The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached April 4th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and the Widow (Mark 12:38-44)
Over the past few weeks many Christian leaders have been discussing a recent Gallup poll that has caused some stir in evangelicalism: church membership has declined in America to under 50% for the first time ever. Why has this happened? Could it be…
– The death of cultural Christianity? As America has become less favorable towards classic Christianity, people who had be inhabiting the church out of cultural expectations—rather than genuine belief—have begun to decline. (This is what I usually tend to believe is happening)
– Difficulty accepting the ethical teaching of Christianity, particularly around areas of sexuality and identity?
– Difficulty accepting the miraculous?
It could be a mixture of all of those—though fewer and fewer people are raising arguments against the spiritual and miraculous. Many people have presented different takes on this phenomena, but this week Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the SBC, wrote a perceptive article noting that he has found that more and more younger Christians are abandoning the church not because they find Christian teaching to be too restrictive or unbelievable, but they believe that the Church does not actually believe or practice what it teaches. Moore writes, “The presenting issue in this secularization is not scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism.” Young people aren’t becoming more secular, but think we are becoming more secular. Certainly, many of you here know of someone who has abandoned the church because they claim that they have seen hypocrisy and abuse taking place within the church.
What are we to think of such stories? In our text today we will find a woman who has been abused and taken advantage of by religious authorities, yet see her persist in a sincere devotion and costly faith, despite her suffering. And in and through her example we will see a model of our very Lord and Savior, who when abused and taken advantage of, continued to give of Himself to the highest and most ultimate degree.
And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:38-44
Jesus begins by issuing this warning: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers,” Mark 12:38-40a. We have heard of the Scribes often in Mark’s gospel, with almost every encounter being negative (Mark 1:22; 2:6; 2:16; 3:22; 7:1; 7:5; 8:31; 9:14; 10:33; 11:18; 11:27; 12:35; 14:1; 14:43; 14:53; 15:1; 15:31). The Scribes, usually paired with the other Temple officials (chief priests, elders) or the Pharisees, as a whole believe that Jesus is a false Messiah, possibly under the influence of demons (cf. 3:22ff). They have been actively working to find a way to destroy Jesus, and are one of the main parties responsible for Jesus’ arrest and execution. The one exception to this has been the single scribe who just recently approached Jesus to ask about the greatest commandment (12:28-34). So, if we have read the gospels before we know that scribes are dangerous.
But, we must remind ourselves, that this warning may have sounded strange to Jesus’ original hearers. Scribes were respected Bible scholars. They were the ones responsible for copying the Hebrew Bible down with meticulous precision and teaching the Law to the people (cf. Mark 1:22). Were Jesus giving this warning today, it would sound like, “Beware of the seminary professors…beware of the learned Bible teachers…” Why should Jesus’ disciples watch out for those kinds of people? In the last story with the wise scribe, Jesus reminded us that the greatest command of God could be summarized in loving God with everything we have, our whole life, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And who better to exemplify and model those commands than the experts and teachers of the Law, the scribes!
But in Jesus’ eyes, do the scribes love God? No. They love being recognized, they love the approval and status and respect they get from their station. They wore special robes that let everyone know who they were as they walked down the street. “When a scribe walked down the street or passed through a marketplace, everyone (with the exception of laborers) was expected to rise before him,” (Edwards, PNTC). They loved seats of honor in the synagogue and at dinners and they loved making ornate, long prayers for show.
Do they love their neighbor? No. They devour widow’s houses. The scribes should have been the ones teaching and enacting the care for widows. Alongside the fatherless and the sojourner, widows were most frequently set aside as a vulnerable class of individuals in the Old Testament that required special care, provision, and protections from being taken advantage of. Sins against widows incur God’s special anger (Ex 22:21-24; Deut 14:29; 24:17ff; 27:19; Isa 1:17; Jer 7:6-7; 22:3; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5; Ps 146:9). The scribes, teachers of the Law, of course knew this! And yet, they prey on these vulnerable women, using their status and privilege in some way that leads to these already disadvantaged individuals becoming even further destitute, coaxing them out of what little financial security they had.
While we see a poor model in the scribes of how to interact with widows, we need not look far in the Bible to realize that we should care for widows today: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” James 1:27 (cf. 1 Tim 5:3-16). While the triumvirate of “widows, fatherless, and sojourner” in the Bible shows us that God commands us to care for whoever is most at risk in society to be taken advantage of, we need not work hard to think of how to apply this command. Here, in our church we have several widows who deserve our special attention and care. Let us not grow callous and cold like the scribes, who ignore the plain commands of our Lord.
What does the false religion of these scribes look like today? It’s hard not think of some smarmy televangelist, using their platform and appearance of godliness to dupe the impoverished into even further depths of poverty: Donate to our ministry and God will bless you! We should, rightly, beware of such people.
