Mark 12:38-44 – The 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, November 11, 2012
“…but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had…” (Mark 12:44)
What if I’m wrong?
There is a remarkably simple Biblical passage, near the final pages and chapters of Mark’s brief Gospel, where an impoverished widow gives her last two cents to the synagogue’s treasury.
Jesus contrasts her apparent generosity with the religious authority’s arrogance, pretentiousness and stinginess.
Since my earliest Sunday school adventures—in the era of grandfatherly Eisenhower and Camelot Kennedy—the poor widow had been dubbed generous. She did what all people should do. My Sunday school teachers had no problem explaining her actions to us munchkins. Look, kids, those scribes were nasty, but she happily gave everything to God’s work! You go forth, follow Jesus and give your pennies! Keep a smile on your faces! I don’t recall any of my more mature studies at seminary refuting the fundamental lessons of this event: be humble, be generous, give everything you can.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement (and of my denomination) famously sermonized on money: “Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.”
Those seem perfect cheers for and from the faithful, and isn’t the impoverished widow the ideal Gospel cheerleader to encourage that “holy trinity” of honest work, frugality and stewardship?
* * *
Over ten years ago, I settled into my senior pastor’s chair, cocooned in my long clerical robe and fancy stole. I listened to the associate pastor’s sermon on Mark 12:38-44, on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the apparent generosity of the poor widow. On this “go and do likewise” passage of gain . . . save . . . give.
You should know a few things about me before I tell you what happens next.
If you asked me if I were a good preacher, I’d probably bow my head and mutter, “Aw shucks, I’m only trying to please God and follow Jesus.” And yet I think I am a good preacher. Ego. Self-confidence. Even, gasp, a little (a lot) arrogant?
I didn’t have a good relationship with the associate pastor. I’d “inherited” her from a prior senior pastor and, while I respected her gifts and graces, I never felt a connection. Some professional relationships work. Some don’t. In my view, we pendulumed between working and not working together, never fully trusting each other. Not her fault. Not mine.
She wowed me in that sermon.
Honestly, I don’t recall her examples as she shared about the penny-gifting widow. With the passage of years, I’m confident I won’t do justice to her specific conclusions. But I recall how I felt. Since my Sunday school lessons, I’d seen the poor woman as generous, a darn fine example of what Christians should do. But what if Jesus’ point was less about her anonymous generosity and more about how institutional churches cajole the faithful into giving more than they should?
Was that really my colleague’s view on these verses?
I’m. Not. Sure.
Maya Angelou wrote, “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I vividly recall how I felt when the fellow pastor I didn’t get along with preached on the “poor widow:” What if I’ve been wrong?
Let me emphasize . . . if you found a copy of her old sermon, you’d likely discover that what she wrote and what I remember are two different things. No surprise. Preachers/writers prepare sublime words and the listeners/readers minds wander hither and yon. Maybe they hear, maybe they don’t. Maybe I hear. Maybe I don’t.
But whatever she said, I discerned Mark’s story in new, unsettling ways. What if Jesus’ point was less about her anonymous generosity and more about how institutional churches cajole the faithful into giving more than they should?
Her words were a helpful wake-up-and-smell-other-truths slap against my arrogant face. (And, by the way, Long Robe Larry, don’t be thinking you’re such a swell preacher!)
Her words prompted me to question my casual and comfortable reading of a Gospel story.
Her words made my long robe feel heavier and tightened the fancy stole around my neck.
We so easily read the Bible with only our eyes. We avoid scripture that upsets us; we embrace verses that coddle us. All of us do this, whether we’re liberal, conservative, orthodox or ________. But every once in a while, we get our vision rearranged—often by the person we least expect—and learn something new.