Readings for Sunday, November 11: 1 Kings 17:8-16 Psalm 146 Hebrews 9:24-28 Mark 12:38-44
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.”
In today’s reading Jesus pointed toward some of the people in the culture around him who constantly called attention to themselves, who served nobody, faked religious fervor and actually stole from widows. These people spent all their time making names for themselves. He pointed to scribes and other religious leaders as scurrilous mongrels.
Then he nailed his point. He sat where he could see the collection plate as people entered the temple. We don’t know for sure what it looked like, so just imagine the plate that is passed each Sunday in your church. As people entered they dropped money into this plate, and some of them dropped a great deal of money. Of course, Jesus had only moments before been talking about how some of those rich people obtained all their money. He never said that all rich people were thieves, but he did point to some specific ones who stole from poor widows. As he watched the parade and the offerings, along came a widow with two tiny coins, which she dropped into the offering plate.
The Bible tells us that Jesus never needed anyone to tell him about people, because he saw through them all. He saw through the self-centered and self-righteous scribes, and he saw through this widow with her tiny coin. Then he made his point about people again. He said, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” In Jesus’ eyes, her tiny coins outweighed all the other money in the plate.
She was a widow. Jesus had just pointed out that many of the scribes who came ahead of her with their big gifts acquired those gifts by stealing from people like this widow. For her to give anything at all was a huge sacrifice. She could easily have told herself that the scribes had already made her offering with her own money as they passed by. Instead, this widow did the thing Jesus wanted most: she trusted God.
Throughout the book of Mark, Jesus reproaches people for being afraid and admonishes them to have faith. He tells them not to fear what is coming, or what might come, and he tells them to trust God. This widow exemplified everything that he wanted from his disciples.
Once when they were all caught in a storm at sea, the disciples got upset. No, they were not upset; they panicked. They screamed at Jesus, who was sleeping peacefully through the chaos. “We’re dying here! Don’t you care? Do something!” Jesus stood up, looked at the storm, and said, “Muzzle yourself! Or I’ll do it for you!” The storm shut down to a dead calm. Just like that. Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “What is the matter with you? Don’t you have any faith?”
Jesus and the disciples were on their way to the house of Jairus who had begged Jesus to heal his daughter when someone ran up and said, “Your daughter is dead. Don’t bother the teacher anymore.” Jesus heard what they said and he turned to Jairus. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “Only believe.” Then, even though everyone was laughing at him, Jesus proceeded to raise the little girl up from the dead.
Jesus wanted people to have faith in God. He did not want them to be afraid when bad things happened. He did not want them to fear during good times that bad things would certainly follow. I had a friend in college who did that. If things were good for her, she would say something like, “Things are just too good to believe. Something bad is about to happen.” When things went wrong for her, no matter how far between such events, she always said, “See! I told you so!” Jesus did not want people to feel that way. Jesus did not want people feel that they were at the mercy of malicious, invisible powers. He did not want people to think that life is a lottery where some people draw winning tickets while others draw zeroes.
When Jesus burst on the scene at the beginning of the book of Mark, the first words he spoke were these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus began his ministry by asking people to believe that God cared so much about them that he had come to be among them. When Jesus saw a widow, a person who might well have seen herself as a victim of society in general and rich people in particular, he saw a person who might well fear that if she parted with the last two coins in her possession, she could starve. In fact, even if she clung to those coins and used them to buy food, they were still the last money she had. She might defer her death, but she might still starve. Jesus rejoiced in seeing that she actually did trust God with her future. She came to the temple, the place God had designated for his presence on earth. The widow came to meet God, and she felt such gratitude for God that she could trustingly give God the last coin in her possession. It is an image of grateful faith that everyone could learn from.
It is the same faith that Jesus asks from each of us. Everyone faces risks in life. There truly are no guarantees. People who are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after the megastorm surrounding Hurricane Sandy could easily feel victimized and defeated, but this is not how Jesus would have them feel. Jesus would ask them to trust God and use the gifts God places in their hands to find their way forward. He asks the same thing of pastors arrested in Iran for telling Muslims about Jesus. He asks the same thing of Christian families in Indonesia fined two months’ salary for praying with their neighbors. He asks the same thing of a Christian pharmacist in the USA who must choose between his career in pharmacy and his convictions that God does not want him to supply abortifacient drugs even if a doctor prescribes them. Jesus asks each of us to trust him with our lives. He asks us not to be afraid to trust him with our lives. He praised the widow who put her whole life in God’s hands by offering up her last two tiny coins.
Mark does not give us the details of the widow’s remaining days. It is just one of many ways Mark invites each of us into the story of Jesus. He does ask us to think about what the woman did, and he does ask each of us if we trust God that way. Do we really trust God with our lives, or do we create as much security as we can and then fret for fear it won’t be enough to keep us safe?
I’m as guilty as the next person. In our life, I worry incessantly about having sufficient food to keep us healthy between grocery stores. When we are cruising, we don’t know when we might be trapped in a remote anchorage while a big storm passes, and I worry that we have not made adequate provision in our anchoring technique or in our food and fuel supplies. I worry that we forgot to stock enough medicine or warm socks. Mark asks me to stop fretting. He doesn’t tell me to stop using my common sense, but he does remind me that Jesus really wants me to trust God for our lives and well-being. When I read that many Christians suffer arrest, fines and imprisonment for their faith, I know that my fretting over salt, coffee and fresh bread is quite trivial. Some of Jesus’ followers really do trust God with their lives and live daily trusting that he will give them the strength to endure misery I can’t even imagine. It shames me.
Sunday, November 11, 2012, is designated by Open Doors USA as International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Today, tomorrow and Sunday would be good days to pray for Christians in the body of Christ around the world who trust God with their lives, such as Makset Djabbarbergenov, a house-church leader being held in a Kazakhstan jail at the request of his native Uzbekistan. It would be a good time to meditate on all the fretting we do about our comfort and safety while others are suffering great discomfort and no safety because they trust God with their lives. Join Christians around the world this Sunday in prayer for the persecuted church. As I pray with them, I will try to learn to let go of my trivial issues and learn to trust God with my life the way they trust God with their lives. Maybe one day all of us will join the widow whose story inspired today’s reading as we rejoice in the blessing of life forever with the Christ who died for us, because he loved us so much that we can, indeed, trust God with our lives.