Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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True and False Piety


Mark 12:38-44

We have two separate, short little stories here. The link between them is the word widow. And they create a strong contrast to each other. Who truly honors God? What is the nature of true piety?

The other link between the stories is that they both take place in the Jerusalem Temple, during the days just before Jesus’ crucifixion, when he spent a lot of time sparring with the religious elites there.

“Beware of the Scribes,” or Teachers of the Law. These are the rabbis of the day, the people who devoted their lives to learning and teaching God’s Law, and along with God’s Law, all the various rules and such other rabbis had added to the Law.

Now most of the rabbis were simple and honest people who wanted to serve God. We shouldn’t assume they were all bad. But here Jesus is dealing with the Jerusalem elites, the Scribes who were well connected with the socially and politically powerful. They’re not the simple folk.

“They love to wear long, flowing robes.” The rabbis of Jesus’ day wore long, white robes, which were similar to those worn by the priests and Levites. They were distinct; it made a rabbi easy to spot. But you can’t do manual labor when you are wearing a long, white robe. And that was supposed to be part of the job description of a Scribe. They were to work another job and teach on the side so that they were not teaching God’s Law for money. But these elites of the Scribes weren’t doing that.

“They love to be greeted, to be shown recognition, and to have the seats of honor in the synagogue and at banquets.” First century Hebrew culture was very concerned with social status. In the synagogues, there was a bench up front, behind the Torah scrolls, where the most important people sat: The synagogue ruler, any priest or rabbi who was there that day. Not so different from how most churches are today! At banquets, the most prestigious seat was to the right of the host, and the second was to his left. The third best was two seats to his right, and so on. And this was a matter of grave concern. Who gets to sit in the place of honor?

“But all the while, they shamelessly cheat widows.” It appears that some of these Scribes had completely given up working for their livelihood, and they had found wealthy benefactors, who would provide them with food, lodging, money, and social status. In return,

the benefactor got to have the appearance of being extra pious for supporting a teacher of the Law.

There will always be a temptation for religious leaders to use God as a way to gain access to the wealthy and influential. Apparently, wealthy widows were a favorite target. All I could think of was the movie, “The Producers,” where Zero Mostel shmoozes all the rich widows to get money for his play.

To cover up their real nature, they make “long prayers in public.” The problem is not the length of the prayers, but the motive; to appear extra pious before people.

“Their punishment will be greater.”

Then Jesus goes to the Temple Treasury. If what I’ve read is accurate, at this time the Treasury was located in between the outer Courtyard of the Gentiles and the middle Courtyard of the Women in the place called the Beautiful Gate. It consisted of 13 collection boxes, each topped with a large metal “trumpet.” Each one was for a different purpose: Temple taxes, daily sacrifices, wine, oil, alms for the poor, and so on.

As Jesus watched, rich people came and put in large offerings, which, obviously, drew a lot of attention since the boxes were topped with these metal trumpets. But what caught Jesus’ attention was a poor widow who only put in two small coins, called leptons. The word lepton meant “thin.” They were the smallest and least valuable coins of the day; pennies in other words. I have two of them that were given to me by a member of one of the churches I used to serve that you are welcome to see. So the rich got the attention of everyone, but Jesus called attention to this widow. Jesus says of her, “She gave more than all the others. They gave a little out of their surplus, but she gave all she had.”

It’s just a small story, but it has so much to say. It reminds us that giving is about God and our relationship to him, and not about ourselves.

Would her gift be used wisely by the stewards of the Temple? Probably not. It’s pretty clear Jesus was not happy with the excesses of the first century Temple. In a land afflicted with poverty, the Temple was adorned with tons of gold. Would it even be noticed? Almost certainly not with all the wealth that passed through the Temple. Her gift was insignificant to people.

But not to God. She gave to God out of a sense of gratitude and a firm belief God would provide. For her humble means, she gave generously; more than generously, sacrificially;

perhaps even recklessly. She had two coins. No one would have faulted her if she gave one and held onto the other, but she gave both, a reckless act of faith.

Her story reminds us that true piety is about giving everything to God. We want to hold back. We want to keep some things for ourselves. But God calls us to give everything to him.

I think we should remember her story for the way it compares with some other stories. In Mark 10, we read the story of the rich, young man who would not follow Jesus because he had great wealth and was not willing to surrender it.

Or remember the story of another widow, the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. God sent the prophet Elijah to her during a time of great famine. Elijah asked her for bread, and she said, “All I have left is a little flour and a little oil, just enough for one last meal for my son and me.” But she was willing to take a step of faith and feed the prophet, and God provided for her until the famine ended. She also gave all, and God provided.

Finally, we should compare this widow’s story to Jesus’ story. These were the last public words of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: “She gave all she had.” And soon Jesus will give all he has.

Do we consider giving to God to be a necessity or an option? If we consider it to be an option, then our giving to God will be off the bottom of the ledger, from the surplus. But if we consider giving to God to be a necessity; then it will come off the top. One of the things I try to do with our giving is that I try to make sure our tithe checks are the first checks I write each month. Even if that’s just symbolic, I try to write those checks on the first day of the month. That reminds me that God comes first in everything; in our priorities and our finances.

And the story also reminds us that it’s not about the amount. How much you give is a matter between you and God, according to your ability to give. But whatever you give, it should be 1. A priority 2. A sacrificial amount of giving; more than just out of the excess, and 3. An act of faith and trust that God will provide even if you give some away.

I hope you will take some time to consider whether or not your giving to God meets those criteria. And if not, then I hope you will take the time to think how your giving back to God should change.

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