“Is Anybody Looking?”

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
November 8, 2009

Mark 12:38-44

I have to admit: it’s hard to hear this morning’s Gospel reading without taking it personally. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus warns, but according to reliable sources the scribes he was talking about were educated people of the time who were experts in God’s written word. They interpreted the scriptures and taught them to the people.  They were the religious professionals of their day.  If you were looking for the religious professionals of our day you might look at seminary professors, but it is far more likely that you would look at people like me—preachers.

Beware of the preachers,” Jesus would say, standing down there and pointing up here.  “They like to walk around in long robes” (You know, he’s right about that.  At my last church it was the custom for the preacher to wear a long robe and I liked it.  I didn’t have to think about what I was going to wear on Sunday; I just went to church and put on my robe.  But even the preachers who don’t wear robes regularly seem to enjoy it when they get a chance.  You should see us when we get together for one of the seminary commencement exercises we have here, all of us preachers who are reading Scripture or saying a prayer during the service, down there in the choir room putting on robes and hoods that we haven’t worn in at least a year, blowing the dust off those fancy caps and making sure the tassel is hanging on the right side.  We enjoy that kind of thing!).

Beware of the preachers,” Jesus would say, “they like to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces” (He’s right about that, too, although it rarely happens anymore.  I read somewhere recently that being a minister now ranks only slightly above being a used car salesman in terms of respect.  Of course, I guess it depends where you serve.  In Washington I didn’t get much respect for being a Baptist preacher, but in Richmond that’s changed.  These days people sometimes nod to me and say hello at the grocery store.  Every once in a while someone will tell me they watch me on TV.  And occasionally, but only occasionally, someone will offer me a clergy discount.  Now, I don’t know about you, but to me nothing says “respect in the marketplace” like getting ten percent off on your dry cleaning).

Beware of the preachers,” Jesus would say.  “They like to have the best seats in church and the places of honor at banquets!” (Now, that’s not really fair.  It’s not like I get to choose where I sit in church any more than the organist does.  Becky has her bench over there and I’ve got my chair over there in the “penalty box” with the other ministers.  It’s just the way it is.  And at banquets it’s the same thing.  You have to sit where the place card tells you to, even if it’s at the head table.  You can’t just take somebody else’s seat.  That wouldn’t be right!).

Beware of the preachers,” Jesus would say.  “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (“Devour widows’ houses?”  What’s that supposed to mean?  Unless Jesus is talking about that time I asked one of my former church members if she would like to will her house to the church so we could fund an annual lectureship.  That’s not really devouring, is it?  I mean, I was going to wait until she died.  But she was a widow….  And the thing about long prayers is just a matter of expectations.  If I go to someone’s house for dinner and they ask me to say the prayer they expect a little more than “God is great, God is good.”  I’m a professional, after all.  They want something beautiful and meaningful and especially suited to the occasion.  I try not to let them down). 

Beware of the preachers,” Jesus would say.  “They will receive the greater condemnation.”  And you know what?  He’s right about that, too.  When I was installed at my last church I wrote up a long list of intentions for my ministry there.  Right at the bottom I wrote, “I intend to work like I don’t need the money, love like I’ve never been hurt, and dance like nobody’s watching.”  It was a line from a country song.  But when my brother-in-law, Chuck Treadwell, preached at my installation he said, “You’d better do that, because the only alternative is to work like you do need the money, to love like you have been hurt, to dance like everybody’s watching, and that’s no way to work, or love, or dance.”  That was true there and it’s true here, and let me just say to you this morning that if I ever get to that place where I am more concerned about the way you look at me than the way God looks at me, then I would deserve whatever condemnation might come.  And all joking about ten percent discounts aside, if I ever begin to use my position as a way of enhancing my privilege, then I hope one of you would pull me aside and say, “Beware!”  It’s happened too often among preachers. 

Jesus was right to warn you.

It’s just after this that he sits down opposite the treasury and watches the way people give their offerings.  And if I have felt uncomfortable up here in the pulpit while he was telling you to watch out for preachers it’s your turn to feel uncomfortable as he walks up and down the aisle to see what you put in the offering plate.  Mark says that there were a lot of rich people throwing money into the treasury.  As I understand it, the treasury was a kind of strongbox with a big, brass funnel coming up out of it, like the bell of a tuba.  The rich people would reach down into their money bags, scoop out a big handful of coins, and then throw them against the side of that funnel so that they clanged and rattled and clunked into the bottom of that box.  It made a big noise, and everybody would turn and look.  We’ve pretty much done away with that kind of show these days.  We’ve cushioned the bottom of our offering plates so you don’t hear that loud clang when some child throws in a fistful of quarters.  And the big givers are a little more discreet about it.  They put their offering envelopes into the plate so quietly you don’t hear a thing.  Not until later, at least, when you walk past the finance office and hear one of the tellers say, “Wow, look at this!” 

