24th Weekend after Pentecost – November 7 & 8, 2015 – Mark 12
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
Mark 12 is the chapter where Jesus goes and gets Himself killed. He's not crucified til later, but this is where He gets Himself killed. In Mark 11, Palm Sunday happens, and Jesus cleanses the temple, and the Chief Priests challenge Jesus, and He backs them down. Jesus has upset the high and mighty in the temple - so be it. But it's in Chapter 12 where Jesus really makes waves amongst the wrong people. He annoys the Pharisees when they test Him about taxes - the whole "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" passage. That tweaked the rich Pharisees. Then the Sadducees, another party comes up - and Jesus smacks them down - "Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?" Then come the scribes, and they test Him - what's the great commandment - Love God, love your neighbor - that's the sum of the Law. And everyone famous and powerful in Jerusalem is embarrassed, and frustrated, and annoyed with Jesus. Then, to top it off, we get today's text. The teaching that will make them want to kill Jesus.
"And in His teaching He said, 'Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplace 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." Oi. Now folks, we are going to take our time and walk through this, indeed, we will hear what warning this text brings for us as well, and it's going to be an insightful, intense one. So, bear with me, and let's hear the stern Law of God. What Jesus says here at first seems utterly surprising, because when Jesus is attacking the Scribes, He is attacking the folks who know the Scriptures, the Bible, better than anyone. Is that whom you would expect Jesus to level an attack against? I mean, these are the good, bible believing, indeed bible quoting folks of the day. If anyone should be safe, it should be them, right? But here's the thing - it does no good if you know the Bible but simply use it as a stick to beat others with and prop yourself up.
Listen again. What do these scribes, these learned folks do? What is the result of their studies? They like to "walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplace." What does that mean? They are show off and braggarts. They want to be praised for how wonderful, how knowledgeable they are. Everywhere they go they let everyone know how much they know - and they expect you to fawn over them. Indeed, when they head to the synagogue, they take the best seats. They expect the places of honor at feasts - people ought to be just so glad they came. And they do all this, funded by widows. And indeed they even, "for a pretense make long prayers." On and on they will blather, even in prayers. Show offs even praying. They sound like horrible people - right? Actually, they were highly respected Jews of the day. And everyone knew how highly respected they were, especially the scribes themselves -- and yet, they were under condemnation, great condemnation - for they had missed the point of those Scriptures, for instead of glorifying God and His salvation, they sought to glorify themselves, to receive great renown here.
So what does this mean, how does this apply to us? Let me try to update the language - "Beware of the good Christian people (be they pastors or professors and pewsitters), who smile and drive around with the fish symbol bumper sticker on their car on their way to their volunteering, who sit up straight in Church and bible study, who look to be the best of the best in the Church here on earth." That's the warning that Jesus levels today, that's what it would sound like to us. It ought to sound strange, backwards, counter intuitive. But Jesus does address a danger that we all should ponder - the danger is that all our "religiosity" is just for show.
Now, neither Jesus nor I are saying that you shouldn't study the Scriptures - indeed, get thee to bible study. This isn't saying don't sit in Church and pay attention, nor is it saying never advertise your faith. The question is this - why? Why do these things? Is it to be seen, to be praised by men? To have the ladies of the congregation think you are just the bee's knees? To show the world that even while they might be lousy evil people, at least you are going to be a good Christian, you've got your life sorted out, your ducks in a row! Then you've missed the point and are standing under, remain under condemnation, great condemnation.
There is great wisdom in the Scriptures. There is wondrous advice for how to live one's life, how to conduct ones' self. It won't lead you wrong. There's fantastic moral teaching. But the point, the goal isn't to improve you and make a better person than those schlubs out there - it isn't to elevate you and make you great. It isn't to teach you how to be lauded and praised by adoring fans. The Law of God does this: it teaches you that you are to love God, that you are to love your neighbor - to be focused on them. If you are thinking about how you are "good", or how you are "better" - you're not looking at God, you aren't looking at your neighbor and their needs in order to show them love. If you are comparing yourself to your neighbor you have violated the law, for that is not showing them love. Of course, for us in this life, the great purpose of the Law is to teach, to show us, to make us know this truth: you are and will always remain in this life, a sinner. And even if you are the best of all the other sinners running around, you remain simply that, a sinner. And all your pride and arrogance gets you no where.
And with this teaching still echoing, Jesus goes, and He starts to watch people. "And He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And He called His disciples to Him and said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.'" Whom does Christ praise? The rich, the powerful? The successes? The best of the best? No. The widow most folks wouldn't even take a second glance at. Not the ones making a show of how wonderful they are, how generous they are, dare I say what great Christians they are. No - the gal who simply out of love for the neighbor gives... and doesn't spare a second thought to what she's going to get back. In fact, she's not going to get anything back. She had next to nothing; now she's got nothing. So be it. She loves God; she loves her neighbor, she knows that God will have mercy upon her.
So often the widow's mites, as I grew up calling those coins, will get used to be a finger waging moralism tale -- especially as we hear this towards the end of the year; the traditional time for Stewardship drives! "See what a great percentage she gave, don't you think you could give more, maybe increase your tithe?" I suppose that's partially right - I mean, go be generous. You've been richly blessed - go give out of the abundance that you have received. But it misses the bigger point the context of the passage has established. Jesus has been talking about folks who crave honor and respect and earthly glory, who want to be acknowledged for all that they do. Those who are the good people and want you to know it. You know what you good, successful folks? All you've done, all the greatest contributions you've made - not even worth the two measly cents that widow tossed in. All your efforts, and some old bitty comes along and with nary a second thought tops all you have done.
Do you see how this gets Jesus killed? Anyone feeling really happy with this text? It doesn't let us be smug, it doesn't let us pat ourselves on the back. Points out that we want stupid, vain glory. Takes the silly dreams of earthly power and fame that we have, even "fame" in the Church, even fame with a pious coat of "Christian" paint on it, and says that they are rubbish. Says that the best of us are still actually lousy. Takes the greatest things we do and says that they are worth less than two measly cents. Is it any surprise that the rich and powerful folks wanted Him dead? It's a blow to the ego, isn't it?
Jesus didn't come to be liked. He came to fulfill the Law. He came to show love to God and show love to you - and He did that by getting Himself killed. This is our Hebrews' lesson - "But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him." Jesus comes to go to the Cross, to suffer and die, because we are sinners who need it. How big of sinners are we? We can take even the things of God, Church, the bible, and twist them with our pride and ego to where we want to use them to praise ourselves. And so He comes. And He puts away sin. Your sin. It is put away. Done away with. Gone. Forgiven. That's the truth. It doesn't remain. This is the wonder, the true glory shown forth in the Scriptures. Jesus comes to save you, save you from sin, save you from yourself. The great wonder of the Scriptures is not the teaching about what you are to do yet fail in, but the teaching that Christ Jesus Himself does all, gives all, suffers all for you. You are Baptized into Christ - so you are judged not on what you have done, not on what people see or don't see, not what they think or don't think. You are judged on the basis of what Christ Jesus has done for you - and He has washed you in His blood, clothed you in the robes of His own righteousness, declared you forgiven, called you His brother, His sister - a co-heir of eternal life - and He shall even call you forth to everlasting life.
Don't bother playing the holier-than-thou game. It doesn't benefit you anything - indeed, it can only distract you from Christ Jesus and the true Holiness that He pours upon you freely. He has done it all for you. All that is left for us is to enjoy the blessings He freely gives and wait for His return in which He will save us, all thanks be to God! In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +