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First Impressions: Mark 12:38-44

November 3, 2009

My file on the widow and her two copper coins is thick.  I have preached about her often, and seem to recall having done so with some success.  Yet this year my study has not brought me anywhere near a simple, elegant sermon.  As always, I am wary of preaching anything too trite.  How can I bring a fresh approach that treats the text with integrity, especially when said text is a little too convenient for the stewardship season (and that’s where my congregation is during November)?

12:38-40 I could always take the easy road and preach on the first three verses of the pericope.  I could make fun of myself and indict the Church (not too strenuously, mind you; we are in our stewardship campaign after all) for its own failures in living out the high calling of Jesus.  We clergy like to put our titles and degrees on letterhead, business cards and even on our churches.  It is with great honor and dignity that we put our stamp of approval on city council meetings and community events with our well rehearsed invocations.  And, of course, we have our own share of charlatans who “devour widows’ houses” in order to support self-aggrandizing ministries and lifestyles.

That sermon would be warning enough for all of us, but would it really be a reflection of the Good News?  Probably not.  A sermon could start there, but it would have to finish very far to the other side of grace to bring any credit to the Lord of Life.

12:41-44 Like it or not, I will have to say something about this “poor widow” who put in everything “she had to live on.”  Very early in my sermons on this text, I have always added the “but” so as not to sound like the religious wolves who have nothing better to do than eat up old grandmothers.  “But,” I say, “we certainly don’t want you to give so much that you can’t afford your medicine or heat for your house or food for your belly.”  While that may be true, and while it might make me feel as if I have distanced myself from those whom Jesus condemned a few verses earlier, I just might rob the story of its power.  The widow gave everything, including her means to live.  She held nothing back, but emptied herself completely for the sake of others.

Does that sound familiar?  It should, because that is the Gospel just as clearly as John 3:16.  The story of the widow is a parable about Jesus’ own self-emptying.  If you have been preaching Mark throughout the year, you will have run across too many passages about crosses and sacrifice and giving oneself away and the first who are last and vice versa.  So maybe this year I’ll let the story speak in all its power and horror.

Another fruitful possibility lies in contrasting the scribes and wealthy givers with this lone woman.  It is a story in which Jesus lifts up the sacrifice of the widow and compares it with the “mere” contributions of the wealthy.  Jesus never condemned them or their lavish gifts, but he did acknowledge that the widow gave more.  There is a difference between “contribution” and “sacrifice.”  R. Alan Cole wonders if God isn’t so much concerned with what we give, but with what we keep for ourselves (R. Alan Cole, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Mark [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989], 196.).

You could also consider the motive of the giver.  Was this widow displaying a complete trust in God?  Or was she simply being foolish?  What is the point of giving your last meal away to a human institution that is likely to misuse your contribution?  You could use that approach to examine our own motives for giving, which are many and complicated: thanksgiving and guilt, generosity and fear, compassion and pride.

I am leaning toward using this text as a parable to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ own gift to us.  That seems to be fully in line with Mark’s intentions throughout the Gospel, and I’m not sure I’ve really preached it that way before.  I may choose a narrative sermon, perhaps taking us through the woman’s life the previous week and leading to that moment in the Temple where she gave away everything she had to live on.

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