February 10, 2019 – Keeping Up With Appearances

By Pastor Bob Barnett, Faith Community Church, Edgartown, MA

Mark 12:38-44 (NIV 1984)

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. 43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything– all she had to live on.”


Next week, on Thursday, our nation will celebrate Valentine’s Day. Each year on February 14, people exchange cards, candy or flowers with their special “valentine.” St. Valentine’s Day is named for a Christian martyr, in fact there are several martyrdom stories associated with various people named Valentine. The most famous one may have been Saint Valentine of Rome who was probably imprisoned for ministering to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire and for performing Christian weddings for soldiers – Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry. According to legend, during his imprisonment Saint Valentine restored sight to the blind daughter of his judge, and before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell.

In the 19th century, mass-produced Valentines of embossed paper were given – the first printing in the US was up in Worcester. In 1868, the British chocolate company Cadbury began selling decorated boxes of chocolates in the shape of a heart for Valentine’s Day. Boxes of filled chocolates quickly became associated with the holiday, along with exchanging cards. Today, the average valentine’s spending in the U.S is over $130 a person.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday that we Americans do not want to miss. Most men tend to procrastinate when it comes to preparing for the celebration. We wait for the last minute to rush to purchase a card, chocolates or flowers. Sometimes we forget altogether. That happened to me early in our marriage. I was in the Army and was just too busy to remember (that’s the excuse I give myself). All I could do was give her a belated greeting. I gambled on my wife believing that old cliché, “It’s the thought that counts.” Some Christians have even used the story of the poor widow to justify their paltry or non-existent generosity. God accepted the meager offering from the widow because it is the thought that counts!” I don’t think that is what the story really is about.

The widow’s offering is at the end of Mark 12, verses 41-44. But we will link it with the preceding passage in verses 38-40. The two passages go together. They display a reversal of status: pretentious teachers of the law who exploit widows compared to poor, victimized widows who show up the showiness of the wealthy. You remember that Jesus has been speaking to various individuals in the temple – the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees, and most recently a scribe. They’ve been asking all kinds of clever questions, far too clever, of Jesus, and Jesus has been responding to them.

Jesus denounces the self-centered pursuit of recognition and esteem

Jesus is in the Temple, in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost area, inside the wall, covering a large portion of the temple mount. He’s teaching and issues a warning to His disciples and anyone who is earshot: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes. They put on prayer shawls just as other men did. But theirs were longer than was customary – the touched to the ground, they were ornate with elaborate tassels and decorations. Wearing these robes told everyone about their lofty status in the Jewish community.

They liked marketplaces greetings when they were out and about. It was customary for common folk to stand when a dignified person such as a scribe came into their presence. We do that for judges and in the military, for commanders and senior officers. Such greetings showed respect and honor and the lawyers craved honor. At synagogues, they expected the best seats, either on the front row or on benches along the side of the room. Common people sat on the floor. And at banquets they were seated at the head tables. It was all about appearances, how did they measure up to other people. These displays of devotion proved to themselves and everybody else that they were important.

It gets worse. Jesus singles out one particular sinister activity. They devour widows’ houses, covering up their crimes with still more superficial piety—their long prayers. It is not known exactly what the nature of “devouring widows’ houses” was in Jesus’ time, but scholars assume that it was a serious breach of trust and a terrible crime. it is a vivid phrase for taking material advantage; “eat someone out of house and home.” it could mean excessive legal fees, mismanaging widows’ estates as legal trustees, taking houses as pledges for unpaid debt, or exploiting their hospitality and trust. Since Jesus connects this crime with prayer, he may be describing the fraudulent means by which religious professionals charged a type of payment for prayer. We see that today with some TV preachers – send in a gift, buy a prayer cloth, and the televangelist says he will pray for you.

The Greek word translated “devour” suggests an action of “consuming completely.” Fire consumes whatever is in its way. Birds devour the seed sown along the path. The Prodigal Son devoured or consumed his share of father’s estate. Whoever or whatever is the object of the devouring will be completely consumed as a result. In financial matters, a devoured victim would be left penniless. Dependent and exploited widows are bilked out of their money and property by cunning, dishonest lawyers.

Jesus condemns the teachers of the law for their calloused disregard for the poor. Those who are revered by others often think they have a license to prey on the weak and vulnerable. They may know what the greatest commands are, but they do not fulfill them. They love recognition more than they love God, and they trample on those who are already crushed.  Jesus warned that those who robbed widows would be destroyed.  They will be punished most severely: As teachers, the scribes were charged with heavy responsibility. Yet they failed to teach the truth and exploited and devoured the poor among their people. They did not recognize how despicable their insincerity is and fool themselves into believing that human admiration for their piety wins them the admiration of God. The scribes were rejected because of their self-centered pursuit of recognition and esteem.

Jesus applauds unselfish sacrifice

And now Jesus moves into the Court of Women, so named because both men and women could enter. It was a far as women could go. Here was the temple treasury located in a place where every Jew could make a donation.  In the court were “trumpet chests” so named because they were shaped like the Jewish shofar. There were 13 in all.  One or more received the half-shekel offerings required for men as payment for the temple tax. Another chest would contain the freewill offerings that given voluntarily by both men and women. These freewill offerings were used for the building and upkeep of the temple.

