I’m not allowed to eat at Mc Donald’s, except on very special occasions, once a year. When you go into McDonald’s you usually find that those who serve behind the counter are spotty kids who can only just bring themselves to mumble words asking you what you want. But they always manage to ask if you want to ‘go large’. For a few extra pence you can get a whole lot more junk food that you don’t really need.
And have you noticed that people will by an extra large Big Mac, extra large fries and then their conscience is pricked and they ask for a diet coke.
We are a society that wants more for less. Who can resist the buy one get one free bargains in Tesco. We all like getting things for nothing. Wealth, getting things impresses us as human beings.
You see it in those magazines like Hello and OK, and others when they are filled with opulent houses of the rich and famous, over the top wedding ceremonies, articles about lifestyles of celebrities. Wealth impresses us and some people like to flaunt it for all to see.
And so we come to the gospel reading for today about the contrast between the teachers of the law and the widow. Mark sets the scene very sparingly. He gives little in the way of background information.
Leading up to the passage set for today we have the record of Jesus explaining what the greatest commandment is. He answers in response to a question from one of the teachers of the law and Jesus says that the greatest commandment is ‘love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Immediately prior to the passage Jesus quotes Psalm 110 in a discussion about him being the Christ. The teachers saw Christ as the son of David and, as such, he should be able to do what David did and rid the Jews of oppression. He then goes on to criticise the teachers of the law and makes a series of charges against them and then contrasts their behaviour with that of the widow. And I want to reflect on that contrast tonight.
The actions of the teachers of the law
Jesus talks about the practices of the teachers of the law. These were the professional interpreters of the religious laws. They were responsible for copying, editing and studying the sacred texts and explaining them to the people. They were learned men, some of the few in society who could read and write. Having these skills gave them power over others.
Over time their skills had given them an elevated status in society. And it that status, that position that Jesus talks about here. He warns the crowds against these teachers who would have been respected and esteemed by most people, criticising them for making a show of their faith.
Jesus calls them insincere, he calls their intentions into question, he accuses them of unethical practices.
Jesus says that they like to walk around in long flowing robes. In the east a long robe which swept along the ground as you walked was a sign of a high status in society. It was the kind of robe in which you couldn’t hurry or work. It was a sign of leisure.
It may even have been that these men wore outsize tassles on the edge of their robes (these reminded them that they were the people of God) to give them special prominence. They liked to dress in a way that drew attention to themselves and to the honour that they enjoyed. Jesus criticises their flamboyance and sense of self importance.
They liked greetings in the market place, they love to be greeted with and respect and the been being greeted like that which just added to their sense of self importance. You can imagine people greeting these people with great flowery gestures like people react today, some people any way, when they see their favourite celebrity.
These teachers liked their front seats in the synagogue. In the synagogue, in front of the ark where the sacred texts were kept, and facing the rest of the congregation was a bench where the top people sat. No-one sitting there could be possibly be missed as they were in full view of the admiring congregation.
It still happens in some churches today where the elders sit on chairs at the front facing the congregation. And I remember when I was a local preacher, taking services in a village chapel where at the back, on a slope were pews, at the front where those hard wooden benches with backs that could be swung either way. The pews were for the posh people and the benches were for those who couldn’t afford to pay for a pew.
These teachers liked the seat of honour at a banquet. At banquets your place was determined by your status. The place of honour was on the right of the host, second sat on the left next to the host and so on alternating right and left round the table. It was easy to tell the esteem and honour someone was held in by where they sat.
Then comes a strange accusation from Jesus. He accuses these teachers of devouring widow’s houses. It was a savage charge. One of the early writers, a Jewish Pharisee called Josephus, says that at certain times in Jewish history these teachers got certain women involved in their schemes and their plotting.
Now these teachers were not allowed to charge for their services, they were to offer their teaching for free. They were supposed to have a trade to earn money to keep themselves. But these religious leaders had managed to persuade people that there was no higher duty or privilege than to support a teacher in comfort. Those who gave were promised a higher place in heaven. And women were easy pray.
As so often in history, and in the life of the church, women have been abused, oppressed and imposed on. And the teachers of the law did just that.
Finally Jesus criticises the teachers for their long prayers. These prayers were notorious. They were offered not so much to God but to other people. They were said in places and in ways where no-one could fail to see how pious they were. Their prayers were a ‘show’.
