Download or listen to the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, “A Waste?” (Mark 12:38-44)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the “widow’s mite,” on this woman who gives her last two pennies into the offering box in the Temple, you might expect me to talk about money this morning. You might expect me to talk about how Jesus praises this woman, while criticizing the rich people in the Temple. How this woman gives out of a pure heart, trusting that God would provide for her needs, while the rich give out of their abundance, and don’t really trust God. You might expect me to say that we should be like this widow, and give, even when it hurts; not like the rich, who give only because it doesn’t hurt them. The problem is, the Scriptures say none of those things.
Now, there is a lot we can say about money. It is true that every single cent we have is a gift from God, every possession is ours purely as gift, out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, and not from any merit or worthiness in us. It is true that He has given us more than we need, so that we can help those around us who are in need. We ought to give as we have decided; the Lord loves a cheerful giver, and we shouldn’t give out of compulsion but because we have decided to give. We should give out of what we have, and not out of what we don’t have. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Throughout the Old Testament, and into the New Testament, people are to bring a percentage of their wealth into the tabernacle, or Temple, or church. And they do this basically for two reasons: in the Old Testament, people are supposed to give ten percent, a tithe, and that money, or those crops, or livestock, are to go to the priests, who have no inheritance in the land, and for the sake of widows, orphans, and sojourners—for those who have no one else to provide for them, and those who have no work to provide for themselves. In the New Testament, it is part of the responsibility of the apostles to provide for those within the Church who have no one else, and the widows are specifically mentioned. When providing for the widows becomes too much, the apostles appoint some men to take care of that part of their responsibilities. And the one who labors in the Gospel ought to receive his living from the Gospel. These things are all true, but none of them appear in this text. Jesus does point out that the widow gives more than all the rich, because she gives 100 percent of her money, whereas the rich give a much smaller percentage. And we assume He’s praising her and holding her up as an example. But an example of what? How we should give? Jesus never says to the apostles that they should go and do likewise. He doesn’t say that this widow is an example for the disciples. She is definitely an example, but we need the rest of the text to see of what she is an example.
When we hear the rest of the verses before and after, including what we heard in the assigned reading, we see that this whole section, from the time that Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, until He leaves the Temple area, is a word of judgment on Jerusalem and her whole system of religion. He curses the fig tree as an example of what will happen to Jerusalem because she bears no fruit. Then He comes and clears out the Temple because it is coming to its end. Then He is teaching in the Temple, and He says, “Watch out for the scribes, who walk around in long, flowing robes [uh oh!] and love to be greeted in the marketplace, who love to have people recognize them for who they are; who love the first seats in the synagogues, and the best places—right next to the host—at feasts.” But on what are they feasting? “They devour, they eat up, widows’ houses, and then they go pray for a long time”—probably for the poor widows. They will receive the greater judgment. And then Jesus looks up, and He has the perfect object lesson. He says to His disciples, “Here! Look! Here’s a widow, and she is being forced to give up her last two pennies! She is giving her whole life, while the rich are not being oppressed.” This is the most blatant hypocrisy and sin, and it is being committed by the scribes, who are Israel’s interpreters of God’s Law. But they are the ones doing what God has commanded them not to do. To oppress widows and orphans is the height of rebellion against God, who says that He Himself will fight for them when they cry out. Cursed, says Moses in Deuteronomy, is the one who withholds justice from the widow, and the fatherless, and the sojourner. In Malachi, God says, “I will draw near to you for judgment, and I will be a swift witness against the oppression of the widows and the orphans.” And now Jesus has drawn near, God has come to His Temple, and He sees the most egregious offense happening in the Temple itself. And then, as He walks out of the Temple, His disciples ask Him about the beautiful stones of the Temple, and He says that it will all be torn down, stone by stone. Israel is under the curse, and even what happens in the Temple, the very place of God’s mercy, shows it.
The Temple will be destroyed, but that does not mean that God has forsaken His mercy. But it will not be found there. It will be found in the One who takes the Temple’s place. God’s mercy will not be found in the Temple, cursed by sin and oppression and injustice; it will not be found in any place, but in a Person, in a Man. This Temple will also be torn down, but it will be rebuilt in three days. And this Temple is also under a curse: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. Hung on a tree, and pouring out His blood on cursed sinners. Pouring out His blood for those who have rejected His ways, and will not lift a finger or a dollar to help widows and orphans. What a waste! What a waste that this woman gives her last two cents, her whole life, into a building that will be destroyed. What a waste that another woman a day or two later would pour out hundreds of dollars of perfume on a dying man. What a waste that this God would take on flesh and die and rise again, and what has it accomplished, in all these long years? Who changes for the better? Who improves? The record of the Church is ambiguous, at best. And yet this God in flesh keeps giving out His mercy, keeps pouring out His entire life into what looks like a doomed cause. A waste—except, you’re here. He poured out His life for you, He gives you that same body and blood, and here you are. He gives and gives and gives, and He refuses to let things like sin and death get in the way. In fact, it is precisely those who have nothing left to give, nothing at all, nothing but death, whom Jesus loves with a never-ending mercy. He wants the empty, the dead, the ones who have nothing left, because to them He can give everything. A waste? No, because He raises the dead. He is the Father to the fatherless and a judge on behalf of widows. A waste, this baptism, this Supper, this Word? No, because what the Church has is nothing less than Jesus Himself, and He is everything. What about your work, your struggle, your life? A waste? No, because all your labor is done in the Lord, and in Him it cannot be in vain. He is the Temple to whom your life is entrusted, and into His hands have you committed your life. He is risen from the dead, never to die again. He was your curse, your destruction, your death, so that you are blessed, you are restored, you are resurrected. No more curse, no more destruction, no more death. Only Christ, only life.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/10/12