Yet, I doubt many of us in this room are tempted to be deceived by that. Where might we encounter this kind of show religion? We can find this anywhere we find someone who is more in love with themselves than God or neighbor, who use God simply as a way to achieve their ends:
– The teenager recording some good deed just to post it on social media to earn the approval of others.
– The husband who treats his wife and children with love and respect while at church, but explodes in anger as soon as they are home.
– The student who uses Bible verses to publicly defend their political tirades, but does not seek to apply any of those Bible verses to confronting their own sin.
Do you use your spirituality or knowledge of the Bible to impress other people? If you had the opportunity to care for someone or practice your faith, but knew that no one else would ever know about it, would you still be just as incentivized to do the good deed? Jesus elsewhere warns us:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matt 6:1-4
Beware—these scribes are a picture of where that sin wants to take you. Jesus warns of the consequence of this lifestyle: “They will receive the greater condemnation,” Mark 12:40b. Have you heard that all sin will be treated the same on the judgment day? It is true that any sin constitutes the breaking of God’s Law and thus earns us judgment (James 2:10-11). But here we see that there are some sins that earn a “greater condemnation” than others. Jesus seems to be particularly outraged by people who use their religious standing and position to abuse those who are under them.
After Jesus finishes teaching he then sits down in the temple court opposite of the treasury. In the temple court there were thirteen chests for various offerings that helped support and furnish the ministry of the temple. Since it was Passover week there was likely a large crowd drawn in to bring offerings and to worship. Jesus is simply sitting, observing what is going on. He notices that many wealthy people approach and offer large sums, “And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny,” Mark 12:42. While it was possible for women to own their own businesses and so support themselves (see Acts 16:14-15), it was still rare. So when a woman’s husband died she relied on her children or community to support her. If she had no children or her community turned from supporting her, she was left totally destitute. We don’t know the background of this woman other than the fact that she is a “poor widow.”
But, the fact that Mark has placed this story directly after Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes, who “devour widow’s houses,” seems to nod to the fact that this woman’s poverty has been brought about or exacerbated by the scribes’ rapacity and greed. A friend of mine describes this woman as a “carcass” picked over by the vultures and wolves of the temple. And yet, here she is at the temple, offering her two small coins to worship—knowing that those two small coins would likely go into the hands and care of those who have devoured her. The widow sees beyond those crooked leaders to the God whom she loves and her piety, devotion, and gratitude compel her to bring her offering nonetheless. What a model of love of God!
Friend, I wonder if you have been hurt by people in the church? I wonder if the hypocrisy and double-standards and compromise you have seen have given you pause on your participation in the church? And, in a way, it makes sense for someone to have hesitations about the church: the church is a total mess. We know that wolves have crept in and used their position and status to abuse, to exploit, and to get rich. This is one of the reasons why God gives shepherds (pastors) to churches, to protect the flock and chase away wolves (Acts 20:28-30). And Jesus leaves no doubt in our mind that wolves like these scribes will receive their final comeuppance at the judgment day, where they will receive a more severe punishment for their abuse. God does not take spiritual abuse lightly.
But even still, aside from intentional malicious wolf-like activity, the church still often fails to live up to its ideals. We have good intentions that we don’t follow through on; we are quick to devolve into factions, making minor issues major ones; we can be hypocritical, judgmental, and self-important. The church is a mess because we are a mess. But, to steal a line from Ray Ortlund, we are Jesus’ mess, and—wonder of wonders—He doesn’t think He is too good for us.
One of the things that should set the church apart from the world is not its preening and posturing to look better than everyone else, but our admission that we are totally broke without the help of Jesus. I knew one pastor who spoke with a successful businesswoman about Christianity, only to hear her say, “The church is a den of vipers—they are total hypocrites!” He pondered, and replied, “Yes, you’re right. But is it really any different outside the church?” Surprisingly, she was taken aback, “No…I guess it really isn’t.” After explaining the gospel to her, he boldly but gently offered, “There’s always room for one more to slither in.” The only people who can inhabit a church are sinful people because all people are sinners. We can gather together as a church, imperfectly and flawed and sinful though we are, and yet still truly and sincerely worship God and love one another. We don’t worship our leaders, or our institutions, or our ideas of what the community should be like: we worship the glorious and gracious God who is so kind and patient to deal with messy people like us.
The widow’s offering shows us that even in the worst cases of spiritual abuse, we can still come to God because it is Him, not His flawed servants, whom we are worshipping.
Jesus, upon seeing the widow’s offering, “called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box,” Mark 12:43. Now, strictly speaking, this woman did not put in more than anyone else. She put in the smallest possible amount. Why does Jesus say this? “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on,” Mark 12:44.
The wealthy people putting in large sums count little to Jesus because they are contributing out of their abundance. It is the extra that they scrape off the top; it does not affect their life in any way to give. But the widow’s offering? It is stunning because (1) it is given while the woman was in poverty, and (2) in her poverty she put in everything she had, all she had to live on. She could have thrown in just one copper coin, but she didn’t. She could have said, “I’m not in a good financial situation to be giving money away right now,” but she didn’t. She could have reasoned, “These crooked scribes have swindled me so I don’t need to give them a dime,” but she didn’t.
