Both Sides of the Coin

All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.
—Mark 12:44b MSG

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Mark 12:38-44

“The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer.”

The Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is the source of this phrase.[1] It’s from an essay he wrote in defense of poetry.  I think it nicely sums up the two scenes in today’s scripture reading.  In the first scene Jesus tells us about a religious scholar wearing fancy robes, getting seats of honor at banquets, and showing off his holiness with long prayers, all the while cheating widows out of their property.  In the second scene Jesus points out the people putting their offerings into the temple money box – rich people putting in large amounts that they won’t miss, while the widow puts in a tiny amount that is all that she has.

There are scriptures throughout the Bible that talk about the need to take care of widows and orphans.

Isaiah 10:1-2 says: What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
 They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans.

James 1:27 says, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”

It’s hard for us to imagine what life was like for a widow in Jesus’ time.  Our women’s circle is doing a study of women in the Bible. At our last meeting we learned about Tamar whose story is told in Genesis 38.  She was widowed twice by the sons of Judah and had to be given back into the care of her father because a woman was not expected to be able to survive on her own. 

We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have room for improvement.

There are many ways to learn from today’s scripture, and you may be hearing something different than what I’m hearing. So to let the Holy Spirit speak to us more through the text, I’m going to read today’s scripture from the Message version. Listen for what stands out to you.

38-40 He continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

41-44 Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”

What stood out to you?

The word “exploit” stood out to me. Jesus points out how the religious leaders are exploiting the weak and helpless, and then points out a widow, someone who is an archetype for the weak and helpless.  One of the things I’ve been wondering this week is how the religious leaders were exploiting people. Maybe Jesus was alluding to the temple tax.  Everyone had to pay a certain amount to the temple on a regular basis.  For the rich people, this was no big deal, but for the poor people, this was a heavy burden.

Notice that Jesus and anyone who’s watching as people put their offerings into the box can to see who gives what.  Jesus can see the rich people putting in larger amounts and he can see the poor people putting in less. One of the reasons I’m glad that we have online giving now is that only our treasurer can see who is giving and who isn’t, or how much anyone is giving.  On the other hand, it’s easy for it to become something we don’t think about, especially if you set it up to happen automatically.  But everything we do affects everything.

Thinking more about that word “exploit.” To exploit means to make use of something or someone unfairly for one’s own advantage.[2] 

[3]

Do we exploit people today?  We do, but it’s so bound into our economic systems that we don’t always realize we’re doing it. We’ve been seeing some prices for things we buy going up lately. That’s challenging, and we, of course, would rather pay less. But our demand for lower prices means that to make prices lower, the costs have to be lower, which means that people have to be paid less to do the manufacturing, and paid less to do the transportation, and paid less to work in the store that sells the item.  If people are being paid less than a fair wage, less than a survivable wage, then our demand for lower prices is potentially exploiting people.

One of the lessons for us in today’s scripture is that our small choices matter.  How we use our resources matters.  Our resources are not just our money, but also our knowledge, our position, our time, and our words.  How we talk about things matters.  How we use what we have matters.

The religious leader in today’s scripture used his position to get richer and to seek the praise of people.  The widow used her money to honor God.

Last week we heard Jesus tell one of the religious leaders that all the commands in the Bible are summed up in two:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

How are we using our money, knowledge, position, time, words, emotions, wisdom, life, and strength to love God and to love our neighbors?

May these pennies remind us that our small choices matter.

May these pennies also remind us that it’s not about being good enough or rich enough or smart enough.  It’s about giving God all of our hearts.  In God we trust, not in this penny.

The widow put in all she had but I don’t think Jesus is just praising her for putting in all her money.  She’s giving her life to God, trusting that her small gift is enough for God.

If we shift our focus from the actions of the people in the story and instead look at the one who’s telling these stories, Jesus, we notice that Jesus is able to see more than just the actions of the people.  Jesus sees their motivations.  Jesus sees their hearts.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep making good decisions, keep doing the right thing.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep trusting God.  People don’t always notice.  Or if they do notice, they don’t always agree.  We might think that nobody cares what we say or what we do or what we believe.  But Jesus cares. And Jesus sees.

May these pennies remind us that even if nobody else knows what’s in our hearts, God knows.

In God we trust. Thanks be to God.


[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley, “In Defence of Poetry,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69388/a-defence-of-poetry

[2] “Exploit.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exploit. Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.

[3] Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

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