Monday, November 2, 2015

Deceitful Appearances

There's something remarkably Southern about Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 12:38-44): one group is criticized for going out of their way to appear religious while an outsider is celebrated for her quiet faithfulness. This is a story of life in the Bible Belt, where Jesus still asks us to strip away all the pretense and reveal our true character before God.

In the opening scene, Jesus is teaching in the temple, where he excoriates the religious lawyers, saying, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers." It's the classic prophetic combination of doing all right things for all the wrong reasons--namely, to hide their misdeeds. Long robes, long prayers, best seats--all signs of religiosity. Those are outward signs of faithfulness. Long robes cost money, and those who spend what they have on such garments are showing the rest of the world that they are willing to make a sacrifice for the faith. The same is true for the best seats in synagogues--spots reserved for those who contribute liberally to the community's causes. And, as any captive guest at a charity banquet can attest, long prayers are the guest preacher's way of saying, "I'm holy."

All that faith, however, is built on a lie. In fact, it's built on the destruction of widow's houses, which is to say that these religious authorities are making their extravagantly religious living on the mandatory, exploitative offerings of people like the poor widow, who becomes the focus of the second half of the gospel lesson.

Jesus takes a seat across from the treasury--the place where these offerings were collected. Amidst a crowd of individuals who deposit their offering is a widow. If Jesus does not notice her and single her out, no one would have seen her. Quickly, Jesus calls the disciples together and uses her example to teach them about deep faithfulness: "This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

I need to do some more exegetical work to learn what sort of offering was expected, what it means that she put in everything she had, and how those offerings would have been used. At this point, though, it seems to be no accident that those who "devour widows' houses" are placed opposite "this poor widow." This is an opportunity to preach not only on sacrificial giving but integrity. This is a chance for the preacher to use the subject of money to peel back layers of pretense and expose our true selves.

I live in the South, where the second question one is asked (after "How's your family doin'?") is "How are things at your church?" We wear religion on our sleeve...and on our T-shirts and our bumper stickers. But what's going on underneath? Do we care about those things Jesus cares about, or do we use the pretense of religion to further our own cause? It's only Monday, and I'm already looking forward to what the Spirit will say to me and all of us this week.

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