A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 12:38-13:2 on Sunday March 10, 2019
Today, I’m going to ruin a beautiful story. I’m not going to ruin it by going too long. I’m not going to ruin it by accident, by using poor illustrations or by making bad applications. I’m going to ruin it on purpose with the truth. Today, I will tell you the truth, but you may not thank me for it afterwards.
You see, Jesus was sitting in the temple courtyard with his disciples. Yes, it was still the Tuesday after Palm Sunday. I know, I know, it’s seems like this Tuesday has lasted for weeks and weeks. Jesus had been answering questions from his opponents and then he asked one of his own. It was late on that never ending Tuesday. The show was over and the crowd had gone to do whatever crowds do in their spare time. Jesus was sitting in the courtyard near the entrance to the temple building. As Jesus was watching, people were going into the shrine and as they walked in the door, they put their money into an offering box.
Some people gave what they could afford. Some people gave lots. Some people made a big show of it, looking around to see who was watching, maybe even waiting for the best possible moment to be the centre of attention, and then with a dramatic pause and maybe a dip of the shoulders as if they were unloading a great burden, they heaved their money into the box, satisfied that it didn’t just make a tiny clink, but made a great clashing sound like cymbals coming together.
I mean, what is the point of money, if it can’t buy you respect? What is the point of giving lots, if it doesn’t get you lots of attention? What is the point of affluence, if it doesn’t pay dividends in influence?
Along came a widow. She had no breadwinner in the household. She had no man in her life to break his back working for some other man just to feed his family. No, sadly, her husband had passed away and she was surviving on the last few copper coins he’d accumulated in his lifetime. Soon they would run out and she’d have to depend on charity and on other people’s pity to get by.
She was poor, but she was rich in faith. She loved God and she loved his temple. And she would not go into the temple to participate in the worship empty handed. She would not come before the Lord with nothing. So she gave her last two copper coins. They were the smallest coins in circulation. In our money she gave 10 cents. But it was 10 cents she couldn’t spare.
No one noticed what she did but Jesus. No one else drew attention to it. No one else went home to tell all their friends of the great sacrifice they had witness. But Jesus noticed and said that she gave more. More than all the others. They gave what they could afford, because there was plenty more money at home. But she gave what she couldn’t spare. She gave her life. She gave her all.
The Lord sees. The Lord notices. The Lord isn’t distracted by appearances. He isn’t impressed by large novelty cheques with wealthy donor’s names written in large print. The Lord sees the heart and values the gift in proportion to the resources from which it comes. The Lord knows. The Lord who sees what is done in secret knows. The Lord who hears the secret prayers of your heart knows. He knows what you have. He knows what you do and what you give and from what resources it comes from. He knows who gives from what they can spare and he knows who gives their all.
I’d really like to stop there. Nothing makes me happier than telling happy stories. But two things make it a sad story. The first is what comes straight after this story in Mark chapter 13. And the second is what comes straight before.
In Mark chapter 13 verse Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple courtyard, when one of them looked back and said,
“Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What impressive buildings!”
And he was right. The temple precincts took up one quarter of the whole city of Jerusalem and its central shrine dominated the sky line. In a way, Jerusalem wasn’t a city. It was a temple with suburbs.
Jesus said to them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.”
And forty years later, that prediction came true. If that was the only thing that Jesus ever did, it would still have been a staggering achievement. King Herod began rebuilding the temple in 20 BC. It was one of the largest building projects at the time, funded by heavy taxes. The construction was so ambitious, even in Jesus’ day, 46 years later, work was still going on. In those 46 years, the really tricky bit was the effort it took to restore and rebuild the temple that was already there without interfering with the daily sacrifices. It had all the challenges of renovating a house that people are living in, just 100 times worse. It took planning and effort and money and skill. It was finally finished in 63 AD.
And it was completely destroyed seven years later according to Jesus’ prophecy. What the poor widow had given her all to support came to nothing 30 years later.
