Seeing the Invisible
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
November 8, 2015
Mark 12: 38-44 (CEB)
38As he was teaching, he 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. 39They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
41Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
Year after year, Ken and I have marveled at the wonderful, glorious fact that we can take Mary Ellen clothes shopping and she is not concerned about brand names. We’ll take her to pick out some jeans and long-sleeve shirts in the Fall, or shorts and t-shirts in the Spring. We usually need to get her a new pair of tennis shoes before the start of school every year. And always, Mary Ellen gladly follows us to Academy, or Target, or some other discount retailer to find what she needs. And always, Ken and I pat ourselves on the back because Mary Ellen wasn’t bothered by the fact that she didn’t get Nikes or Levis or whatever. Until this year…
With a generous newspaper-clipped coupon in hand, Mary Ellen and I headed to Kohl’s several weeks ago to buy her some jeans and winter shirts. All was going well until Mary Ellen asked, “Can we see if they have any Converse shoes?” (In my mind I heard, “Duhn, duhn duuuuhn….”) My mother had already purchased Mary Ellen a nice new pair of tennis shoes before school started, so she really had no need for another pair, but alas, Mary Ellen was concerned about the brand and the look. So, we finished our jean shopping and headed to the shoe department. Sure enough, there they were, and Mary Ellen had to have a pair. Because they were not a necessity, Mary Ellen and I worked out a deal where she made a contribution toward the cost of the All-Stars, but what really bothered me was the fact that the Sauer off-brand streak had ended. At least it will work with Owen for a while…
I share that story with you to say this; our self-identity is very much driven by what the culture tells us is right, or good, or popular. It’s most obvious in pre-teens and teenagers with their concerns about brands of clothing and handheld devices, but there are adult versions of this epidemic, too. Society tells us that you’re a better person if you live in the right neighborhood, drive the right kind of car, use a certain kind of cell phone, and send your kids to the right private school. So we strive for these things, and if we can’t attain them all, then we always feel at least a little inadequate, maybe a little ashamed. So we keep trying, doing every little thing we can to raise our societal status.
We come this morning to some observational teaching by Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. We heard this same scripture passage a couple of months ago, and we focused on the sacrificial gift of the widow. But this morning, I want us to consider Christ’s words about the legal experts. Now, the Scribes (as they are also known) were the crème-de-al-crème of ancient Israel’s religious society. This was a culture that was centered around its religion, and the Scribes were the religious experts. They were the authority on the Law, and the arbiters of religious practice. In theory, they were the advocates of the people. They were supposed to be the trusted leaders, worthy representatives, and hardworking civil servants. But in reality, Jesus tells us, it was much different. Because it seems, many of these powerful leaders wanted nothing more than to build on their power and clout.
Now, an early word of caution: we should not soundly condemn all of the ancient legal experts. Modern Biblical scholars have suggested that we have added punctuation where there is none in the original text. “Watch out for the legal experts.” Period. “They like to walk around in long robes.” Period. “They want to be greeted with honor in the markets.” Period. The implication of such phrasing is that what is true of one Scribe is true of all Scribes. In reality, though, the original text probably reads something more like this, “Watch out for the legal experts who like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with honor in the markets.” In other words, this behavior wasn’t true of ALL the legal experts, only some of them.
In any case, the point remains. There is this group of people who is primarily concerned only with appearances. The longer the robe the better; like having the right brand of shoes on the feet. The more prestigious seat at the table the better; like membership in the right country club. The result of all this jostling for position, power, and prestige, though, is that other people are being trampled on, taken advantage of, hurt. “They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers,” Jesus says.
What we need to understand as we look at this teaching from Jesus is that Jesus wasn’t condemning only the legal experts. He was pointing out to his followers the flaws of all people who seek personal gain, power, and prestige above all else; especially when such behavior harms other people. The simple truth of the matter is that we are all like this in some ways and at some times. We do things so that we can get noticed, so that we can bring attention to ourselves, so that we can be praised; whether it’s the clothes we wear, or the car we drive, or the way we flaunt our faith.
I was part of a church once that had a number of prestigious members: senators and state legislators, high powered lawyers, and prominent doctors. As a general truth, almost none of these prestigious members attended the church on any regular basis, but when out in public, they talked about their church participation all the time. The joke around the office was that the church was a “resume” church—people joined so that they could build up their positive portfolio and look good to the public, not because Christ had transformed them or because they were trying to grow as Christ’s disciples.
I was reading a story this week in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about the Venue Church. Have you heard of it? It’s a non-denominational church over off of Shallowford Road. They launched about three years ago, and presently they are one of the fastest growing churches in the United States. That’s pretty impressive and quite noteworthy; they must be doing something right. What was interesting about the story, though, were the comments posted below. At the time I read the story, there were about 45 comments, and about 75% of them went along this vein, “All show and no substance. Why don’t they take all that money they’re spending on a big production and do something to help the homeless and the poor?”
People are watching us, friends, and they want to see us “practicing what we preach.” They want to see us taking care of the poor and the needy. They want to see us serving others before we serve ourselves. They want to see us making a difference in people’s lives and changing the world in the same humble way Christ did. If we are flaunting our faith, using it to gain prestige and power, and so on, then we may as well be standing outside telling everyone who approaches the church to just head to the golf course or the lake because Christ doesn’t really matter anyway. Is that who we want to be? Is that the witness we want to give? I don’t think so. We know that Christ transforms people; that Christ saves people. We have experienced this and we want other people to experience it, too. And so we have to live in the way that Christ directs us to live.
Right after Christ tells the disciples to watch out for those legal experts who are always walking around in long robes and seeking the best seats at the banquet, he shifts their focus. He looks over toward the Temple treasury, the “offering plate”, as it were. And he points out there, among the rich rulers noisily throwing in their heavy bags of money, a widow, who puts in two small copper coins. Jesus doesn’t tell us to be like this woman, but it is inferred. “All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
Jesus has just painted for us this picture of big, barrel-chested legal experts, proudly making their presence known everywhere they go. They have the nice robes, they get all the praise and honor in the public sphere, and they are looking for more. Then there is this woman. She has nothing. So little, in fact, that when Jesus draws attention to her, he tells his listeners that as she put those two meager coins into the Temple treasury, she gave everything she had. Unlike the proud Scribes and the rich rulers who were flaunting their prestige for all to see, I imagine this woman walking through the Temple grounds a little scared. I imagine that she was probably very ashamed. She was probably trying as hard as she possibly could to be invisible, to not be noticed so that she wouldn’t be shamed. It’s sort of like the poor kid at school whose pants are a little too short, and whose shoes are the off-brand, and he tries every way possible to cover it up so that he isn’t made fun of by the other kids. We’re good at doing that in our society from grade school all the way through retirement, shaming others so that we can feel better about ourselves. But then Jesus comes along and messes everything up. Sure, we can follow the ways of the world. We can gain recognition and prestige. We can build ourselves up even as we knock others down. But for what? Christ has showed us how we can live life to the full. Christ has showed us a better way. The question is, can we hear what Christ says to us? Are we brave enough to follow Christ? Are we secure enough to let go of our worldly trappings?
“Look at her,” Jesus says, “The one over there with her head ducked, trying to be invisible. Do you see her?” It’s as if Christ is saying, “That’s what the faithful look like. That’s what the faithful do. That’s how the faithful live. It’s not flashy and showy. It’s not going to get you any special seats at any special banquets. It’s not going to give you worldly reward or recognition. But that’s how to truly live. That’s how you live!”