Jesus gives quite a damning indictment of the actions and words of the teachers of the law. In fact it’s probably one of the sternest remarks that Jesus ever gave. And I wonder whether the things Jesus criticises in the teachers still go on today. We may not wear long flowing robes, or prayer shawls, but I wonder if, in the church we are at times like the teachers, with a religion of show, a religion is is about the outward appearance and not living out the faith in daily life.
With the advent of CCTV cameras all over the place it’s not very often that we’re not being watched by someone. Do we act and behave in a particular way because we think we are being watched, because we think we have to, because it makes us look good and others see us in a good light?
I remember a previous church which was, in the past run by one family and that family insisted on holding all the positions – treasurer, stewards, organist, they had a majority on Church Council because they believed they deserved it because they were from that family. They saw it as a right, their right to have those positions and didn’t see it as a responsibility.
No-one in the church has a right to any position, any office in the church. Everyone who has a position in the life of the church is a responsibility. It’s not so we can be seen up front, as better than others. We are called to be servants, of Christ and of others.
So after this scalding given about the teachers of the law, Jesus moves across the temple and sists down near4 the place where the offerings were put. He watches as people put their money into the temple treasury.
Each person would walk up to one of 13 trumpet shaped bowls which were lined up along the wall in the court of women in the temple. As they threw their money in each person was expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be overheard by the priests overseeing the collections.
No doubt Jesus would have watched as many rich people put their money in, large sums of money, people dressed in fine clothes making a real show as they threw large sums of money into the trumpet. You can imagine them looking around to make sure people heard how much money they’d given.
It reminds me of the scene in some churches not so long ago, and maybe even today in some, where, at Church Anniversary groups from the life of the church went to the front and announced how much money they were giving to the church. It was something I really hated.
And as these rich people put their money in, Jesus also watches as the widow throws in the two smallest coins available. Who would have noticed her amid the flash and the flamboyant? But, like Jesus in other events, he notices and calls attention to what she did.
Jesus calls his disciples together and says ‘truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty, she put in everything, all she had to live on.’
Jesus knew that these are not just two coins, but the woman’s last two. It was all she had to live on says the text. The original Greek word used is ‘bios’ from which we get biology, the study of life. This widow put her whole life into the temple sanctuary that day.
The widow gave 100% of her money. She is down to two practically worthless little coins and trusts it all to God, she laid her whole self before God.
I sometimes wonder what the scene was like as Jesus spoke about the woman. Did she just let her go and then speal about what she had done, as she blended back into the crowd. Or did Jesus put his arm around her. Did he tell Judas to give her something so she wouldn’t go hungry. Did she join the band of followers.
No answers are given to us by Mark. The nameless widow fades into the background. We don’t even know her name. But maybe that’s appropriate for this living parable because maybe she stands for all those people who, willingly, and selflessly offer their lives for the sake of the gospel, to share the love of Jesus with others, who do so with no fuss, no flamboyancy, no long and wordy prayers, no wordy speak, but quietly, in the background giving all they have to serve Christ.
And there are many people in this congregation who do just that.
For the woman the giving was sacrificial. It’s never the amount given that matters but the cost to the giver. It’s not the size of the gift but the sacrifice of the gift. Real offering gives until it hurts. It may be a sign of the way the church is today that too often gifts have to coaxed out of the people in church and not give unless they can see they are getting something for their money.
The giving of the woman was reckless. She could easily have retained one of the coins for herself. It wouldn’t have been much but it would have been something. She gave her life. And the call of Jesus to us is the give all we have. That’s a reckless thing to do because we never know where it will lead us, never know what we might be called to do.
The promise of God is that, if we give our all to him, he will, and already has, given his all to us and for us through Christ. He provides the strength and the encouragement to go on.
One of the ways of reading scripture that helps us understand what it’s saying is to try to put ourselves into the picture. If we do that with today’s readings, the contrasting events I wonder if we can see ourselves in the two – the teachers of the law and the widow.
Jesus’ words about the teachers of the law are scathing, mainly because what they do is only for show. Being a teacher of the law is not a bad thing, they should have a passion for God’s word, a devotion and commitment to God, but instead they took all the passion, all the heart out of what they were doing and only kept the outward show relishing being holier than everyone else.
In the woman we see the quiet way of service and devotion which gives all, lives a life of service; giving all to God and receiving from him all that we need for our lives of service.