Wednesday, November 18, 2015

All of LIfe

Mark 12:38-44
All of Life[1]
I’ve told many of you about my Grandfather, Harold Brehm, who was born and raised in Talmage. He served both as an elder and a trustee in the Methodist church. When I was a young “preacher boy” studying for the ministry in college, he proudly told me that his minister never once mentioned money from the pulpit.  At the time, that impressed me. Later I realized that the Bible, and especially Jesus, have a lot to say about money. I realized it wasn’t such a good idea never to mention money from the pulpit if I wanted to make the Bible’s message the focus of my preaching.
The reality is that our attitude toward our possessions—including our money—is a very important part of our lives. And that includes our spiritual lives. How we relate to the things of this world reveals a great deal about our relationship to God, our convictions about the meaning of life, and what really determines the choices we make.[2] I’m not sure that we are always aware of this fact. Our culture encourages us to measure our worth as a person by the kind of car we drive, or which designer’s name is on our clothes and accessories, or by the size of our financial portfolio. The Bible makes it clear, however, that the quality of our lives comes from what’s in our hearts, not the labels we wear on our clothes.
In our lesson from the Gospel of Mark for today, Jesus addresses this issue. It would seem that there were religious leaders who were so driven by their own conceit that they made a great show with their beautiful robes and their “presence” in worship.[3] He made it clear that it was all for show. He said that their “long prayers” were simply “for the sake of appearance” (Mk.12:40). In other words, they wanted to look like they were spiritual.[4] But the fact that their real agenda was about themselves was revealed by the indictment Jesus made that they “devour widows’ houses”![5] In scripture, widows, like orphans and resident immigrants, came under God’s special care.[6] But these “spiritual leaders” were somehow defrauding some of the most vulnerable people in their society. It seems clear where their hearts really were—wrapped up in their own self-interest, their own image, and their own greed.[7]
The light of Jesus’ words exposed not only the religious leaders, but the prominent people in the community as well. The Gospel lesson tells about an episode when he was at the Temple, watching the crowd making their contributions. We don’t know exactly what kind of mechanism they used for this, but apparently it was something that was very public.[8] And there were “many rich people” who “put in large sums” (Mk. 12:41). Now, in that day and time, contributions were made in coins, and so it would have been obvious to all present that these “pillars of the community” were contributing large amounts of money.
Jesus doesn’t actually say anything directly about these people or their gifts. He doesn’t necessarily say that they were giving large contributions just to gain attention. But he contrasts their substantial gifts with the seemingly insignificant contribution of a poor widow. The conversion of ancient currency into modern equivalents is not exactly precise, but I think the translation captures the situation: she “put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (Mk. 12:42). What is not spelled out is that these contributions were given to support the Temple, which was a magnificent structure even by the standards of our time. And it supported a rather elaborate structure of priests and other attendants who served in the Temple. Someone could easily ask what difference her meager contribution could possibly have made to such a massive institution.[9]
But Jesus takes a different approach. He doesn’t consider what percent of the Temple’s budget her two coins supported. He focuses on what her contribution represented in terms of her personal wealth. As it turns out, these two small coins were all she had to live on! By contrast, the “large sums” given by leading members of the community were offerings that they could spare! Jesus said it this way: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:44).
I must confess that it’s hard to understand what would motivate someone who had so little to give everything she had as an offering to the Temple. But perhaps there are a couple of clues here. First, these two coins represented a fraction of what it would cost to even feed herself for one day. And second, the Greek word that is translated “what she had to live on” also means “her life.”[10] It may be that she had reached the place where she had exhausted her own resources, and she was offering herself completely to God, trusting him to care for her needs.
