Two Cents Worth – Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

November 11, 2018

Have you ever given your opinion about something, and then said, “That’s just my two cents worth”? It’s a way of letting the person you’re talking to know that this is just your own opinion, and the listener is free to disagree. When we add our “two cents worth” to a discussion, we let people know that, “yeah, this is what I think, but I could be wrong. I’m no expert. Take it for what it’s worth – not much, maybe.”

Do you remember “sound bites”? We don’t hear about them much anymore, maybe because sound bites have been replaced with tweets. But back in the late 1970s[1] –before Twitter limited our expression of ideas to 140 characters – someone coined the term ‘sound bite’ to describe a short, memorable quote that summed up an important point from a longer speech.

Politicians love using sound bites in their campaigns, and as network news became more dependent on advertising dollars, the news media began using sound bites to increase interest in upcoming news stories – right after “a message from our sponsors.” A sound bite is someone’s way of saying, “Here’s my two cents worth, but there might be more value after the commercial break.”

In seminary, preachers are taught to hone in on one big idea for a sermon, condensing the main point into a short statement of 12 words or less. In essence, we try to get a whole sermon into one sound bite. It’s a useful tool for trying to figure out what is the most important lesson from a particular passage of scripture.

What’s the one Big Idea that will help the congregation most? How do we apply that lesson from thousands of years ago to our lives today? How can we state that idea so concisely that it will be easy to remember, and worth at least two cents? As a preaching student, I knew I was getting close when my professor would look at my Big Idea and say, “That’ll preach.”

But then we come up against a passage like today’s gospel lesson: six short verses packed with infinite layers of meaning. As we peel back those layers, trying to get to the very core, it’s like peeling an onion. It would be easy to keep going until suddenly, there’s no onion left. How do you get one Big Idea to pop out of so many layers of possibility?

Before we get out the paring knife, maybe it will help to remember what has just happened in this story. Jesus and his disciples have been walking beside the temple that King Herod has taken years to build. The disciples have been pointing out the large stones that form the temple foundation, and Jesus has predicted the destruction of this temple.

His prediction will come true in about 40 more years. But Jesus is predicting more than the tearing down of a stone building. He’s talking about a complete system overhaul.

As he taught, he said, “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. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, 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.” – Mark 12:38-44

So, what is the main point Mark is trying to make here? Why are these two short paragraphs hooked together – one about watching out for the scribes, and one about a poor widow putting her entire meager living into the treasury? Could there be more than one valid way to interpret this passage? And if so, which interpretation applies to you today? If you had to offer your two cents worth, what would you say?

Since it’s Stewardship Sunday, when we dedicate our pledges to give in the coming year, you might peel back the most obvious layer – give like the widow, not like the rich people who only drop in their spare change. Everything Jesus has been teaching us in the past few months would make this a valid interpretation. Jesus has been calling us into the kind of discipleship that gives up everything for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus calls us into sacrificial living, not just sacrificial giving.

That would make a pretty good sound bite. You could tweet it, and get plenty of “likes.” My preaching professor might even say, “That’ll preach.”

But, even though it’s true, being called into sacrificial living, not just sacrificial giving is only one layer of this story. If we look more closely, we can see that giving like the widow means contributing to a systemic problem: the poor give everything they have for the sake of the rich. Jesus never intended for the rich to get richer on the backs of the poor.

It’s quite possible he points out the widow as an example of what he’s just been talking about: beware of the scribes who devour widows’ houses so they can go around in long robes and claim places of honor for themselves. The more you think about this interpretation, it explains why Mark hooks these two paragraphs together here. One illustrates the other.

Instead of holding up the poor widow as virtuous by comparing her to the wealthy people who give out of their abundance, Jesus might be trying to help us see that both sides of the equation are wrong. Both the poor widow and the wealthy scribes who devour widows’ houses are examples of a corrupt and broken system. Jesus didn’t come just to put a bandage on our brokenness; he came to heal it. Jesus came to usher in a whole new system, a whole new way of living together as children of God.

Jesus doesn’t fix broken systems,
he replaces them with something completely new.

That’ll preach, too. You can tweet that. It is ultimately true.
But again, it’s just one layer.

This passage can make people feel guilty if they identify with the scribes, and with those who only give according to their excess. And people can feel self-righteous if they identify with the oppressed widow who puts all she has into the treasury. But maybe there is yet another layer to this story. Maybe it’s the coins, the “all she had to live on.”

What if you were to think of yourself as those two coins being given to God? Instead of the scribes who devour widows houses, or the widow who foolishly contributes her whole means to a corrupt system – a system that will soon be destroyed – what if you saw your part in this story as the gift itself?

Where can you invest yourself? How can you contribute to God’s purpose and mission? We may not think those coins amount to much. Sometimes our faith doesn’t amount to much, either. But if it’s all we have to live on, how can we make sure we don’t squander that gift?

I love the Communion liturgy we use in the United Methodist Church. I love the words of consecration, when we ask God to “pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, so that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” If that’s what it means to be two coins, I’m in.

