Thursday, November 8, 2012

Two Copper Coins

It's easy to read this Sunday's gospel lesson as if it's all about stewardship--a widow gives everything she has, and we should to. Well, it's not. Also, it's easy to read this lesson as if it's not at all about stewardship--a widow only has two copper coins to live on because the scribes have been "devouring widows' houses." But that's not it, either. It's somewhere in between, and that's a much harder sermon to preach.

How is stewardship related to the oppression of widows? How can we link the scribes' empty piety with the widow's amazing display of faith and also tie in the clear emphasis of stewardship?

I think Mark crafts this passage by putting these two stories together on purpose. I think he wants us to consider the contrast between the scribes and the widow and see that the two copper coins are evidence of faith in a way that long robes and long prayers can never be.

What motivated the scribes? They were the lawyers of Jesus' day. They were the ones who crafted legal documents and interpreted contracts in that weird fusion of religious and civil law that a theocracy like Israel represented. And, like so many of the prophets from the OT declare, they were the ones who used their expertise to defraud the poor, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise oppressed. But, since they were quasi-religious figures, they do so in the guise of religion.

I can imagine a newly widowed woman receiving a knock at the door from a scribe and his "enforcers" who had come to evict her from her house because she wasn't entitled to own property. A real "Sheriff of Nottingham" sort, a scribe would hide behind his authority when taking from those in need. And I think he would let his love of money and power actually convince himself that he was doing God's will. "Of course it's wrong for this widow to stay in her house. The scriptures say that she must depend on the guidance of a husband or live on the charity of others. So out she goes. All according to God's word." But we see how preposterous that is.

So think again about what motivated the scribes. They confuse personal gain with God's will, and that's a dangerous concoction in any age.

Then there's the widow, who literally gives her last two pennies to the treasury. She has no idea where her next meal will come from. But she still gives over the coins because she's supposed to. It's the temple tax. It's what God asks of her. Of course, God isn't really demanding her last two cents, but she doesn't worry about the details. She hands it over, trusting that God will take care of her.

Faith in what? In our own ability to make money? Or in God's ability to provide for us? What's our motive? Are we confusing what God wants with what we want? We're supposed to want what God wants, but usually we get it backwards. "God wants me to be happy. He wants me to be successful. He wants me to be rich." Well, maybe...but probably not. He wants you to depend on him for everything, and you can't do that when you're mixing up God's will with your own.

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