Theme: Being a neighbor
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you sent your son to teach us how to practice true religion: help the poor, sick, children, and widows; to work tirelessly for your kingdom by seeking peace and justice; strengthened by your son’s example, we follow the actions of the one through whom we pray, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When Robert Allen was at Drew University in New Jersey, he became friends with a Catholic priest named Sean O’Kelly. Sean was redheaded and always seemed to have a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. Fr. O’Kelly spoke with a heavy Irish brogue because he had only been in America for a few years.
While he was in school, he was also pastoring a Catholic church in the heart of Newark, New Jersey. If you want to talk about urban blight and poverty and hunger, all you have to do is to take a trip up and down the streets of Newark.
On one occasion, Sean heard that a family in his parish was hungry. Because of a bureaucratic foul-up, a mother with five small children had no food and no hope of getting any until the end of the month.
Although the family was not Catholic, Sean O’Kelly went to the grocery store and bought a supply of groceries. There were three full sacks, and he went to the apartment building where the family lived. After carrying the groceries up four flights of stairs and walking down a long hall, he came to the apartment. He rang the doorbell, and a little boy about seven years old answered the door. He looked at Father O’Kelly’s clerical collar and the sacks of groceries, and then screamed at his mother: “Mama, Mama, come quick. Jesus brought us some food!”
In telling about that incident, Sean said, “I will never forget that child’s comment. At that moment, I realized that I was the Christ for a hungry child.”
If we are to be the neighbors that God calls us to be, then we need to understand that you and I are expected to help those we have the capacity to help. The opportunities for service are almost endless in every neighborhood - even yours. There are a dozen ways or more for you to help people if you are willing to be the neighbor God calls you to be! Religion in a nutshell means that you really are expected to be “Jesus” to your neighbors when they are in need.
Jesus is teaching in the temple during the first Holy Week. His arrest is imminent. We pick up Jesus’ teaching in the middle of his criticism of the scribes. The scribes are those people with the responsibility to copy the holy texts of what will later be called the Old Testament. Because of their job, they are very familiar with the holy books and they teach others what they say and how they, the scribes, interpret them.
Jesus warns the people about the scribes. They like to wear their long, distinctive robes, currying platitudes and attention for their highly exalted status in public places. Notice that they seek recognition in the secular marketplace and not at the holy temple. They are given places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. The seats at the synagogue that they crave are the seats where authoritative interpretations of the law happen. It was a seat of power. They behave like they are rectors or bishops! The nerve!
They exploit the weak and helpless – taking widow’s houses away from them. Anyone who knows the law, like the scribes should be, should know that widows deserve special protection. Yet instead of following the law, they abuse widows, leaving them even poorer than they already were. Since they think they are so pious they say really long prayers, but what are they really saying? A long prayer doesn’t make anyone more pious. The scribes were preaching righteousness, but they weren’t practicing it. The scribes will get theirs in the end.
Jesus then seemingly takes a break. He is sitting around, likely with his disciples nearby. On the temple mount, the priests and Levites maintain a treasury. Roman currency has the face of the emperor on it and is therefore unclean, being a graven image. (Sounds a lot like our currency.) Because the currency is unclean, it needs to be converted into temple currency for the paying of tithes. This is why there were money changers in the temple precincts.
Jesus was watching people put money (temple currency) in an offering box. He noticed rich people making large contributions. Then, came along a poor widow. In Jesus’ time, practically all widows were poor, because men were the source of economic production. She put two small coins in the box. Probably no one noticed the widow and her meager offering. But Jesus noticed. Jesus gathered his disciples around him and said that the widow put in more money than all the others combined.
Obviously, the widow didn’t literally give more than anyone else. Jesus explains that the others gave what they didn’t need. She gave all that she had. She apparently had no concern how she would eat, because she gave all that she had. This isn’t just about money. Jesus says the widow gave of her whole life!
Now that is what I call sacrificial giving. She put her total trust in God. The scribes, on the other hand, didn’t trust in God. They trusted in their religious elitism. This is not unlike some evangelists who ride in limousines and fly in private jets using the money that some people gave that they need to live on.
The irony here is that the widow gives all she has to an institution that is very transient. A couple of verses later that we will hear next week, Jesus says that the temple will be destroyed. And it was done by the Romans in the year 70.
This is the last scene of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s gospel. Just as the widow gave her whole life in her offering at the temple, Jesus is about to give his whole life. The widow gives her whole life to a corrupt institution. Jesus will give his life for a corrupt humanity. Jesus calls his disciples and us to give all of ourselves to even those who do not deserve such a gift. After all, isn’t that what the church is called to do?
“We are called to healing, ministering to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless. We called to help people in their struggle to free themselves from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice. We are to establish a just, peaceable, and loving rule to the world.” And we are to do all this at the risk of losing our lives.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of humility, through which we may better serve you and not our own agendas, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV)
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
 This is paraphrased from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.