Mark 12:38-44 (Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 27—Series B)
“Faith Trusts When Reason Fails”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
November 11, 2018
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The text is the Gospel reading recorded in Mark 12:
38And in his teaching [Jesus] said, “Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39and the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at the banquets, 40the ones who devour widow’s houses and make long prayers for show. These will receive a more severe judgment.” 41And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched how the crowd put money into the treasury. And many rich people were putting in large amounts. 42And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which is a penny. 43And after he called his disciples, he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put more in than all those who are putting into the treasury. 44For all of them put in from out of their wealth, but she from out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole means of living.”
“People watching” is not an official spectator sport, but it sure is interesting. When you are out and about around people, do you ever simply put your cell phone away and just watch them? Airports and train stations are great people watching spots. Malls and food courts can be too. You see such a wide variety of personalities and types of dress and behaviors. You might pick up on someone’s idiosyncrasies or habits. No doubt people watching can bring our own nods of approval, headshakes of disapproval, and raised eyebrows of reaction asking, “What did I really just see?”
In Mark 12, Jesus was doing some people watching. He was teaching in the temple precincts “and the great crowd heard him gladly” (12:38). Jesus issued a warning based on his people-watching observations: “Beware of the scribes.” The scribes were a special class of priests who devoted themselves especially to studying and teaching the Law of Moses. William Lane notes that in “the first century A.D. the scribes lived primarily on subsidies, since it was forbidden that they should be paid for exercising their profession. While few scribes were reduced to begging, an abundance of evidence shows that the Jerusalem scribes belonged to the poorer classes. The extension of hospitality to them was strongly encouraged as an act of piety; it was considered particularly meritorious to relieve a scribe of concern for his livelihood.”
What prompted Jesus’ warning regarding the scribes (who were primarily Pharisees)? Essentially, Jesus exposed the scribes for knowing how to “work a room.” They walked around in their long, white linen robes adorned with a long fringe. When a scribe passed you on the street or in the marketplace you would have been expected to stand respectfully in greeting because of their pious knowledge and holy words that flowed from their lips in long prayers. If you were an important person and you gave a banquet, it would have been to your advantage to have a distinguished scribe and his students in attendance. The highest places at the table would be assigned to them, places of honor over the aged or even your parents. And at church, the scribe would sit right up front with his back to the chest containing the scrolls of the Torah, in full view of everyone.
“Beware of the scribes,” Jesus said. “They sponge on the hospitality of people of limited means, devouring widow’s houses! By their showy prayers they want to win the esteem of people and be the center of attention in the home and in the synagogue.” The scribe’s desire was for tokens of status and self-satisfaction. And it’s all very reasonable, isn’t it? If you are forbidden from earning your livelihood from studying and teaching God’s Law, you’ve got to do all that you can so that you have a firm financial support base, even if you have to stretch the truth and put on a show to get noticed. And so Jesus simply points out what’s going on, that the scribes like to walk about in long robes. They desire greetings in the marketplaces. They want the best seats in the synagogue. They crave the places of honor at the banquets. They’ll make sure you are impressed with what they know about the Law and how well they speak and pray. And you’ll want to support these pious men of God, even if you have very little yourself.
Jesus’ people-watching continued. In the temple, in the Court of the Women, 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles were placed against the wall. That’s where you made your offering to the Temple treasury. The people-watching Jesus observed a “poor widow” in addition to many rich people who were putting in large amounts of money. This widow put in two lepta, copper coins of the smallest value like the penny is our smallest valued coin. To give you an idea of value, a day’s wage for 8 hours of work in Connecticut at the minimum wage is $80.80. In this illustration, your two small copper coins would be worth about 84 cents. That’s your whole means of living—84 cents. With two lepta, this widow could have bought a pomegranate and a cluster of grapes.
But Jesus’ sees this widow, poor indeed, put her whole means of living into the Temple treasury. She won’t eat today. She probably won’t eat tomorrow either. She won’t be able to support herself at all unless someone else helps her. And yet, she forsakes reason and makes her offering to God with her whole heart. This sharpens and brings into focus the contrast between the sham righteousness of the scribes who were concerned only about themselves and the wholehearted devotion to God which characterized the faith of this widowed woman.
The Lord commends her to the disciples, but not for the amount that she put into the Temple treasury. She was commended by Jesus for her trust, her faith. This poor, husbandless woman trusted that she would be provided for in her need by the Lord Himself and so she responded in gratitude by giving to the needs of others, including the scribes!, putting in her gift for the Lord to use in order to bless others. The Church Father St. John Chrysostom wrote, “If you calculate by the value of her money, her poverty is great. If you bring her intention into the light, you will see that her store of generosity defies description.” And I would add, so does her store of faith and trust in the God who provides for her.
