“Playing Church?”

Pentecost 24

November 8, 2015


Text: Mark 12:38-44; Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17


          Many of us have heard numerous sermons on the latter part of today’s Gospel lesson, which is often referred to as the story of the “widow’s mite”. As you recall, Jesus was at the Temple in Jerusalem, sitting across from the collection box for the Temple treasury and watching people put money in. There were rich people coming and putting in large amounts of money. Then Jesus noticed a poor widow coming forward. She put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus said to his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than everyone else who has put money into the treasury. The others are giving, but still have plenty left over. She in her hopeless poverty has given everything she has, even what she needs to live on.”

          Most preachers over the years have seen Jesus as praising the widow for her generosity and sacrifice, and used that to urge Christians on to greater sacrifice in their financial giving. But is this what is really happening here? Some recent commentators on this passage say it is not, and I am inclined to agree with them.

          First of all, let us consider the matter of how the Temple was supported financially. We are used to a church where we freely make offerings from what we have to support its ministry and maintain the physical plant. But back then, the Temple was supported by tithes. All Jews were expected to give 10% of their income to support the priests and Levites who served in the Temple, who presided over the offering of sacrifices and led in worship of God. In addition, each Jew was expected to pay an annual tax of one-half shekel that was used for the upkeep of the Temple building. One-half shekel was equivalent to two days’ wages for the average laborer.

          Who decided this? The Jewish legal experts, also known as the scribes. They were the ones who interpreted the Law of Moses so it could be applied to their own time, and they set these amounts based on what they found there.

          So we need to consider also the first part of today’s Gospel lesson. Listen again to what Jesus said: “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.” In other words, they were more interested in being respected and important than in showing God’s compassion to the poor.

          In Bible times widows, especially those who had no family to support them, were among the poorest of the poor. There was no Social Security or pension in those days. A widow without a family was left to fend for herself on very, very little. We see this in the story of Ruth, part of which is our lesson from the Old Testament. Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi were both widows without family to care for them until a well-to-do relative, Boaz, married Ruth and took care of both of them.

          Returning to our Gospel lesson, Jesus accused the scribes of cheating widows out of their homes. What was their method of doing that?

          I believe it was the annual half-shekel Temple tax. The tithe was not the problem—after all, 10% of nothing is nothing. But the half-shekel Temple tax, equivalent to two days’ wages, was assessed to everyone regardless of income.

          The Greek in which the New Testament was originally written tells us the widow Jesus watched put in two lepta. The lepton was the smallest Greek copper coin, equivalent to 1/128 of a single day’s pay for an average worker. She put in two, which is thus equivalent to 1/64 of a day’s pay--the amount of money one could make working 10 minutes or less. In our day that’s not even enough to buy a cup of coffee. And it was all she had.

          Knowing all this, I don’t think Jesus was praising this woman for her generosity. In fact, the Bible says nothing whatsoever about what motivated her to put those two tiny coins in the collection box. I believe he was objecting to a system that expected even the poorest of the poor to relinquish the very last of their meager resources to support the Temple. He was saying it was not fair that a poor widow had to contribute everything she had while the wealthy could give much and still have plenty.

          It seems to me that what the scribes were doing was the first century Jewish equivalent of “playing church”. They did the rituals, made the rules, decided who was acceptable and who wasn’t, and enjoyed their prestige. But Jesus contended that in doing this, they had lost sight of God’s purpose for them. Instead of sharing in God’s concern for the downtrodden and rejected people of the world, they contributed to their oppression.

          Throughout Christian history, there have been times when the church has done much the same thing. There have been times when Christians have played church—focusing on its institutional life, making rules about who is and is not acceptable, and enjoying a considerable amount of prestige in the larger society. Many of us who are of a certain age can remember a time when the church was held in high esteem in society. That is no longer the case. A growing number of people have come to the conclusion that they can get along quite nicely without having the church in their lives, including some who used to be very actively involved in the church. What are the reasons often cited by the disaffected? They say we are too busy making and enforcing rules about who is acceptable and who isn’t, too concerned about our own survival, and too interested in money. They say we act more like a social club with a cross on the front than a people committed to sharing God’s love with the world. They say we don’t practice what we preach—and they even have research to back it up. The latest research, which I just learned about this past week, was a study of generosity by a professor at the University of Chicago that was published in the journal Current Biology. The subjects were over 1000 children from six countries (USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa). In the study, each child was given 30 stickers and told to choose how many to share with an anonymous child from the same school and a similar ethnic group. The results revealed that the children from non-religious households were actually more generous in sharing than were the children from religious backgrounds, the exact opposite of what one would expect. Most of the children from religious backgrounds were either Christian or Muslim. The Christian children were slightly more generous than the Muslims, but the difference between those two groups was so small it was not considered statistically significant. There has been other research that leads to similar conclusions, which tells me we are not doing our job. We are failing to live God’s compassion toward others, and we are failing to teach it. The same conclusion is often reached upon observing the numerous prominent Christian leaders who regularly make proclamations condemning people who live or think differently than they do.

          It is time to quit playing church and start being the church. It is time to quit acting like we think we’re better than everyone else and acknowledge the truth that we are spiritually hungry beggars who simply want to show other spiritually hungry beggars where to find spiritual nourishment. It is time we sought to treat others as generously as God treats us. It’s time to quit deciding who is acceptable to God and who isn’t—that’s God’s job, not ours.

          God, help us to see the error of our ways, and to turn to yours.


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