About a month ago we looked at Mark’s account of Jesus clearing out the temple. But John’s Gospel paints a different picture. According to John’s account, Jesus came in, made a whip out of cords, drove out all the animals being sold for sacrifice and overturned the tables of the money changers. The men in charge of the temple demanded,
“What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do this?”
“Tear down this temple and I will raise it again in 3 days.”
They took him literally.
“It has taken 46 years to build this temple and you are going to raise it in 3 days.”
But they didn’t realise that Jesus wasn’t talking about the magnificent structure made of stone and mortar. Only after he was raised from the dead, did Jesus’ disciples realise that he was talking about himself.
Jesus came to make the temple redundant. Obsolete. Unnecessary. God didn’t live among human beings in a building. God lived among them in human form in Jesus. Jesus Christ is the presence of God. Jesus Christ is the meeting place between God and human beings. Jesus Christ gave the one true perfect sacrifice on the cross that made the daily sacrifices of the temple a thing of the past. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD to show the world that it was no longer needed. Whatever service it had once provided we are now to get from Jesus.
God does not live in holy places funded by poor widow’s life savings. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God. And we meet God in him. We could meet in a school. We could meet in a house. And according to Jesus’ own promise, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”
That’s what came after the story of the poor widow. But worse comes before.
Jesus started to get stuck into the Jewish leaders of his day. He said to the crowd,
“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the market places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
He rebuked them for their hypocrisy. He rebuked them for their greed. He rebuked them because their rabid nationalism was focused on the temple. And instead of being a centre of peace with God and of blessing for all people, the temple had become a rallying point for war and rebellion. And it was funded at the expense of poor widows who loved God and gave sacrificially to his worship.
It’s not a coincidence that in Mark’s Gospel these two accounts follow straight after each other. The teachers of the law prey on widows and devour their homes. And then along comes a widow who gives her last two coins to the temple. It doesn’t have to demean her gift. It certainly doesn’t reduce her love for God or her commitment to his worship. But it does mean that those who received it were unworthy of her gift. And so it is a bittersweet story and the widow’s part in the story is both hero and victim. She is a hero because she gave more than all the others. But she is a victim because those who received her gift were not worthy of it.
This was Paul’s complaint against his people in Romans chapter 10.
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Paul’s people were the Israelites. All God’s promises were theirs. The Messiah came as their promised king. But they rejected him and crucified him and refused to believe in him. Paul couldn’t fault their zeal. They had passion, commitment, devotion. But it was channelled in all the wrong ways into hatred for Jesus and into persecution against his followers. They had zeal. But it was not according to knowledge. They were like an athlete who trained hard and ran fast but was headed in the wrong direction. They tried to justify themselves before God but failed to see that in Jesus God justifies us and makes us right with him. They wanted salvation, but didn’t know how to get it. And so they missed it, because it is Jesus who gives it to us.
The moral of this bittersweet story is that we need zeal. We need love for God, passion, commitment, and devotion just like the poor widow. But it needs to be channelled in the right directions.
The biggest mistake would be to tell this story of the woman who gave her last ten cents and then pass around the money bag for a second time. Because Jesus Christ is our temple. He is the dwelling place of God. He is where we meet God. And he doesn’t need your donations. Instead, he came to give himself, his life for yours, the one true perfect sacrifice that saves our wretched souls from the fires of hell. He doesn’t want your money. He wants you. He doesn’t want your last ten cents. He wants your last breath and your last ounce of strength for his kingdom in which he reigns as king. Because temples fall. And every imposing building that reaches for the sky will fall and return to dust. But the gates of death will not prevail against the kingdom of God. Save your money for those who depend on you and for those who labour for the gospel. And let all the idols of men of greed and hypocrisy come crashing down.
May the Lord gives us zeal. But may that zeal be according to knowledge. May he give us zeal only for Christ, for his gospel and for his kingdom.