'Jesus makes it very plain whose example we are to look up to. '
Cleaning out the pulpit, a caretaker found the typescript of last Sunday's sermon. He happened to notice that the vicar had pencilled notes to himself in the margin: "Pause here for effect," then further down, "Wipe brow, sigh," and halfway down the next page, "Lift hands up to heaven,"
After this there was a long, very involved piece of the sermon which the caretaker couldn't understand at all. Against this, the vicar had written: "Argument woolly and confused. Theology weak. Shout loudly and thump pulpit."
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Jesus had something to say to this particular clergyman.
Mark was a great collector of Jesus' words and stories, and the importance of this gospel is not least in the fact that Mark almost certainly used the preaching of the apostle Peter as his main source. Peter, who had died just 30 years or so after Jesus' crucifixion. Commentators have called Mark's gospel "a transcript from life" and "written from the viewpoint of loving, vivid recollections," and that it's great characteristic was realism.
Maybe that's why Mark's gospel is so easy for new Christians, or searchers after faith to relate to. It has an immediacy about it. We can see in our mind's eye Jesus walking those dusty streets, meeting all these different people, making comments on the behaviour that he finds - the hypocrisy, the uncaring attitude, the little actions of a widow that most people milling around him would have missed. Jesus was a great commentator on life as he found it, and Peter a great collector of all those little episodes in Jesus' life. What we have in Mark's gospel then is probably the nearest we'll ever get to a TV documentary on the life of our Lord.
When we look at Jesus' words what do we find?
We find that over 2000 years very little has changed. The characters that Jesus met as he walked those streets may be long dead and buried, but the attitudes are still there around us, both in the church and out in the world at large.
The passage that we're looking at seems on the surface to be two disconnected stories, one about the priests and scribes, the other about a widow and her offering, but they flow so well when put together. Close your eyes and imagine Jesus and his disciples sitting in the temple courts, talking and arguing between themselves and with the teachers of the law who passed by. This was a busy place, voices raised in debate - maybe the temple equivalent of Parliamentary question time.
Sweeping past them come the scribes in their flowing robes, and as they do so folk turn and greet them with a bow of the head and a mumbled word or respect. The scribes acknowledge the bowing and scraping of the ordinary folk, perhaps with a small hand gesture or a slight glance in their direction. They are looked up to as someone special - perhaps the equivalent today would be the deference shown to royalty or a film star. Look how they milk it, says Jesus. Heads in the air, robes flowing, graciously acknowledging the greetings of the masses as they pass. The very title Rabbi means "My great one".
They took the front seats in the synagogue, in full view of the congregation and in front of the ark where the sacred volumes were kept.
At feasts and banquets they took the seats of honour. You could always tell the honour in which a man was held by the place at table that he was sat. The first place was on the right of the host, the second on the left of the host, and so on round the table.
Not only that, says Jesus, as they pass by, but these so-called men of honour - these religious leaders who are held in such high regard - they devour widows' houses. What did he mean by this strange phrase?
The nearest I can come to an explanation is to think back a few years to the controversy that surrounded a certain American TV evangelist and his wife. They played upon the emotions of their listeners to the point that they were receiving ridiculous amounts of money which was supposed to be supporting their charitable enterprises and ministry, but in fact was supporting a very lavish lifestyle - and not a terrible Christian one at that. Innocent people were duped by the false piety of someone who seems to have been no more than a TV entertainer.
Then Jesus mentions those long prayers. Are long prayers so bad, then? Well, it's been said that the prayers of the Pharisees were not so much offered to God as offered to man. They were offered in such a place and in such a way that no one could fail to see how pious were those who said them.
That's an awful lot of criticism. But what was Jesus really trying to say?
Well, first of all Jesus' words throw down a challenge to all who hold office in the Church. To those who stand up and preach, to those who play instruments, to those who are elders, members of Church Councils, treasurers and secretaries or office holders. Why are we doing it? Is it because we enjoy the status that it gives us? That it looks good on our heavenly CV? Do we look upon these jobs as privilege rather than responsibility? Are we looking at them as a source of kudos or a means of service?
There's an old story about a monk who went to take up the position of abbot in a monastery. He looked so unassuming and humble an individual that when he knocked at the door the monks thought he'd come to work in the kitchens, and so they set him to work in the scullery. He said nothing and went to work, washing the dishes and doing all the menial tasks that were demanded of him. It was only when the bishop arrived some time later that the mistake was recognised and matters put right. The humble monk was installed in his rightful place as abbot.
Everyone likes to be treated with respect. Yet the way of Christ is to forget 'self' rather than hoist it on a flagpole. Taking a job because of the respect and honour that it confers onto the office holder is taking the job on for all the wrong reasons.
The way of Christ is the way of the servant.
More than anything Jesus warns us to examine our motives for being here at this very moment in time. Are we here for what we can get out of this experience, or for what we can put into it?