Don’t just take, but be the body of Christ for the world.

There’s another sound bite for you. That’ll preach.

David Lose[2] offers us one more way to look at this passage from Mark’s gospel. Lose points out that perhaps the focus of this story is not so much on the scribes or the rich or the poor widow, but on what Jesus does: he sees this widow. Among all the people putting money into the Temple treasury, Jesus notices her.

Lose writes, “And whatever it is that he wants his disciples to learn from her, perhaps the first lesson is simply to notice her. To see her. To acknowledge her person, her being, her plight, and her offering. She is not, in the end, an object lesson, but a person. Easily unseen, even invisible, yet worthy of Jesus’ attention, and ours.”

The widow is a real person. It’s easy to put some label on her so we don’t have to think about her very much. This is why I really dislike the term “less fortunate.” Why do we assume that the widow’s poverty has anything to do with luck?

We might call someone “less fortunate” because we think it avoids placing a negative stigma on poverty. ‘It’s not really your fault if you are poor; you are just a victim of circumstance. And it’s not really my fault if I’m rich; I’m just lucky, I guess.’

But when we call someone “less fortunate” we are automatically labeling that person as less valuable than we are, we who consider ourselves “more fortunate.” Neither poverty nor wealth have anything to do with luck. Yes, there are times when a person’s financial condition changes because of circumstances beyond his or her control. But more often, our broken social systems determine the difference between poverty and wealth.

Those who are born poor are more likely to remain so, just as those born into rich families are more likely to stay rich throughout their lives. Your level of education, whether or not you have children, and whether or not you are married when you have them, your ability to stay employed, and how well you obey the law – these are strong indicators of how wealthy or poor you may become during your life time. Not “fortune” or luck.

Whether you are rich or poor, you can’t write off this widow as “less fortunate.” You can’t think of her as a project or a statistic. She is real, and whatever Jesus wants us to learn from her, perhaps the first lesson is to notice her. To see her, and all the people like her who pass through our lives ignored or forgotten.

Today we honor veterans who have served our country, and who are too often forgotten or ignored. We also remember those soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines who gave their lives in combat for our freedom. It is the one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. At the time, people just called it the Great War, because it was supposed to end all wars. But it didn’t.

Two nights before the twentieth anniversary of the Armistice, another event took place that would eventually lead us into a second World War. On the night of November 9th, and continuing into the morning of November 10th in 1938, an organized campaign of street violence broke out in Germany and Austria, aimed at Jewish businesses and families.

Kristallnacht, or “Crystal Night” in English, came to be known as the Night of Broken Glass. The streets were littered with “broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence.” More than 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.[3]

Lose writes, “Clearly the problem was not that the Nazis didn’t notice the Jews living around them, but rather that they would not see them as genuine persons deserving love and respect, as kin in the larger human family, let alone as kindred children of God. Indeed, they saw them as opponents to be feared. When we do not notice people, we are apt to forget about or ignore them. That is a sin and a shame. When we do not see others as human – because we have been taught to fear or despise them – we are likely to treat them inhumanely, which is a sin, a shame, and a crime, as we’ve seen played out all too frequently in recent weeks.”[4]

A couple of weeks ago, during their morning Shabbat worship at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 11 people were killed and seven injured. “The attack, the deadliest on Jews in U.S. history, targeted a congregation that is an anchor of Pittsburgh’s large and close-knit Jewish community.”[5] But it isn’t just Pittsburgh.

According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, “the total number of hate crimes in the 10 largest cities in America jumped in 2017, marking four straight years for an uptick in such incidents.” Researchers found “a 12.5 percent increase in incidents reported by police last year” in those cities.[6]

Tragedies like this happen when we stop seeing each other as human beings, when we keep putting our two coins into the corrupt systems that destroy life, instead of investing ourselves in the life-giving work of loving God and neighbor.

The old systems can’t stand. The temple will fall down. Only Jesus can change our lives and give us hope for a future when people will stop hating each other and start loving each other. A future when weapons that kill get hammered into farming utensils that can help things grow. A future where peace and justice fill every corner of the new heaven and the new earth that Jesus promises.

But it isn’t just a future that gives us hope. Jesus calls us right now to see the widow, and to recognize her deepest need. It’s the same need we all have. We need to be cared for in a way that only God can care for us, to be loved in a way that only God can love us. To be seen as only Christ can see us.

Maybe that’s the final layer of the story, the part where we can step in and take our place next to the scribes, next to the wealthy, next to the widow with her two little coins.

We can’t do anything to change the broken systems that rule us until we see that they are, indeed, broken.

We can’t live or give sacrificially until we see that it means giving ourselves, just as Jesus gives himself to us.

We can’t see Jesus until we see the widow, and recognize her as one of us instead of as someone or something that is apart from us.

If we want to be like Jesus, we have to see like Jesus.

That’ll preach.

[5] “‘They showed his photo, and my stomach just dropped’: Neighbors recall synagogue massacre suspect as a loner”The Washington Post.

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