It’s funny how we wait to do that until we are in dire straits. When we lack for nothing, we can forget that all that we have and all that we are comes from God’s hand as a gift. But I think Jesus’ reflections about this widow’s offering serves as a dramatic reminder of the truth that our attitudes about our possessions reveal the true nature of our relationship with God. Those who gave what they could spare may very well have felt satisfied with themselves. But they hadn’t offered themselves completely to God as the widow did. That’s the real meaning of stewardship. Whether you give what you can spare or all that you have, the point is that we pledge our gifts as a way of reflecting our commitment to dedicate all of life to God.[11]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/8/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 88-89, where he discusses stewardship under the heading of the discipline of “simplicity.” He says that it is an inner attitude that becomes an outward way of life, and he defines this attitude in three ways: “to receive what we have as a gift from God”; “to know that it is God’s business, not ours, to care for what we have”; and “to have our goods available to others.” Cf. also Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 200-201, where he discusses stewardship under the heading of the doctrine of creation. He says, “To say that we are God’s creatures is to emphasize our total dependence on God. … Acknowledgement of total dependence—with thanksgiving—is the first characteristic of a right relationship with God.” He goes on to say (p. 201) that we are also creatures whom “God has equipped and empowered to be God’s partners and to participate in Gods’ own work in and for the world.”
[3] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:681. She says, “Although not all scribes would be in the position to indulge in ostentatious display of this sort, those who were retainers of the wealthy high priestly families around Jerusalem might have taken on the trappings of wealth and power.” For example, the scribes in Galilee appear to be somewhere in the middle of the social scale, and would not have been able to make such a show. From a different perspective, Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16, 852, says that the “stole” in Jewish usage was associated with priests, therefore, Marcus concludes that “the NT scribes were probably priests and Levites” (cf. further ibid., 855-56). Nevertheless, Perkins, “Mark,” NIB VIII:682 acknowledges that “The story of the wise scribe (12:28-34) makes it clear that this description of the scribes should not be treated as being stereotypical of all scribes in the Jewish community. It describes the rich and powerful at their worst.” Cf. similarly Marcus, Mark 8-16, 852.
[4] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 854: “In the honor-conscious Greco-Roman society, such distinctions would have been important signs of status, but in the Markan context they fall under the judgment that in God’s end-time dominion, the first (protoi) will become last (cf. 10:31).”
[5] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 855, where he says that this was probably related to actions taken by the scribes after a woman’s husband has died and bequeathed her the estate. He cites Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, 1318, who suggests that “the scribe, acting as a probate lawyer, has cheated the widow out of the estate by overcharging for his services.” Marcus suggests (Mark 8-16, 856), “Another possibility is that the passage has in view the forcible seizure of property by the priests, who are also scribes, for nonpayment of tithes.” He cites  Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.206 in support.
[6] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 855: “Widows, along with orphans, resident aliens, and the poor in general are often mentioned in the OT as objects of special concern to God since they are without the usual social support systems. Their well-being, therefore, is a sacred trust, and to violate it, for example by defrauding them, is an especially heinous crime (see, e.g., Jer 7:6-7; Ezek 22:7; Zech 7:10-14; Mal 3:5).”
[7] Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 233, where he observes that in this passage the greed of the religious leaders is exposed, “its ugliness compounded by the hypocrisy of trying to hide their avarice behind ostentatious piety.”
[8] See Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:682. Contrast Marcus, Mark 8-16, 857-59, where he offers the opinion that this story is a “historicized parable.”
[9] Cf. Williamson, Mark, 234, where he observes the irony that “She gave this to the Temple, the extravagance and imminent destruction of which will be the subject of the very next verses.”
[10] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 858.
[11] Cf. The Book of Confessions, “The Heidelberg Catechism” 4.086 (p. 58), which asks the question why we are called to good works in general if we are redeemed by grace. The answer could also provide a motivation for stewardship as a specific type of “good work”: “Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.”  Cf. also  The Book of Order 2015-2017 W-7.5003 (p.149): “As stewards of God’s creation who hold the earth in trust, the people of God are called to a. use the earth’s resources responsibly without plundering, polluting, or destroying, b. develop technological methods and processes that work together with the earth’s environment to preserve and enhance life, c. produce and consume in ways that make available to all people what is sufficient for life, d. work for responsible attitudes and practices in procreation and reproduction, e. use and shape earth’s goods to create beauty, order, health, and peace in ways that reflect God’s love for all creatures.” On the basis of this very full and specific statement, the paragraph concludes, “In gratitude for the gifts of creation, the faithful bring material goods to God in worship as a means of expressing praise, as a symbol of their self-offering, and as a token of their commitment to share earth’s goods.”

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