Devouring Widow’s Houses

Mark 12:38-44

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

A torn and ragged one-dollar bill discovered that it was about to be retired from circulation. As it slowly moved along the conveyor belt to the shredder, it became acquainted and struck up a conversation with a fifty-dollar bill that was meeting the same fate.

The fifty began reminiscing about its travels all over the country. Life has been good,” the fifty exclaimed. “Why, I’ve been to Las Vegas, the finest restaurants in New York, political fund raisers, and just returned from a cruise on the Caribbean.”

“Gee,” said the one-dollar bill, “you’re fortunate to have been able to visit all those places.”

“So where all have you been in your lifetime, my little friend,” says the fifty?

“Well, I’ve been to the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Assembly of God Church, the Brethren Church, the Quaker Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Charismatic Church, the Mennonite Church, the Church of Christ…”

“Excuse me,” says the fifty, “but what’s a church?”

Today’s passage is one of those which is a challenge to say anything new about. It was just a few weeks ago that I spoke on stewardship, so I don’t really feel drawn to share about that subject again. Unless, that is, you want to hear more about why you should be giving money to the church. I know it is a subject that never gets old.

So, wanting to avoid the same old, worn out sermon on stewardship, I decided to really do some digging this week, particularly around one verse; one part of a verse. This part of a verse is strange to me and it caught me off guard as I read through today’s text. But before we go there, let’s get some background on this passage.

We find ourselves this morning in chapter 12 of Mark’s gospel. In chapter 11, which is anything but a bankrupt chapter, we find the telling of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Mark tells us that on the next day, Jesus does a little bit of housekeeping at the temple, he cleanses it by kicking out the money changers and those selling animals (for a large mark-up, we can assume). Jesus’ agenda for his last week on earth is pretty clear: he is going to try to correct the corruption that he sees in the institutionalized temple system. So he spends a lot of time criticizing the system and more particularly those who are benefitting from the system. That would be the scribes, the Pharisees, and the chief priests.

The leaders of the temple system knew that Jesus had this agenda. In Mark 11:27-28 we read, “Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’” What the heck, bro? You’re messing with a good thing here.

Mark chapter 12, then, is really just a back-and-forth power struggle between Jesus and the rulers in the temple system. They ask him questions, trying to trap him, and Jesus usually gives a pithy, pointed response that silences his critics for a little while. They ask him about paying taxes, they ask about the resurrection, they ask which commandment is the greatest, and they ask him about a challenging line from Psalm 110. Jesus always has an answer, even though his answer sometimes comes in the form of a question.

We must read today’s passage in this context. Jesus is trying to draw attention to the failings of the current temple system. No, he isn’t saying that God’s design for temple worship is flawed, but he is definitely pointing out the flaws in the way that the leaders have made his father’s house into a den of robbers.

This brings us to today’s passage which begins with Jesus criticizing the teachers of the law. Looking quickly at verse 38-40, “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’”

Most of what we read from the time when Jesus enters into Jerusalem through the end of chapter 12 is criticism of how the powerful religious leaders are leading the temple system in a corrupt way. These leaders are taking advantage of people, poor and weak people, the kind of people that they are supposed to be helping. And the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth in chapter 13 is a prophetic statement that the temple will be torn down. It is all coming to an end.

This brings us to the story that we all know so well. We often refer to it as the story of the “widow’s mite.” Jesus sits down in the temple and he happens to be sitting across from the treasury, the offering box. He sees rich people come and place large sums of money in the offering. This was required of them. 10% off the top, regardless of how much or how little you make. These rich people are dragging in their large bags of money, jingle-jangling the coins around. And some of these individuals were only in town because of the Passover celebration which was about to begin. So they were bringing several months’ worth of tithes and depositing them right in front of Jesus. There is a “Hey, look at how much I am giving” kind of atmosphere in the temple.

Then enters a widow. Widows could not work in the 1st century. They wouldn’t have had their deceased husband’s pensions or 401k savings to live off of. Instead, they lived day by day off the generosity of others. Mark emphasizes that she was a poor widow, as if all widows weren’t poor. Obviously, this woman had nothing. Nothing, but two small copper coins. Jesus even notes in verse 43 that she “put in everything—all she had to live on.”

The Greek word for the coins that she deposited is lepton, and Mark explains that the two leptons of the widow were the equivalent of 1 Roman quadrans. A Roman quadrans is said to have been worth six minutes of labor. All the money that she had to her name was worth about six minutes of work. She put essentially nothing into the offering, but yet she also gave effectively everything she had.

Now, the part of a verse that I think we need to focus on is that strange little line in verse 40 during Jesus’ criticism of the scribes where he says, “They devour widows’ houses.”

When I think of devouring something, it usually involves food. I was so hungry that I devoured my pancakes this morning. Or sometimes we use devour in reference to a natural disaster or a fire as they devour a home. Either way, the imagery is that of consuming the house, destroying everything within it, even the people.

I read a part of a book by Peter Dula this week that gives a pretty interesting interpretation of this event (Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology). Dula suggests that we read the passage about the widow’s offering as a continuation of Jesus’ criticism of the teachers of the law. He says that the religious leaders are devouring the woman’s house through what he calls her “misguided piety.” He goes on to use a number of examples, perhaps the most powerful one being that the religious leaders were caring for this widow in the same way that “agribusiness supports hogs” (quoting a Vietnam Vet on how the Pentagon cares for soldiers).

