November 11, 2012
I. The pilgrimage I took to Rome in 2004 with Pittsburgh Seminary centered around the spiritual leadership of Benedict and Francis. I believe God showed me that though I was more comfortable with a laid back style like Francis, I needed to grow in being more assertive like Benedict. As valuable as that was, I also experienced uneasy ambivalence in Rome.
A. During one afternoon’s free time a few of us wandered through Chiesa del Gesù, the home church of the Jesuits in Rome. The altar was an open table with a glass case under it. Inside the glass case were three skulls and an assortment of bones. These were the relics of Jesuit martyrs who had been killed by Protestants.
B. I was used to the stories of Roman Catholic church authorities martyring Protestants, and seeing the stories portrayed the other way was unsettling. The Vatican Museum has a gallery devoted to the “religious wars.” One large painting shows Dutch Protestant farmers lynching Franciscan monks from the rafters of a barn. The farmers were portrayed as clownish charactures and the monks as devoutly praying while they awaited their fate.
C. The residence where we stayed was just a few minute walk from St. Peter’s Bascillica where I did some leisurely exploring. The art is magnificent. The biblical and historical symbolism is profound. As a “Temple,” it can both draw to and distract from the glory of God. As much as I appreciated the grandeur St. Peter’s, I couldn’t avoid the realization that its construction was funded in the sixteenth century by the selling of indulgences that prompted Martin Luther to start the Protestant Reformation. Church leaders at the time piled on the guilt to induce people to give so they could build what often poor donors would never see.
II. In Mark’s Gospel, we are looking at Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple during Holy Week, through the lens of the Epistle to the Hebrews. As our great heavenly high priest in the earthly Temple, Jesus exposes our cover-ups and affirms our vulnerabilities.
A. Mark 12:37b-44 is the culmination of Jesus’ confrontations with the leadership of the Jerusalem Temple. His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday set the stage for driving the merchants out of the Temple. The Temple leaders challenged his authority to do this. In response, Jesus told the parable of the vineyard tenants who kill the son of the owner, and the Temple leaders knew he told it against them. The Pharisees challenged Jesus on paying taxes, and he silenced them. The Sadducees challenged him on marriage and the resurrection, and he silenced them. Jesus turned the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment back on him, and after that no one dared ask him any question. So Jesus went on the offensive with a question about Messiah as David’s son. As Jesus embarrassed the Temple leaders …
The large crowd was listening to him with delight.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.44For 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.”
B. Jesus’ warned that the Scribes were using their appearances of piety to cover up that they devour widows’ houses. By strict tradition the Scribes who taught the Law were not supposed to receive a salary, but many of them lived quite well off of the voluntary contributions of their students. The teaching of many Scribes manipulated people with guilt to make contributions that enabled them to live with a level of luxury their students could never know. Jesus accused them, not just of greed and false piety, but of using the appearance of piety to cover up that they were feeding off the misfortune of even poor widows, whom the Law said deserved extra care.
C. We often hear the story of the widow’s mite told by itself as a stewardship sermon. Mark purposely wrote them together. She was the personification of the widows whose houses were devoured by Scribes. Andy and I were talking about this passage the other day, and he observed – I think correctly – that when Jesus sat opposite the treasury, it was not just on the other side of the room but he sat in opposition to the treasury. Thirteen large metal funnels received money for specific Temple funds. None of which were prescribed in the Law of Moses. In those days all money was metal coins – no paper bills, no checks, no debit cards. So when wealthy people poured in large sums, it made a large noise. The widow’s two small copper coins made at best a faint pink, pink.
III. To understand why Jesus commended the poor widow for her foolish offering to support the Temple establishment that he had been confronting and opposing, we recognize that as the heavenly great high priest in the earthly Temple, Jesus exposes our cover-ups and affirms our vulnerabilities.
A. We read in Hebrews that the earthly Tabernacle was intended to be a reflection of the heavenly Temple. We got a feel for that back in August when we listened to Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the first Jerusalem Temple. But Hebrews is clear that even at its best, it is a reflection; it is not the real thing. When we start thinking something we have made to help us worship God is itself the worship of God, we are in great spiritual danger. Jesus was always reminding us not to see the outward appearances but to look for the spiritual realities in the far reaches of the infinite God and in the deep recesses of our hearts. Jesus’ confrontations with the Temple leaders exposed the corruption beneath the appearance of piety.
B. Hebrews also says that Jesus is both the priest bringing the offering into the heavenly Temple, and he himself is also the offering. We need to be careful not to be so literalistic that we miss the point. Several times Hebrews says that this is a unique, unrepeatable offering. Unlike the sacrifices in the earthly Temple that must be repeated day after day, year after year, Jesus had dealt with sin once for all. No longer can guilt and shame be used to extract offerings. Like the widow who gave all she had to live on, our gifts express the giving of our total selves in joy and gratitude.
C. Hebrews says that when the great high priest Jesus brought himself as the final offering for sin, he appeared in the presence of God on our behalf. The is that antithesis of hasatan in Job. Jesus is not the prosecuting attorney, Jesus is our defense attorney. Whatever accusation we bring against ourselves or anyone might bring against us, Jesus declares it inadmissible because his unrepeatable sacrifice of himself has dealt with it once for all.
IV. As the heavenly great high priest in the earthly Temple, Jesus exposes our cover-ups and affirms our vulnerabilities. Jesus does not expose our cover-ups to embarrass or disqualify us, but to liberate us from their tyranny. And he affirms our vulnerabilities because that opens us to receive grace with gratitude.
A. Most if not all of us find that we are shedding the same cover-ups and facing the same vulnerabilities over and over again. I know I am. That is exactly why Jesus’ sacrifice once for all is so important.
Thomas Keating describes it in his book Intimacy with God (Crossroad, New York, 1995, pp. 88-89)
What is most disconcerting for souls who have been on the journey for 20 or 30 years is that each time we make the transition from one level to the next, we are likely to encounter the same temptations we had before we started the journey, and we think, “I’m not getting anywhere; I’m just the same old stick.” … In actual fact, it is not the same temptation at all. … We are now dealing with it at a more mature level. Hence, we are capable of making a more complete surrender of that attachment or that aversion. If the Spirit asked us in the beginning to make a total surrender of every difficult person or situation, nobody could do it. By leading us gradually (the way human things work), through growth in trust and humility, we are able to make an even deeper surrender of ourselves to God.
B. The crowd in the Temple listened to Jesus with delight because he openly confronted the ways the Temple leaders oppressed them. While the Temple leaders heard Jesus as a threat, the people heard freedom.
C. One of my heroes is Hudson Taylor who was a pioneer missionary to China in the 19th century. Much to the consternation of his British counterparts, he adopted the dress and approach of a Confucian teacher and left the British costal colonies to bring the Gospel of Jesus inland to the people of China. He burned out rather quickly and returned to England a broken man. As he recovered his health, he discovered the principle he called the exchanged life. His grandson wrote about it in his book Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. The writing is quaint, and I’m sure Hudson Taylor would be embarrassed to receive such adulation, but it is powerful. The exchanged life is to give up trying to live the Christian life and allow Jesus to live his life in me by the Holy Spirit. When he recovered, Hudson Taylor returned to China. He worked hard, got tired, but never again burned out. The results and path of his life were now in Jesus’ hands. The great high priest had exposed the futility of performance and affirmed that spiritual greatness arose from acknowledged weakness.