Jesus then sits down with the disciples, probably between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women, by the Gate Beautiful. In the court of the Women were thirteen collecting boxes called the trumpets, because that’s what they looked like. Each was for a special purpose, and were for contributions towards the daily expenses and sacrifices that took place in the temple. It was a very visible way of giving, rather like those collecting bins that you see at the Severn bridge. You could be in no doubt who were the generous givers and who were not, simple by the tinkle or clatter of the coins as they hit the boxes.
Look at them, says Jesus, just like the scribes and Pharisees who flaunt their authority and power for all to see and acknowledge, look at the way that the rich pause to make sure everyone is watching as they throw all those heavy coins into the boxes. You can even hear how generous they are. Then look at that widow over there - sorry, did you miss that? She just threw in two small coins, but you probably didn't hear because they're only light, only worth - well, in today's money perhaps 1/4 of a pence. Yet, says Jesus I tell you something, that women has given far more than any of those others whose contributions clattered so loudly, as they threw coin after coin into the boxes. Because they gave what they could easily spare and still had plenty left. She gave everything she had, small though it was.
It's down to attitude again, isn't it? With the Scribes and Pharisees in their flowing robes, flowery prayers and false show of piety it was their attitude to their position that was all wrong. Here, it's all about a lesson in giving, and Jesus uses the example of a poor woman and her contributions to the church restoration appeal - sorry, temple funds to make two very important points.
Firstly that our giving, of money, gifts, resources, skills, time - whatever we are called to give must be sacrificial to have any meaning. Size does not matter in the Kingdom of Heaven. It's not the amount but the sacrifice that goes with it. Real generosity gives and goes on giving until it hurts. It's a very difficult one for many of us to answer, but does our giving actually amount to any sacrifice at all. Let's for a moment put all our giving into one basket, so to speak. Let's look at the financial aspect of our giving; the amount of time that we give to God through our week in worship; our commitment reading the bible; the time we spend in prayer or meditation; our willingness to use the gifts that God has given us when they're called upon, and our reluctance to muck in when skills are needed. How closely do we have to look at our own lives before we start cringing?
Secondly there has to be a certain recklessness about our giving. The widow threw two coins into the box. She could have thrown one and kept the other, but she didn't. Two she had, and two she gave. And here there's a direct parallel with our own lives. How much of our lives are we prepared to give to God?
Is it all? Or would we rather keep some back? Throw in the one coin but hold onto the other. One for God, one for me. This part of my life is dedicated to God, but this part I hang onto.
Can I remind you of a hymn that we sing now and then.
All for Jesus - all for Jesus
This our song shall ever be;
For we have no hope, no Saviour,
If we have not hope in thee.
All or Jesus - thou will give us
Strength to serve thee, hour by hour;
None can move us from thy presence,
While we trust thy love and power.
All for Jesus - thou hast loved us;
All for Jesus - thou hast died;
All for Jesus - thou art with us;
All for Jesus crucified.
All for Jesus - all for Jesus -
This the church's song must be;
Till, at last, we all are gathered
One in love and one in thee
Isn't it just typical of Jesus that he should present to us as the prime example of generosity, someone who had so little and yet was prepared to give all.
We might feel that we have very little to offer to God. We might consider that we have no special gifts or skills, that daily life doesn't provide us with very much spare time, that there are parts of our life that we really don't think God would want to use. But if we follow the insistent plea of that hymn, if we're prepared to put all that we are and all that we have at God's disposal, then he can do things with it and with us that are beyond our imagination.
I'm sure that these two stories are placed together by Mark for a reason. Because they both touch at the very heart of our faith. The Son of God came, we are told, not to be served but to serve. It is a servant Church to which we belong. If we accept positions within that Church, then they are not positions of rank and privilege but positions of responsibility. If we treat them as such then there is less likelihood that we shall risk being held up by Jesus as examples of the same behaviour as the scribes and Pharisees.
The Church that we belong to is one that has its root in the cross, and our own individual faith must also start at that same place. Together with this, and very much connected is the idea of sacrifice, and sacrificial giving. You can't have the one without the other. A sacrifice of self, and an offering of lives. The scribes and the Pharisees had it all wrong. They sought power an influence and milked it for what they could get out of it; the widow sought for nothing but what she could offer - and gave all that she had.
Jesus makes it very plain whose example we are to look up to. It's a difficult lesson to learn, as I've said earlier, but if we are going to be used by God in this world then we've got to make sure that our faith is on solid ground. There's no place in the Kingdom of God for the outward show of religiosity that was characterised by the scribes that passed by Jesus and his disciples, one that has it's centre on self. But there's plenty of room for those who are prepared to look not to self but to service, those who are prepared to risk all - throw in the extra coin rather than hang on to it.
Those who are prepared to put all that they are and own at God's disposal.