That is a strong accusation, but when we consider the context of these two chapters, I think this interpretation is getting toward something important. A farmer cares for her pigs, mostly because it will return good profits for her. Healthy pigs lead to healthy paychecks on market day. Dula (and others) suggest that the widow is misguided because she has been taught all of these years that she needed to be giving to the temple, when if you read through the Bible, it is the widow who should be receiving money from the temple. Furthermore, Jesus specifies that she gave “everything that she had, all she had to live on.” Not 10%, but 100%. Who told her that she needed to give all of her money? And what promises did they make to her, saying if she gave more, she would be all the more blessed? People don’t naturally give all that they have away. Evidently, she was being fed a line.

I have spent some time ministering to people in our community that are poor, disabled, and in need of help. I haven’t been able to do it as much as I did before our children came along, but some of the memories of the stories that I have heard and things that I have seen still seem like I just heard and saw them yesterday. One individual and his story sticks out. We will call him Bobby.

Bobby is a man probably about the age of my father. He is very dedicated to his faith, but also quick to believe anything that he hears. Bobby is on disability because of he has a mental health condition, and I truly believe he is in need of his disability check because I can’t imagine him being able to hold down a job. Again, he is a well-meaning, likable individual. But his physical and mental challenges prevent him from working regularly. So Bobby often asks for money. He doesn’t beg and he always treats any gift as a loan. He asks for $5, just to get by until the first of the month. Then, when he gets his disability check, he will return the $5, often offering interest.

One day as I was talking with Bobby, he was noticeably excited. I asked him why and he told me that he was going to be able to make some money. I asked him how, and he told me that he had ordered a book from a television preacher which taught how to pray yourself to success. For $20 you could have your own copy and learn the secret of how God wanted to bless you with an abundance of cash.

I think I was meeting with Bobby that day because he wanted to borrow a little bit of money. So I asked him how he was able to afford the $20 for the book. And he told me that he wrote a check for the $20 even though he didn’t have any money in the bank. He knew that the check would bounce, and that there would be a $50 insufficient fund fee charged to his account. But that was okay, because he was going to start making the big bucks once he got the book.

How do religious leaders devour the homes of widows? By telling them that they must give to the religious institution at any cost, perhaps even suggesting that if she gave more than the standard 10%, she would be rewarded with more.

On one hand, I believe that Jesus was commending the widow’s sacrificial giving to the temple. She gave out of what little she had, and that is noble. But the context of this scripture is the criticism of the religious leaders. And I think that Jesus was just as upset at the scribes and Pharisees for teaching in such a way that this poor widow with nothing to live on felt compelled to give her last two cents to the temple.

There are several places in the Old Testament that refer to the “tithe,” the giving of 10% of what you make or produce to charity. I just want to highlight one, Deuteronomy 26:12, “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”

The tithe was given to support the Levite, who did not own property, but was supported by the people for his work in religious matters, the foreigner, the fatherless or orphan, and the widow. The purpose of this 10% gift was “so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”

The widow in this story should be applauded for her generosity. But she was not obligated to give 10% of her earnings back to the temple, let alone all of her earnings. Someone told her a different story and convinced her that the right thing to do is to die hungry while giving to the church. We as the church are called to help those that can’t help themselves. Not exploit them for every penny that they have.

That’s how not to treat those who can’t help themselves in the church. But we always try to end on a good note, so how about a story of how to help those who can’t help themselves.

Almost 10 years ago now I began my first official pastoral position while I was finishing up college and just recently married. My eyes were wide open, taking it all in.

In this church there was a young man, whom we will call Murray. Murray was 98 years old and still mentally sharp as a tack. He could tell you stories about when the first airplanes flew over his town and when he saw the first horseless carriage drive down Main St. But his body was that of a 98-year-old man. He actually lived alone, but he needed a lot of help with things like preparing meals, getting around to doctor’s appointments, and cleaning around the house.

When Murray reached the age of 65, he was forced into retirement. However, he didn’t have enough income to actually retire, especially if he was going to live another 30+ years. So he went to a guy, we will call him Paul, from church who owned the local hardware store and asked him for a job. So Paul hired the oldest stock boy in the city and employed him for 20 years.

Murray outlived his wife by a significant number of years. He had two daughters who were actually in worse physical shape than Murray and remember, they were not young by this time, either. They also lived a couple of hours away. Murray, like most people his age, started to fail physically, but wasn’t in bad enough shape for a nursing home. He just needed a little help around the house. So who would step in and become the caregiver?

It was Paul. It was the guy from church who had given him a job 30 years earlier who helped make meals, do laundry, and take Murray to appointments. You would always see them out together, Paul opening the car door, setting out the walker, and going with Murray wherever he needed to go.

When Murray passed away his daughters were there, mourning the loss of their father. Paul, too, was there, mourning the loss of his employee, his brother in Christ, and his friend. And it was Paul that wept the hardest.

I am sure that people wondered what Paul got out of this relationship with Murray. An hourly wage or perhaps a portion of Murray’s inheritance? No, Paul never got a dime for all of the help that he gave Murray. But he got a lot more than money out of the deal.

It is too easy to take advantage of others, and the elderly seem to be a common target. We are called to help those who can’t help themselves, not suck their bank accounts dry. May we choose to help others, not because of what they can give to us monetarily, but because that is what it means to be faithful to Jesus. And we just might find, like Paul and Murray, that what we do receive is worth a lot more.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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