Summary: Jesus--the radical rebel that he is--continually turns our world upside down. He questions our assumptions and challenges our goals and our definitions of success.
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
NOVEMBER 8, 2009
Mark 12:38-44 “Upside Down”
One of the questions that parents dread to hear asked them by their children is, “Why?’ This simple question challenges our assumptions and our preconceived ideas. If forces us to ask questions that we have never asked before in order for us to answer it. And of course, the first “why” is always followed by a second, “why.”
I sometimes think that Jesus enjoys playing the role of an inquisitive child who forces us to questions our assumptions, presuppositions, and the reasons for believing the way we do. When he does this, he frequently turns our world upside down—just like he did in the gospel lesson for today.
In this passage he confronts us with our definitions of success and challenges us to reconsider our goals and our attitudes toward different pictures of success.
Jesus was speaking to people as they came and went in the temple. His topic was society’s notions of success. Beware of the scribes and religious leaders he warns the people.
We live in a society with a free press. We sometimes forget what a great gift this is. Our leaders are always under the scrutiny of the press. They are openly criticized and frequently made the butt of jokes by the likes of Letterman and Leno. This was not the case in the first century A.D.
When Jesus walked the earth, leaders were not criticized or questioned. They were feared—sometimes justifiably so—and dissenting opinions were only heard in whispers behind closed doors. One of the reasons Jesus angered the leaders was because he openly criticized them.
The common people admired the power and affluence of the scribes. They viewed many of these men as having reached the pinnacle of success. Jesus calls them moral and ethical failures—men who were not to be respected but pitied.
Jesus’ list of grievances against the leaders of Israel was specific and serious. The leaders’ religion was a sham—something they were involved in only because it looked good. They were egocentric—wanting to accumulate power, prestige, and wealth at the expense of others, and they didn’t do an ounce of work.
Reading Jesus’ stinging remarks forces us to question who we admire, respect and with to emulate. What is it about them that is attractive to us? Why do we think they are great men and women? Is what makes them great compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ?
A common value among Americans is that we want to be rich. Rarely are we satisfied with our wages. We envy the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We dream about winning the lottery.
This same attitude was pervasive among the people of Jesus’ time. After all, who wouldn’t be attracted to comfort, pleasure, and freedom from worrying about where the next meal was going to come from.
Jesus’ criticism of the rich is not as harsh as his attacks on the scribes. He observes them worshipping and depositing their gifts in the offering bucket. He notes that they gave large sums of money, and also that they gave out of their abundance.
The rich were religious people. They may have truly desired to honor God and live in a manner that pleased God. But, their religion was comfortable. It was not one of deep faith and trust.
Jesus called into question the success and fullness of two groups of people whom everyone else thought were what they would like to be. As if that wasn’t enough. Jesus then lifts up the actions of a poor widow and uses her as a picture of faith, success and fullness.
THE POOR WIDOW
The widow places her two copper coins in the coffers, and immediately Jesus proclaims the value of her gift. She has given more, he says, than all the rich.
It is quickly evident that Jesus’ measurements for success and a full life are quite different than ours. He doesn’t go by net worth, size of houses, horsepower of cars, or even popularity polls. What has impressed him was that the widow gave all that she had. Her gift was a gift of faith. She was relying completely on God’s care and protection. It is this depth of trust and commitment that leads to an abundant life—that life God has in store for us.
We are all in different places in our walk with Christ. Some of us haven’t allowed the Holy Spirit to work very deeply in us, and we have many of the characteristics of the world still a part of our lives. Some of us are comfortable in our faith. Others are taking baby steps of faith. Wherever we are, Jesus continually invites us to take larger steps of faith, share more of our gifts, and rely more completely on God’s care and love.