This week’s gospel reading starts out with a warning against the religious leaders who squander the homes of the widows, walk with pomp and prestige, and like to keep up the appearances of true holiness. It concludes with a picture of one of the aforementioned widows putting in two small coins in the temple offering plate.
These short 6 verses mix too many taboo subjects for my American sensibilities. The commentary includes the topics of religious practices, spiritual disciplines, economics (including the housing market), social justice, politics, and power dynamics in the temple.
If taken in context, this small turning point is one that transitions the narrative of Mark from the series of interrogation questions made of Jesus from the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, Scribes and Chief Priests to the series of prophetic foretelling’s. The turn this passage takes seems to shift the focus of the larger context. It is as if this is the crucial thought that allowed Jesus to speak into the future.
I’d like to think that if Jesus appeared in our current religious establishments, the ones we are the leaders of, we would treat Jesus differently than the ones he had such a controversial relationship with during this passage in Mark’s gospel. However, I have seen first-hand how questioning someone’s holiness, or appearance thereof, are, ironically, fighting words in our tribe. Whether your holiness tends to be communicated socially or personally, all our egos are wrapped up in our long-robes and seats of honor. The power and the political pieces at play in Jesus’ critique of the scribes are no less valid today than they were in Jesus day.
So how, as religious leaders, do we take the words of Jesus? Do we preach them to ourselves alone? Do we warn the Body of Christ to beware of the religious leaders who keep up the appearances of holiness? Do we confess the sins of other Christian leaders who have participated in hidden sins and breaches of trust? Do we confess our own?
When we start to incarnate this passage into our context, we will first decide who Jesus is speaking about. The rub is that the moment we point the finger at other’s capacity to be “Holier than thou” we reveal our own. The moment we are given the respected title of “Pastor” we are assuredly no longer the widow.
The forces of power at play seem more significant at predicting the actions of the heart than the other way around. It seems Jesus is always blessing the clearly unpowerful people and being shocked when someone in power shows faith at all.
Sometimes it seems that we have decided it is too hard to wrestle with the power dynamics, the political implications, and the housing crises caused by taking Jesus’ words literally. Over-spiritualizing of some of Jesus’ harder commandments makes it easier to paint our position in a brighter light. Not getting political is what many were taught. Not stepping on toes keeps tithers supporting the church.
Maybe what Jesus really meant, “guard your heart,” not, “give all you have to live on”?
Could it be that giving all you have to live on is the only way to guard your heart?
Could it be that it is truly easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God?
These questions are the ones this passage raises; and we do well not to silence them before they make us uncomfortable. They should make us uncomfortable. We are the denomination who has made it our distinctive doctrine to be “holier than thou.”
Is your promotion, position, prestige, and prosperity on the table? Are you willing to sacrifice these things at the call of the Spirit? Are you willing to find out how God cares for the lilies of the field as well as the widow who puts in everything?
If we have desired position; we are now confronted with Jesus’ implication that the widow’s lowly position is the more advanced one.
Though we start as a religious leader, may we strive for the spirit of the widow in Mark 12. May we take steps to embody the depth of her dependence and sacrifice. May that dependence become gospel as we walk into the future that has always been uncertain. May that faith and dependence be a foundation of hope that wells up in us.