Jesus sits down and watches the crowd. First come the rich people and they give a lot of money. Apparently, they made enough show of it that the size of their gift was noticeable. Perhaps here in the temple their act of giving is accompanied by a trumpet blast. That’s what some people did. Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount, “when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” I think that the context, the teachers of the law wanting recognition, that it is likely that these rich people made some show of their giving. That would be particularly true if some of these guys were lawyers who devoured the fortunes of widows. Jesus has little regard for them. These wealthy donors give from their abundance, but they do not sacrifice. The amount of their gift had little effect on their overall wealth. They gave hardly anything in terms of their subsistence.

Not so, the widow. Jesus singles out a widow from among the hundreds of people who may have passed through the temple treasury that day. Not just a widow, but “a poor widow,” possibly one who had been robbed of her house. This was possibly the most famous charitable donation in history; more famous than that of Bill Gates, or the families of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.  Her offering is only a pittance — two very small copper coins, the smallest Greek coin in which Mark translates it into the smallest Roman coin. It had the least value of any in circulation in the time of Jesus. It was worth about 1/100 of the average pay that a common unskilled laborer made for one day’s work. Today, here in Massachusetts, that’d be less than one dollar. The amount the widow had to give was less than ten minutes’ worth of the minimum wage.

What possible effect is a couple of dollars going to have on this palatial temple in Jerusalem? Would the temple treasury have missed her few cents? Absolutely not. She had every excuse, every justification for saying that she had too little to give.  She could have observed the wealthy folk with their amounts and noted that it made little impact on their lifestyles. It wasn’t sacrifice; it didn’t cost them anything. And perhaps she could have reasoned, ‘Well, God doesn’t expect me to give that which I’m dependent on for survival.’ Yet, she gave out of her poverty. Jesus praises this woman for giving “all she had to live on.” This poor widow gives all that she has to live on, which is next to nothing, Contrast this with those who wanted their giving to show their piety. The widow probably didn’t want to be noticed; she didn’t expect honor and may have been ashamed at her meager gift.

Jesus values the giver’s heart much more than the gift’s amount

The widow makes her contribution, but by any normal standard it is an insignificant amount. Yet Jesus’ said that the widow gave more than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she put in everything– all she had to live on. Rich people gave out of their abundance (what they could spare). but widow gave out of her poverty (she had nothing to spare). She could have held back, given nothing or just one of the two copper coins. No one would fault her. But Jesus says that it was all that she owned. Considered in this way, the widow’s offering was superior to the others,

This comment on the widows offering was not an attack on wealth. It was an attack on a value system that takes the amount of the gift more into account than the dedication of the giver.  Jesus’ value system is different: the money is not as important as was the attitude, the giver’s devotion to God. The Lord is not concerned so much about what we give, but in how we give. I am not saying that you should give away everything you have. That is not the point of the story. I am saying that it is your heart that matters. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. A cheerful giver has the right attitude.

It was not as if an urgent call came to the widow that the temple was in need of repair. Some priest had not suggested to her that God would see what she would give and reward her. No. She gave spontaneously out of the largeness of her heart. This woman seems to be bursting with love for God as she enters the Court of Women, and the receptacles are there and she says ‘Lord, have everything! I want You to have everything!’  It’s not difficult to give, say, ten percent of a lot of money. That’s not difficult to do, because we don’t need a great deal of money to live and survive and have fulfilling lives. But she’s giving everything. She’s giving everything. She had no savings, no investments, no guarantees, no bank balance. Tomorrow she will rise and try to find some money to buy food. She gives everything. Of all the people in the world, she had the perfect excuse to lay back and not give.

Jesus lifts up the widow as an example for God’s people and turns upside-down the normal human evaluation of people. What matters in Jesus’ eyes is our heart-felt devotion has greater value than how we appear to other people to God. The gift does not matter as much as the giver. By such a criterion, the first will be last and the last will be first.

The attitude of the rich is the same as the teachers of the law. Wealthy people came to the temple to display their wealth through excessive offerings. Ostentatious giving filled the Temple treasury with a large surplus of funds. The rich came for the sake of appearance, with their friends and admirers. The widow came alone and cared little about anyone’s opinion except God’s. She gives because she loves God. It goes in this life as an unrewarded act of gratitude.

In 1970 the BBC assigned to a popular commentator a special documentary on a relatively unknown nun. This reporter traveled to Asia. He walked through the streets of one of the poorest and most populated cities looking for a woman who served the dying. He finally found her working in the street amid filth, garbage, disease and poverty, that were greater than he had ever seen. But what struck that cynical reporter more than the squalor and decadence was the deep, warm, glow on her face and the compassion in her eyes.

He asked her, “Do you do this every day?”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, “It is my mission. It is how I serve and love my Lord.”

“How many months have you been doing this?” inquired the stunned reporter.

“Months? Not months but years, about eighteen” answered the woman.

“Eighteen!” exclaimed the BBC commentator, “You have been working here in these streets for eighteen years?”

“Yes, it is my privilege to be here. These are my people. These are the ones my Lord has given me to love,” the woman said with a simple but joyful reply.

“Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel like quitting and letting someone else take over your ministry? After all, you are beginning to get older.”

“Oh, no,” she replied, “this is where the Lord wants me, and this is where I am happy to be. I feel young when I am here. The Lord is so good to me. How privileged I am to serve him.”5

Mother Teresa of Calcutta served the poor for over 26 years without recognition. Every day she would rise early and walk the streets in poverty to comfort the dying. She did not seek attention or fame. She only sought to serve. When the widow entered the Temple to deposit her two coins, she was not trying to impress anyone. She had only one priority to love and serve her God by giving all that she had. That is our example. What really counts in Jesus’ eyes is our heart-felt devotion to Him and not how we appear to other people. ble 3″