The Widow’s Two Pennies

Mark 12:38-44
November 24, 2019
Matt Goodale

This morning I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Thanksgiving, Christmas and the holiday season can be challenging times for us pastor types to figure out what to preach on.

Aside from the fact that it’s hard to preach on something that has never been done before during the Advent season, What makes preaching between Thanksgiving and Christmas difficult are the holiday wolves wrapped in sheep’s clothing. All the worst parts of American culture are gift wrapped and sold to us under the guise of Christian themes and transcendent values. American consumerism is discretely sold to us gift wrapped in the neat packaging of generosity. Gluttony and excessive eating are bought in the name of family-time together and giving thanks for everything we have. Hope in material things to save us and give our life meaning is disguised as Advent hope. Without realizing it we trade the joy we would find in a manger for the joy found in a Black Friday deal or at the bottom of a Starbucks pumpkin spiced latte. As pastors it is hard to separate America’s narrative from God’s narrative during the holiday season, because we are just as entrenched in it as everyone else.

I confess that what excites me most about Christmas is not necessarily a baby in a manger, but it’s the excitement of what kindof new book or new Lego set I’ll get. I confess that Advent hope and joy do not warm my heart quite the way a beautiful Christmas light show or gorgeously decorated tree does. I confess that I do not look forward to Thanksgiving as an opportunity to practice gratitude, but as an opportunity to eat pumpkin pie and frosted cookies. The Christmas story and the Advent season are quickly swallowed up and overshadowed by the consumer magic of the American holiday season.

And so as a pastor it’s hard to figure out what to preach on during this time of the year. Do we preach against the American narrative that sells us anything we can buy in the name of holiday magic? Do we expose the wolf gift wrapped in sheep’s clothing? Or do we go along with it and just sprinkle a little baby Jesus on top? And this is not only something us preacher-types wrestle with, but all of us as Christians face this dilemma each holiday season. Will we let Thanksgiving and Christmas be consumer holidays for us? Or will we strive to find deeper meaning in them?

Do we view Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas as opportunities for us to grow as we learn to be more just, more compassionate, more giving, more hope-filled, more Christ-like people? If we want this, then we might need to rediscover the live-giving stories, meanings, and symbols of the holiday season. We might need to do the hard work of peeling back the veneer on all of our holiday shopping, excessive eating, Christmas-magic spending in order to find that this is not the type of life that Jesus came to give us. Jesus came not to support our self-indulgence and anxious consuming to fill that hole in our souls, but Jesus came to expose the emptiness of these lifestyles.

Jesus has a habit of exposing our empty and vapid ways of living and showing us a fuller, more flourishing way to live. And this is exactly what we find Jesus doing in our passage this morning.

Jesus is teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. And things are going well; the people listening gladly receive what he is teaching about David. But then Jesus decides to go and get himself in trouble again. He calls out the scribes, he points out their religious hypocrisy and exposes them as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Now the scribes were a group of religious elites and leaders in the Jewish community; they were well-versed in Torah law and they were responsible for writing legal documents and contracts. They were people of power and influence and they were supposed to be models of good Jewish living. But Jesus calls them out, and this would’ve earned more than a few gasps from the audience. Jesus exposes their religious practices and pomp for what it is: empty and vain.

Jesus says: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The scribes, who in many ways influence and represent the Temple religion of the day, are shown by Jesus to possess nothing of value, but in fact they devour widows’ houses under the guise of their religion. The very religious leaders who were supposed to be caring for the widows are instead taking advantage of them economically, under the guise of the religious institution. The scribes were selling a narrative of self-importance, using all the religious pomp of the day to get away with consuming widows’ estates for their own benefit. This type of malpractice and misdirection is seen all through the Temple religion of Jesus’ day. It has become an industry of its own.

The Temple in Jerusalem became the grounds for religious consumerism that doesn’t look too different from our own consumer tendencies. There was only one Temple, and everybody who was anybody in Jewish society had to pay their temple tax, an obligatory levy placed on every Jewish family. “Then there were also the sales. Lining the entire complex were hundreds of little booths of vendors selling animals to be sacrificed, officially authorized grains for offerings, souvenirs to be taken home after a pilgrimage, and the infamous money exchange. The commission generated enormous profits. There were also the fees that the temple administrators took for acting as trustees over widows’ and orphans’ estates.” (Deborah Rahn Clemens)

Can you imagine if we started charging for our religious services? We could charge $25 per person per worship service, $75 for counseling, $15 for each social event and $10 for entrance to fellowship hour after the service. This is what the Temple religion had become in Jesus’ day. And Jesus did not like it. He condemned these money-making practices and condemned the ways that it turned people into consumers of God’s favor. To get right with God you were encouraged to spend money at the Temple to atone for it, buying an animal for sacrifice and probably donating to the Temple treasury. Essentially, you were paying for the right to wash your sin away and earn favor with God.

In fact, this is what many commentators suspect might be going on with the second part of our passage, when Jesus is watching rich person after rich person dump large sums of money into the Temple treasury. Jesus sees through what these wealthy elite are attempting to do. They can give large sums of cash to the Temple, essentially buying fire insurance—God-security—without ever having to feel insecure about how much cash they still have left at home.