Jesus points us to this widow in order to illustrate the character of absolute dependence on God through faith even when reason fails. The whole of her possessions, the last of her money, two measly coins worth about 84 cents she drops into the offering plate. She can only do this as a result of the trust that had been given to her as a gift of the Gospel. She had God’s promise in His Word, for example, from Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” She had the example of how God provided for the widow at Zarephath in the days of Elijah the prophet, as we heard in the Old Testament lesson, “And she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the world of Yahweh that He spoke by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:15-16). The promises of God in the Gospel bestow faith. They give us trust in God that He will provide “all that we need to support this body and life.”
The scribes placed their confidence and trust in themselves, in what their flowery-show of piety could earn for them—money, respect, honor. The widow placed her confidence and trust in God and in His Gospel promises. Do we not see that contrast in our own lives? Do we not confess that our old sinful nature likes to be noticed so that we can feel popular? That’s the most important thing for so many—to be noticed, to be known, to be someone significant in the eyes of another. Important, sure. But that’s not what is MOST important. Do we not confess that our sinful nature really likes it when we are top dog, first place, the best? It’s more than just being proud, it’s taking it to the extreme when it’s all you want and all you need. It’s like that credit card commercial, “I just had to have it.” Honor, popularity, power, and money can lead to an “I’m the king of the world!” attitude. We fear, love, and trust in ourselves much like the scribes, and fail to fear, love, and trust in the God who created us, who sustains and cares for us, and who loves us so much even when we fail to love Him at all.
But Jesus Christ demonstrated complete fear, love, and trust in God the Father. His love for His Father and for us, the fallen creation, sinners, caused God the Son to take on human flesh and to live among us. When tempted by the devil in the wilderness, Jesus remained faithful to the Father. He did not bow down and worship the evil one. He didn’t go for the glory and the honor of all the kingdoms of the earth. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus did the will of His Father as He kept the Law perfectly which we cannot. He obeyed all of the commandments, which not even we nor the scribes and Pharisees can do.
Jesus proclaimed, not the wrath and punishment of God against our sins, but repentance and the forgiveness of sins. He loved and cared for the unlovable—tax collectors and sinners. He healed the sick of all their diseases. In His earthly life, He gave of Himself completely in order to bring the reign and rule of God to a people lost and hurting and in need of the means of living in this world and in eternity.
Then came the ultimate giving of Himself. Jesus trusted the heavenly Father to the end. In Gethsemane’s Garden Christ prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Reason wanted to abandon the plan of salvation, no doubt! But Jesus went to the cross willingly in our place in order to suffer and die for our sins and those of the whole world. Jesus endured God the Father’s wrath and punishment against our sins as He suffered hell in our place on the cross. But He never stopped trusting. “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). Jesus gave us His all. He gave up His very life into death so that we would have life and have it in abundance forever.
That is the Gospel message that is proclaimed to you this day. Jesus died on the cross for your sins. He suffered hell for you. He shed His blood for you. He rose again from death for you. Now you have the complete forgiveness of sins. Now you have eternal life. The Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel Word and the Sacraments, delivers these precious gifts of faith, forgiveness, and salvation to you personally. You believe in Jesus Christ as your only Savior from sin, Satan, and death. You trust that God the Father, as surely as He has said so in His Word, will indeed take care of you and provide for you all that you need to support this body and life. It is the Gospel that produces this trust in you by grace as you cling to His Word of Promise, even when reason fails.
Reason surely said that this widow was crazy for putting into the Temple offering plate her whole means of living. But faith shows that she was trusting in her God and Lord to take care of her no matter what. Her honor and glory came not from flashy prayers or the best seats in church or at the banquet, but from the faith and trust she displayed to Jesus and to us who also get to watch her drop her coins into the treasury through Mark’s Gospel. The widow sacrificed what was necessary by God’s grace through faith in Him alone. That’s what Jesus needed his disciples to understand both then and now. By the grace of God given to you, trust more firmly in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who lived, suffered, died, and rose again so that you might have forgiveness of sins and everlasting life along with all the things that you need here and now. Reason might try to tell you otherwise, but the gift of faith which is yours through the Gospel will continue to cling to the Lord as you receive His blessings to you here in time and in eternity.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 440-441.