Prominent Poverty

November 8, 2015 Speaker: Rev. Braun Campbell Series: Lectionary

Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 12:38–12:44

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Mark 12:38-44

“Prominent Poverty”

Most people don’t like talking about how much money they’ve got. I’m guessing that you, too, wouldn’t wish to discuss your net worth with anyone other than your financial planners – and maybe not even them. One’s finances tend to be a very personal subject. It’s not something that you’d bring up at dinner, especially if you were dining with someone you didn’t know well. So why is that? I don’t think anyone here would say that someone’s worth is based in the balance of their bank account. Yet we still feel like money matters, especially when it comes to how we think someone might think of us if they knew how much – or how little – wealth we have.

What if you didn’t have hardly anything at all? With no money in the bank or in your pocket, you’d be in a pretty rough spot. That’s not usually something that someone would flaunt or brag about. What would people think you’re worth without wealth? And other people’s opinions aside, you’d have bigger concerns, like getting food or having a place to stay. That’s not a situation that instills confidence and hope. For most of us who aren’t facing that kind of challenge, though, what people think about us does seem to matter.

Reputation is important: no doubt about that. God affirms that by calling us to protect our neighbor’s reputation in the Eighth Commandment. But there’s a difference between defending a reputation and overinflating it. Have you ever wondered if you’ve put too much time or effort or money into getting people into thinking a certain way about you? Sometimes that happens by spending more money that you’ve really got and going into debt. Other times it’s about acting a certain way for a particular group. And don’t forget about clothes: people generally take at least a little time in picking out the clothes they’ll wear, knowing that their clothes will probably get others to think of them in a certain way.

Clothing was particularly important to Jewish scribes lived in back in the first century. They, along with other distinguished figures, would wear long white linen mantles over their robes as a mark of their position – clothes with bright colors were for the common people. As authorities in the law, the scribes received a special kind of esteem from the people. Those they passed in the marketplace would stand out of respect greeting them with the honored title of “Rabbi.” In a way, they were kind of like our culture’s celebrities: if someone prominent was throwing a feast, they’d want to have a scribe there in a place of honor to bump up their event’s prestige and prominence. It might come as something of a surprise to learn that many scribes belonged to Jerusalem’s poorer classes. They were supported by the pious and the well-off, including benefactors like widows who were living from of their family’s wealth. And sometimes the scribes took advantage of their benefactors and abused their generosity.

There’s a problem in all that. As Jesus warns his hearers, the scribes shouldn’t be reveling in the respect and admiration that the people were showing them. They were loving their prominence before the people and failing to do what they were really meant to do. The scribes, these experts in the law, should have been pointing people to God, telling them to show that honor to God instead of soaking it up for themselves. Their righteousness was sham righteousness. More so than most, the scribes should have understood that they needed what God gives more than that which man can offer.

You and I need what God gives just as much as the scribes of Jesus’ day did. Your positions of prestige or popularity, your bank accounts or other wealth, they’re not the sum total of your worth. They can mislead you like they mislead the scribes. If you think about your standing before a holy and perfect God, what could you offer to merit anything from Him? You and I are no better off than some poor widow. The only thing that’s prominent about us before God is our poverty, our need.

Two widows show up in the readings this weekend. We heard that the one from the Zarephath was at the bottom of the barrel, gathering some sticks to make a paltry little fire for a sad, little last meal for her family before they died of hunger. The widow who came to the temple treasury as Jesus was sitting in the courtyard with his disciples had only two practically worthless coins – a fraction of a cent by today’s standards. A widow without children to support her or an estate to live off of was in a pretty desperate situation back then. Their poverty was truly prominent.

So why does Jesus point out that widow to his disciples? There in the Jerusalem temple, along a wall of the Court of Women, sat 13 trumpet-shaped offering boxes where worshippers could come and give their gifts. The disciples had seen many people bringing their offerings, some ringing out loud as coins and coins poured down the throats of those collection trumpets. They might have sounded like one of those coin-counting machines you’d see at a bank or supermarket. The widow’s offering probably didn’t make even a small “ting” as she gave it. Of course, the disciples think, the large gifts will make a great impact. They must be worth more! But Jesus overturns their assumption.

The widow gave proportionally far more than any of the wealthy people who’d gone before her. In her poverty, she gave all that she had to live on. She could have kept one of the coins, right? It’s not like that offering was going to do much for the temple’s treasury. But she didn’t. In a very real way, the widow gave an absolute offering of her life to God. Her gift of two seemingly worthless coins was an act of wholehearted devotion to God, a stark contrast from the sham righteousness of the scribes.

Why did the widow give up her “wealth?” Why did the widow of Zarephath bake a cake of bread first for the prophet when she hadn’t even had enough to feed her family? Faith. The widows’ actions were made possible by God’s giving of faith, faith which enabled them to trust that God would indeed remember them, faith which trusted that the Lord was indeed faithful. That same faithful Lord has promised to be faithful to you, too.

God keeps His promises, including the promise that He makes in the waters of Holy Baptism, calling someone His child and a part of His Church. The faith that He gave in the first place will never be forsaken. The Lord is trustworthy; you need only look to the cross to see the extent to which God will go to keep His promise to you. In a world where your wealth can be lost and your friends and benefactors might abandon you, faith in the Lord will never be left wanting even in the greatest need and uncertainty.

That being said, what happens to the widow Jesus saw there in the temple? I can’t say. Mark doesn’t tell us anything more about her after the Lord pointed out the significance of her gift. In part, that’s a good thing. It keeps this from being a “happily ever after” story that would have us thinking that if only we gave everything over to God, life would be perfect. But that’s not what Jesus says. Instead, he calls us to complete dependence on God’s faithfulness in all of life, trusting that He will see us through. It’s entirely possible that Jesus and his disciples provided for the widow, giving her a portion of the money that others had given to support them. That certainly seems like something Jesus might do: caring for those in need through his Church.

In Psalm 146:5, we heard “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God…” That truth applies to the widows in today’s readings. It applied to Jesus’ disciples. And it applies to us, too, as we look to Jesus for our hope. When all is said and done, it’s not about what you’ve got in this life –wealth or prominence or prestige – because all those will fade away. In Christ, though, you and I have God’s everlasting answer for our hope. We get to go before Him, depending on His promises to keep us in His care, both in this age and into the next.

As people who come to God in our prominent poverty, we don’t have the right to any expectations. We’re not worthy of anything that He might give. Yet in Jesus, we have proof that God is willing to give us everything that we need.

Amen.

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