And then there is a poor widow who approaches the Temple treasury and Jesus perks up at what he is seeing. The woman drops in two coins, equaling a penny in worth. She gives everything she had, all she has to live on. Jesus is astounded by her faith. His disciples may have scoffed at first though at what they were seeing. This woman put in two coins that had next to no value. There is almost nothing the Temple could do with those coins. In terms of value, she had given crumbs.

But the disciples, like us, are stuck thinking too much about dollars and cents. They see the bottom line and that’s all that matters. But Jesus sees the true value behind the actions, Jesus sees beyond mere cash value. Jesus sees that all these rich folk put their money in the Temple treasury, but this widow put in her trust. What the woman gave, though it was of no value to the Temple, was more valuable than all the riches in the world. The woman gave her trust that God would take care of her; she gave out of generosity rather than excess. This, Jesus says, is someone to emulate; this is a model of true faith in God. The scribes and religious elite thought God’s favor and security could be bought. Jesus says otherwise.

Jesus exposed the scribes for the self-serving religion they were propagating; a religion that looked glitzy and glamorous on the surface, but beneath the veneer it devoured the vulnerable and ruined the souls of those who practiced it. It was a religion that made people feel good, comfortable and secure, because they had paid up, earning God’s favor. But it was ultimately a religion that had no connection to the God it claimed to worship.

America’s religion, embodied in the holiday season, is little different than the Temple religion of the scribes. The American religion is rampant consumerism. Health, happiness, security and comfort can be bought with cash or credit. This is a reality every time of year, but is especially evident and even more dangerous during the holiday season. We are encouraged to spend money in the name of generosity; we are cheered on as we toss large sums of money into the American-Temple treasury in order to get a little security and comfort. Hope, joy, peace and love are marketed experiences we can buy. And all the while, we are unaware of how our holiday practices devour.

They devour our environment. The amount of waste created by Christmas and Thanksgiving is astronomically high. Gifts are given that nobody actually wanted and so they are thrown away. Food is bought in large quantities that isn’t finished and eventually thrown away. People are convinced to spend money they don’t have, leaving them with more debt and stress than they began with. Not only this, but the amount of money spent during the Christmas season is money that could have been spent in more constructive ways such as affordable housing projects, disaster relief funds, low-income and inner-city education.

The holiday retail sales in America this year are expected to amount to about 730 billion U.S. dollars. This is almost twice was it was in 2000. 730 billion dollars! Can you imagine what good we could do with $730 billion if everyone decided to forego Christmas buying for one year?? And yet, that would never happen because Christmas spending is an American religion and it’s one that we all buy into in the hopes that we might find some Christmas magic, some holiday happiness to quell our anxiety, to give our life purpose for one month out of the year, to find a distraction from the emptiness we feel inside. I know I do this each year.

 And Jesus sees the damage we do to ourselves, our environment, our world’s poor and unprivileged populations. Jesus sees the emptiness we are trying to cover over, the meaning we are searching for. And he offers us a better way of living; a way of living that does not devour the soul.

Jesus points us to the poor widow who gives her last two pennies to God. The woman in doing so, gave up her security, her comfort, her efforts to buy happiness or God’s favor. She knew what we often forget: God’s love and grace cannot be bought, wholeness and purpose in life cannot be bought. Instead, it is something that is lived into, because it is already a reality.

This holiday season, what if we acknowledged the anxious ways we spend our money in hopes of buying happiness, purpose and love? What if we slowed down enough to realize that what our money ultimately gets us is as empty and vapid as the marketing pitches that sold us? What if instead of living into America’s narrative of prosperity and the pursuit of happiness, we living into God’s narrative that declares us to be beloved?

The Christmas story, the story about a baby in a manger is ultimately a story about God coming to free us from the bonds that shackle us, to free us from the hold that money, glamor, neatly wrapped gifts and security have on our lives. Purpose, love and grace cannot be charge to a credit card, they can only be lived into. The baby in a manger cannot be bought by us; we can only come and experience him, much like the shepherds and Magi did.

God entered our world in the form of a vulnerable baby lying in a pig sty. In this humble act, the God of universe made himself manifest in the ordinary, the unglamorous, the unexciting. And this holiday season, Jesus is as present as he has ever been, but we will not find him gift-wrapped or in a department store. He cannot be ordered on Amazon or stuffed in a stocking. Jesus is present in the ordinary parts of our lives, the parts we try to ignore because they are not exciting enough, the parts we try to distract ourselves from because they are too painful, the parts we try to fill with more gifts, experiences and food because we are not sure what other purpose there is in life. Jesus is closer than we think this holiday season, and he is waiting for us to find him. He is waiting to see where we will go with our last two pennies. And even if we go somewhere else with those pennies, he will anxiously await our return.

Jesus is tenderly calling to us from the noise and busyness of the holiday season. Lord, give us the eyes and ears to hear you and see you calling us by name, calling us into the folds of your everlasting love and grace. Amen.

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