Isn’t it interesting, though, that for all the supposed secrecy of our giving, we all know who the big givers are?  Or at least we think we do.  We certainly know who has the big money.  We’ve seen the trappings of wealth.  We’ve whispered in the hallways.  But as long as I have been in the ministry I have made it a point to never ask what individuals are giving.  It might change my feelings about someone if I knew that he had a lot of money but was only giving a tiny fraction of it back to God.  I like to assume the best about everyone, that everyone is giving at least ten percent of their income back to God through the church. 

But that couldn’t be true, could it?  If we all gave ten percent the Finance Team wouldn’t have to worry about how to meet the budget, they would only have to wonder about what to do with all that money.  I told you recently that evangelical Christians give an average of 2.4 percent of their income back to God through the church but I was wrong: it’s lower than that.  I find that hard to believe, especially because 30 years ago Baptists were “battling for the Bible,” some of them claiming that if you didn’t believe it was “inerrant” you didn’t believe it at all.  But it’s some of these same people, apparently, who are now giving just over 2 percent of their annual income.  Do they believe that all of the Bible is inerrant except for that part that tells them to give up their money?  It’s one thing to make claims about the truth of Scripture but another thing altogether to do what it says.

Here were these wealthy people in today’s Gospel reading doing the same sort of thing—making a public show of their piety, wanting everybody to see how religious they were.  They were giving out of their “abundance,” Jesus says, money they could easily afford, but they wanted to make sure everybody was looking when they did it.  I don’t think the widow in today’s reading wanted anybody to look when she gave her offering.  All she had was these two copper coins.  She was probably ashamed, probably looked around before she crept up to the treasury just to make sure nobody was looking.  But somebody was, and when Jesus saw her put her two cents in he called his disciples to gather around.

What I wish we had in the Bible was a “tone-of-voice indicator,” so you could know how Jesus said what he said to the disciples, because it could make all the difference.  What we usually get is a very pious tone of voice, like the one you hear when you listen to the Bible on tape.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  In that tone of voice the emphasis is on the generosity of this widow, who puts in everything.  We scribes usually read this passage in that tone of voice.  We usually point to the example of this woman’s generosity, especially in the Stewardship season of the year.  “Look at her!” we say.  “Can’t you be a little more like that?”  But it’s possible to read this passage in another tone of voice, especially in light of the passage that comes just before it and the one that comes just after it.

In the passage just before this one, of course, Jesus condemns the scribes who “devour widows’ houses.”  What he means, I suppose, is that the scribes cheat the widows out of their money, so that they can’t make their mortgage payments.  Maybe they encourage the widows to give more to the temple treasury, but I have to wonder where that treasury money ended up.  How did those scribes afford those gorgeous, long robes?  And of course there was the temple itself.  In the very next passage the disciples point out the impressive stonework, but Jesus refuses to be impressed.  “I tell you the truth,” he says, “the time is coming when there won’t be one stone left on top of another.”  So, it’s possible to read this passage about the widow in another tone of voice altogether.  If Jesus is upset with people who devour widows’ house by getting them to give all their money to the temple treasury, so that they can buy some more long robes or maybe a new set of brass candlesticks for the altar, you can see how he could say with anger, and not with admiration:  “This poor widow has put in everything she had!”  As if he were saying, “Who told her to do that?!  These others are giving out of their abundance, they’re just skimming off the top, but this widow put in everything she had to live on!”

Is it possible that Jesus was expressing that kind of righteous indignation?  It’s possible.  The way he felt about the scribes is the way I’ve felt about some television evangelists.  You hear about these poor women on fixed incomes sending in the last little bit of their money so that some smooth talker in a $3,000 suit can keep his program on the air.  That kind of thing makes me angry, and it’s one of the reasons this church has made a commitment to never ask its television viewers for money.  If I saw some woman writing out a check to one of those evangelists I might ask you to gather around.  I might say, “Look at the way these charlatans take advantage of this poor woman’s faith and generosity.  That’s not right!”  But there’s something about it that is right, and what’s right is this poor woman’s faith and generosity. 

The Bible says that people look on the outward appearance, and that’s true, but it also says that God looks on the heart, and that’s true, too.  Even as Jesus was watching these scribes parade around in their long robes, accepting respectful greetings, even as he watched the wealthy scoop up big handfuls of coins and clang them against the side of that funnel, he saw this woman creep up to the treasury and slide her two small coins over the rim.  He saw what was in her heart, and what was there was a love for God so deep, a faith in God so strong, that she could give away the last of what she had in the sure and certain hope that he would take care of her, and provide for her every need.  His eye is on the sparrow.  That’s the kind of thing I hope Jesus would see if he were here this morning, whether he was looking at me in this pulpit, or watching you as the offering plate comes along your pew.  I hope that he would see loving and generous hearts that care a great deal more about what God thinks than about what anybody else thinks.   

—Jim Somerville © 2009

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