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Fear or Faithfulness?

A sermon delivered by Kathy Pickett, Pastor of Congregational Life, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on November 11, 2012.

Mark 12: 38-44

Several years ago my husband and I were gathered with family and we were discussing stewardship. The discussion grew into a bit of a debate which is not uncommon for our group. When we hit on tithing, one debater said, “Well, what if I tithe and the church does not do the right thing with the money?” I responded, “That’s on the church then.” In similar ways this is what Jesus is pointing to while taking a teachable moment with his disciples.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.” (Mark 12: 38-44, NRSV)

Typically this temple moment is lifted up as a stewardship emphasis on sacrificial giving and the widow gets placed on a pedestal. While she does play a significant role in Jesus’ teaching, these passages pulled together and the layers pulled apart, exposes a deeper meaning; they make me curious.

Was the widow’s offering really an act of faithfulness and a worshipful sacrifice?

How closely were the scribes standing by watching over her?

What did they have to do with what she gave?

Was Jesus really lifting up the widows sacrificial giving as an act of extreme stewardship, or teaching a lesson on social justice while exposing a system of corruption and greed?

For those gathered in the temple listening to Jesus, watching what was taking place at the temple treasury, this is a radical moment of learning and call to awareness.

Several years ago, I made my first trip to Waco Texas with the youth group to participate in Mission Waco’s Poverty Simulation. It was the first time I heard someone talk about the upside down kingdom of God. Our teacher that day was a young guy with dreadlocks, a funky little goatee, and obviously worn clothes. He was a student at Baylor with a heart for Jesus, a passion for promoting social justice, and an enthusiasm for bringing about the kingdom of God.

He introduced the group to societal and economic injustice, and what he called systemic evil. He challenged us to start paying attention to clothing labels and to consider where they were made. Were they made in a country that promotes sweat shops? Are they a product of forced or child labor? Do they cost less at the expense of another – maybe someone like the widow? He challenged us to think about the bananas we purchase. Who harvests them and how much are they being paid? And what about the coffee we drink? Have we considered the systemic issues related to coffee bean farmers and those who pick the beans?

It was overwhelming to consider how I was unknowingly participating in the continued oppression of others and systemic evil.

Since then, there has been a growing awareness of these issues which has led to the Fair Trade movement. This movement enables us to make a difference in the life of another with what we pay. Fair trade organizations work to create healthy and sustainable systems for all persons. They provide farmers in developing nations the tools to thrive as international business people. Instead of creating dependency on aid, they use a market-based approach that gives farmers fair prices and workers safe conditions with resources for fair, healthy, and sustainable lives. Fair Trade USA says, “We seek to inspire the rise of the conscious consumer and eliminate exploitation.”

 Well, what does any of this have to do with the widow and her two coins? And, what does it have to do with the scribes and the temple treasury?

Jesus is holding up the widow’s faithfulness against the scribes hypocrisy and arrogant behavior. He’s challenging a broken economic, political, and religious societal system where the powerful and rich get richer at the great expense of those who have no voice, and no choice. Jesus really gets at this when he says, “They devour widow’s houses.” In other words, when a widow had given her last two cents the scribes, the keepers of the temple system, could take full control of her or even dispose of her.

Up to this last temple teaching moment, Jesus had been challenging the current system and introducing the upside down kingdom of God all along. He had been saying stuff like:

If any of you want to become my followers, deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

You lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me…

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Nell Green, CBF field personnel in Texas, has been exposing the growing social injustice issue of human trafficking. In a web article posted on the Peace and Justice Cooperative Baptist web portal titled “Houston and Trafficking: Really?” she shares her response to her own awareness:

“With an international port, interstate corridor, airport and political border, Houston is a prime location for human trafficking, in which individuals are illegally traded for the purpose of forced sex or manual labor. One in four victims passes through Houston at some point. I told God that I had seen enough hunger. I had seen enough poverty. I had seen enough injustice and hate. But, the bottom line is that we are supposed to be addressing the things that break God’s heart. And God’s heart is broken by what we do to people and by the fact that we as Christians let it happen. I don’t want to waste another day.”

According to the International Labor Organization’s global report, approximately 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide — a $30 billion industry.

Hundreds of thousands of these victims are in the United States. Green works primarily toward education, prevention, and legal remedy in partnership with local and national organizations. Green also spends her days frequenting local human trafficking hubs and raising awareness among college students who are eager to see the true face of trafficking and respond to injustice.

“I’ve been to Thailand and seen the girls.

I’ve been to North Africa and seen the factories.

I’ve seen the little boys put on the street in Senegal.

I’ve watched the six and seven-year-old girls tying knots for rugs.

And it never occurred to me that I could do anything about it,” Green said. “But when I finally realized how much I could have done and how little I did, my heart broke for them all over again.”

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, contributing writer for Sojourners, adds this challenge: “We call upon people to believe in Jesus, but the question is whether we believe Jesus. Jesus taught and embodied a revolutionary, transforming love. Forsaking wealth and power, he constantly reached out to those on the margins of society. Renouncing violence, he loved not just his friends but his enemies. Condemning religious self-righteousness and hypocrisy, he healed broken lives and opened eyes and hearts to the near presence of the kingdom of God.” He includes a quote from Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek article, “This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid.”

In this teaching moment, Jesus is addressing what the prophets of God have been teaching all along:

“Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:24, The Message)” And how about Micah 6:8, “and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

As much as it might mess with our traditional understanding of the widow’s mite and her sacrificial giving, we must not leave her on the pedestal of a stewardship lesson. When doing so, we miss the life application lesson of Jesus’ radical teaching moment.

The real stewardship and sacrificial challenge within this teachable moment is, how will we respond to the scribes and widows of our day?