If you remember Jesus’ last conversation with a scribe where he explained that the most important commandment was: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” Mark 12:30. All (pas) is repeated over and over again. And here Jesus explains that this woman has put in everything, all she had (pas). Jesus is showing us a living, breathing example of someone who is obeying the greatest commandment and loving God with everything she has. The final phrase, “all she had to live on” could more literally be translated, “her whole life,” (bios). This shows us:
Little is much in the hands of God. Jesus points out that because of the woman’s heart, her devotion that has led her to contribute everything she had while in the midst of such extreme poverty, she has actually contributed more than anyone else. God doesn’t need sacrifices and offerings. He isn’t strapped for cash or talent. So the dollar amount of our offerings matters less than our hearts behind it. One thinks of the young boy who brought his few loaves and fish to Jesus, who multiplied them to feed thousands. Do you feel like you have little to offer God? Like you lack the gifts, the knowledge, the abilities, the finances, or the time that others have? I can only offer up weak prayers, I can only stutter out a few Bible verses, I don’t have much to offer God. Friend, be encouraged: God desires your heart, your devotion—He can take care of multiplying our loaves and fish.
Pursue serious generosity. Jesus did not care for the gifts of the wealthy because they gave out of abundance. In 2 Samuel, David is wanting to purchase a plot of land for an altar to God. When he speaks with the man who owns the land, he offers to give David the land and oxen to offer for the sacrifice for free. But David will not accept them, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing,” 2 Sam 24:24. If God doesn’t need our offerings, then why does He require them of us? Money is the key that opens up so many things that our hearts desire: comfort, approval, power, control. Money can seemingly buy you all of those things, and all of those things can become subtle replacements for our devotion and worship. Where we put our money reveals and exposes what we love most, and God wants to check our heart: What do you love most?
When we give out of our excess, that requires no reordering of our priorities, that requires no cost to us, that requires no trust in the Lord. You can still continue to proverbially worship at the altars of those other false gods.
In what ways are you being generous that costs you, that requires you to trust in God the way the widow was trusting in God to provide for what she needed to live on? Paul demonstrates for us what it looks like to be generous in such a way that you depend on God to provide what you need:
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12 For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. – 2 Cor 9:10-12
God will provide everything you need so that you may “be generous in every way.” So trust in God to provide what you need! This is what was produced in the churches of Macedonia that Paul describes to us:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. – 2 Cor 8:1-4
The Macedonian church in “extreme poverty” were begging Paul that they could use what little finances they had to help support other struggling churches. Friend, if you are waiting till you are just a little bit better off before you start being generous, you will never be generous. Sometimes it is good to be the recipient of generosity. Sometimes we need to be on the receiving end and to simply and humbly accept help. But God has called us, wherever we are and with what we have, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength—with everything (including our finances) we have.
If everyone else in our church followed your model in their tithes, in their financial support of missionaries and other local ministries, would our church be thriving, our missionaries, and our ministry partners be thriving? If everyone else in our church followed your model of hospitality, generosity, and benevolence, would our church be growing in fellowship, would the needs of our members be cared for, and would the poor be cared for?
How do you do this?
As we reflect on the hero of this story, the widow, we might be left thinking: how on earth does someone live like that? Well, as we consider the widow we see in her a model of the greater hero: Jesus. As Paul continues to teach in 2 Corinthians, he points the Corinthians to Jesus’ model of generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich,” 2 Cor 8:9. We are told that the widow, in giving her offering, has thrown in “her whole life”—her whole bios.
Jesus likewise gives everything He has—but only He isn’t poor, He is infinitely wealthy. He is the King of the Universe, the almighty and eternal God who leaves His heavenly wealth, in order to come down and become impoverished. He takes on flesh, limits Himself by taking on a human nature, and lives a human life. And as He lives His life, His obedience to the Law and righteousness earn Him a heavenly reward, the blessings promised to those uphold the Law. But Jesus, having this wealth, further impoverishes Himself by going to the cross and taking our spiritual debts with Him, suffering the penalty our sins deserved through His death, and resurrecting three days later to demonstrate that our debts had been fully paid, fully satisfied, and death conquered. And now, anyone He who will turn to Christ and trust in Him can receive the wealth of Jesus’ righteousness credited to their account.
It is only when we see what Jesus has done for us, how deeply He has given for us, how painfully He sacrificed for us so that we could be forgiven and restored, that we find the power to be generous likewise.
So, friend, do you desire to grow in your generosity? Consider the abundant generosity you have been shown in Jesus Christ.
Have you been hurt by the church? Look to the gracious and kind God who is still worthy of your praise and devotion.
Have you been using your religion as a charade of your own self-righteousness? Drop the exhausting act and come and rest in grace and forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ.