The Rev. Peter Faass' homily was part of the round-robin series preached by the Rev. Faass, the Rev. Daniel Budd (First Unitarian Church of Cleveland), and the Rev. Roger Osgood (Heights Christian Church), who took turns preaching at every congregation in November 2015.
Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…’
As I stand here before you this morning in my Anglican choir-dress regalia, it is not lost on me that I may give just a teeny-tiny bit of appearing like one of those scribes Jesus speaks of in our text; you know, those guys who like to flaunt about in their fancy long robes to impress people, like Joseph and his amazing Technicolor dream coat!
We Episcopal clergy like to dress up for worship. If you think this (particular vestment) is fancy, you should see what I wear to celebrate the Eucharist! On our good days, we ideally wear the fancy robes to please and honor God, just like people who put on their Sunday best when going to church. On our bad days… well, they didn’t call the liturgical practice classroom at my seminary the “Barbie Dream Chapel” for nothing!
I hope that in my time with you, I can persuade you that today is a good day.
Our reading from Mark’s gospel (12:38) is broken into two scenes, or pericopes, as we in the world of theology like to call them. Both take place within the Jerusalem Temple.
In the first scene, Jesus is teaching. The class he is conducting has actually been going on for some time, having begun back in chapter 11, verse 27. The religious authorities haves been relentless; chief priests, elders, scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees have been confronting Jesus to verbally entangle him. They hope he’ll commit some sort of religious verbal faux pas and lose his credibility by offending the crowds gathered around him. Of course, Jesus is too savvy for that. He can’t be out-debated. Like any good debater, he turns the tables on those conniving to outwit him.
“Beware of the scribes,” he says, launching a list of offensive, hypocritical behaviors that they and the well-off elites of Jerusalem engage in.
- Beware of their Christian Dior outfits and their demands of you to defer to them in public.
- Beware when they claim the best pew in the synagogue because they believe they are important and powerful.
- Beware when they make a beeline for the head table at parties and insist on being served the best food portion first.
Jesus says these are meaningless prayers and trust me, God sees right through their hypocrisy, their abuse of others and their lack of humility. “They will receive the greater condemnation,” he states. In other words, behaviors have consequences, and God doesn’t miss a thing.
The description of the scribes’ behaviors describes the aristocracy’s “normal practices” in Jesus’ day. While Jesus’ comments focused on the scribes who were verbally taunting him, he intended to point a finger at the ostentatious display and abuse of power of all who took on the trappings of wealth and power – especially those who did so on the backs of the vulnerable, like widows.
The charge against the scribes devouring widow’s houses is evocative of earlier Biblical prophetic charges against the rich and powerful who attained riches at the expense of others. The prophet Amos decried this behavior and spoke of God’s judgment on it:
11“Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins--
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:11-12)
Throughout scripture, God persistently calls us to care and provide for the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This call often focuses on the widowed and orphaned, but that phrase is meant to encompass all who are disadvantaged by the rich and powerful.
In today’s story, the rich and powerful prey on widows in scene one, and prominently in the reading’s second scene. The focus on widows links the two pericopes into one object lesson about God’s morality and the immoral behavior of the rich and powerful.
In the second scene, Jesus points to the rich placing money into the treasury boxes at the Temple. He then focuses on a poor widow who comes along and gives two small copper coins worth a penny.
Jesus indicates that the rich give large sums out of their abundance; sums that are pocket change because of their net worth. Their donations don’t impact their financial status because they’re surplus funds; therefore they’re not a sacrifice to God. The widow, on the other hand, has given out of her poverty, as she has “put in everything she had.”
We need to be clear: Jesus’ praise of the widow’s actions should not be misconstrued as approving the social conditions that created her poverty. They are a condemnation of those whose lust for wealth and ostentation – people who have created the very circumstances that cause the widow’s poverty. Ultimately, Jesus points a finger at those who devour widows’ houses. Their behavior is the root cause that creates impoverished people like the widow at the treasury box.
The Hebrew and Christian Testaments often assert that God created a world with more than enough for all: that the world is a place of abundance. In that abundance, God desires equity in creation so that it is a place of distributive justice:
- A world where all people are to be afforded a life with adequate food, clothing, housing and care.
- A world where all these things are provided with the dignity and integrity that is befitting creatures that are made in the image of a loving God.
That is God’s morality… that is God’s truth.
Jesus teaches at the Temple that those who do not adequately provide for the most vulnerable do not care about God’s truth. They only care about their own lust for money and power.
In the New York Times article, The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor,1 writer Paul Theroux examines the recent phenomena of some very rich people “helping” those hit hard by the jobless economic recovery. He writes,
“[we] hear [about] grotesquely wealthy American chief executives [who] announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions or billions, ‘to lift people out of poverty.’ Sometimes they are referring to Africans, but sometimes they are referring to Americans. And here’s the funny thing about that: In most cases they have made their fortunes by impoverishing whole American communities, having outsourced their manufacturing to China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.”
While these executives boasted of how relocating manufacturing to other nations has lifted people out of poverty in those places, this was hardly done for altruistic reasons. It was cheap labor, cheaper raw products and less government oversight for worker safety and mandated benefits (such as healthcare) that drove this outsourcing.
Theroux continues, “To me, globalization is the search for the new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a Third World country.”
Those who created this impoverishment and took advantage of others because of their own lust for material gain, placing untold numbers of people in vulnerable circumstances, now suffer pangs of guilt about their companies’ profits and their own stupendous salaries. To assuage this guilt, they give a donation out of their largess to supply food banks, shelters and job retraining programs (although no job opportunities). These are band-aids which haven’t resolved this immoral situation.
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.
God does not miss a thing and won’t be foiled. The radicality of God’s love for all creation, for all God’s children, combined with God’s intent to bring about the full fruition of what Christians call “The Kingdom” or “Reign of God” demands distributive justice for all. Distributive justice means we work with God to end the world’s evil, unjust practices, oppression, violence and war. This is God’s vision for creation given to us through the prophets and Jesus.
Admittedly, the achievement of that vision can seem daunting at times. Some of you may even be thinking that it is some starry-eyed, pie-in-the-sky, impossible utopia.
Roman Catholic Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan offers this insight on those feelings:
“Maybe [in speaking of God’s reign] it is prudent to distinguish between rhapsodic and impossible utopia and an ecstatic and possible eutopia. Eutopia imagines a social world of universal peace, a human world of non-violent distributive justice where all get a fair and adequate share of God’s world as God’s Kingdom. If that is a silly fantasy or utopian delusion with no possible eventual advent, our human species may be a magnificent and as doomed as was the saber-toothed tiger.2”
We stand at a crossroads in 2015. It is no secret that wealth distribution in our nation becomes increasingly inequitable each day. The one percent figure bandied about is not some fiction.
Enormous amounts of wealth accrue to a tiny fraction, while more people sink into living at the margins, poor and struggling. The famous American middle class – a group of people who arguably benefited from the greatest era of distributive justice in our history in the 1950’s and 1960’s – is disappearing.
This all occurs because of a tiny minority’s insatiable lust for money and power that leads to immoral practices in business and in government. Scribes win – and widows loose.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose God’s truth.
God’s truth is a clarion call to us as we confront this crisis in our own time. The choice is ours, God says. We can go the way of Crossan’s saber-toothed tiger, or we can heed God’s call to work passionately for distributive justice for all God’s children. But we must participate with God. We must be proactive. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu wisely observed, “God, without us, will not; as we, without God, cannot.”
- Theroux, Paul. 4 October 2015. The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor” The New York Times.
- Crossan, John Dominic. 2015. How To Read The Bible & Still Be A Christian (New York: HarperCollins, 2015) p. 137.