be no such thing as death.

In ancient times, far more than today, to be a widow also meant financial disaster.  As if the sorrow of losing one's husband wasn't enough, a widow was left without a source of income and support.  She was forced to turn to others for such help.  If she had sons, they would take her in.  But if not, a widow's grief was then compounded by her financial ruin, as she joined the beggars and lived her sad days out in destitution.  Widows and orphans are grouped together, then, as the poorest of the poor, and the most in need of the kindness of strangers.

Our Lord God has a special concern for the widow.  The term is mentioned almost 80 times in Scripture. But not everyone shared such a concern for these vulnerable individuals.  Instead, some, like the Scribes who Jesus warns against, even preyed upon the widows.

These Scribes were a piece of work for many reasons.  Jesus paints them as pretentious showboats who love the attention and adulation of others.  Who make a great show of their grand religious extravagance, fancy robes, long prayers, and the like.  But all of this is window dressing.  It hides the wickedness behind the robes, the evil that they do.  They exploit even the vulnerable widows for their own greedy gain.  Their religion is really a sham.  It is self-serving, not neighbor-serving.  Not only should we watch out for people like this, but we especially should not be anything like them.

But are we?  Isn't there a little scribe or pharisee in every human heart that loves to make a show of our own righteousness?  If not to others, then perhaps to ourselves?  Or even in our own mind, or we imagine, before our God?  Maybe we're not so bold as the scribes, but the temptations to tout our own spiritual achievements abound.  But it's just as much of a show.

Where God would have humility, our hearts are filled with pride.  Where God would have us serve others, we are only too happy to be served.  After all, we tell ourselves, we deserve it.  Where God would have us sacrifice of ourselves for the vulnerable and needy – we find twisted ways to take advantage, and shirk our responsibilities, neglecting those who need our help.

So then Jesus sat and watched all those who came to offer their gifts toward the temple treasury.  And it seems many made quite a show of it.  The rich, especially, who put in large sums for all to see.  Look at me.  Look at my good works.  But Jesus is not impressed.  Until we see the poor widow.  She comes with two small copper coins, worth only a penny.  Who knows if it was even enough to buy a single meal.  But it was all she had.  Her entire net worth.  And she gave it all.

Jesus commends her, and points his disciples to her example.  The others gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Again we are condemned.  Maybe we escaped the accusation of the law, and could make the case that we're not as bad as the scribes, those showboating predators.  But who among us can live up to the standards of this widow?  Who can give all they have?  She puts us all to shame.  Like the rich young man who went away sad because he had great wealth, are we not also condemned in comparison to this widow who gave all she had to live on?  How could she do that, anyway?

The text doesn't spell it out, but the answer must lie in her faith.

Man does not live by bread alone.  And surely this widow didn't have enough, even to buy bread.  But she was rich in faith, for she generous gift confessed her trust in the one who provides for our needs.  The one who cares for us, body and soul.  The one in whom we have life, and have it abundantly.

Jesus doesn't need your treasures, but he desires your heart.  Jesus doesn't need your mites, your dollars, your wealth or inheritance.  But he wants you to belong to him entirely.  And he would even give his all to make it so.  He purchased and won us from sin, death and the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  That you and I may be his own...

Jesus, a man well acquainted with grief and sorrow.  A man who knew the weaknesses and burdens we carry.  One who knew poverty from his humble birth in Bethlehem, and as a man had no place even to lay his head.  He who was stripped of all belongings, even the clothes on his back which they divided among themselves.  He who was deserted by his friends.  He who was forsaken by his Father.  He who was born of a virgin, and whose death pierced his own mother's heart.  But even in his death he cared for her, a widow, “woman behold your son, John, behold your mother”.  Just as he cares for all widows and orphans and beggars and all the bedraggled masses of sinners that ever looked to him for salvation.  He gives it.  He gives it all.

Elijah, a prophet of God, once cared for a widow and her son at Zarepeth.  She first showed her faith by hospitality, giving the last of what she had to live on to provide a meal for this traveling man of God. “Let's eat the last of it, and then die” she said.  Through a divine miracle, she was given food to eat, daily bread and oil that didn't run out.  So far our Old Testament reading today.

But the very next verses go on to tell how the woman's son died anyway.  Then she turned her anger on this wandering prophet.  But an even greater miracle was afoot.  For now the Lord would raise her dead son through this prophet.  Her weeping would be turned to joy.

Jesus is the greater son of a widow, and the greater prophet than Elijah.  His sustenance never fails or runs out.  Our sins never exhaust the supply of his merits, won a the cross.  He never fails to invite us to his table, giving bread and wine that are the very body and blood of God for poor, grieving sinners to eat and drink, and live.

And he who died for all scribes and widows and orphans and pharisees and even for you – also rose from the dead for you and for all.  He gives hope to all who mourn the wages of sin, to all who have tasted the bitterness of death, to all who are poor.

Therefore love one another.  Give generously to those who need.  Care for the least among you, even the widow.  And give thanks to him who gives hope even to the hopeless, and has comfort for all who mourn, even widows, whose Son died and rose to make it so, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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