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Mark 14:10-11

October 6, 2020

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. Mark 14:10-11

Welcome to one of the mysteries around the death of Jesus. Why did Judas do it?

A common explanation is that Judas had become disillusioned with Jesus. His tipping point was seeing that woman wasting her expensive ointment in anointing Jesus’ head. As we read yesterday, “But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.”

This argument is bolstered by the little tidbit we get in John 12:6, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” But before we land on that answer, we need to be aware that John’s gospel was written decades after Mark. John tells the Jesus story very differently; John specifically names Mary (of Mary and Martha fame) as the woman who anointed Jesus’ head.

Maybe John’s version is the result of people, from the very beginning, asking our same question. Why did Judas do it?

Matthew’s gospel, again, written after Mark, adds another tidbit to the “he did it for the money” argument. Matthew 26 tells us that, as we all remember, Judas did it for 30 pieces of silver. So maybe that is it then. Just follow the money.

But there is another possibility.

Maybe the question ought not be “Why did Judas do it?” but, instead, “Why does this story need a Judas in it?”

Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Judas’ motives. But Mark DOES tell us – we’ll get to those verses later this week – that Jesus knew it was coming. Mark wants us to know that Jesus knew that his betrayal to the Romans was an “inside job” just as much as it was a conspiracy led by the religious authorities. At the end, everyone yells “Crucify him.”

From the very beginning, the Judas story sent a message to all who would follow Jesus that the possibility of THEIR betrayal would be as devastating as anything that religious or political authorities might throw at them. Traitors are even worse than enemies.

The function of the role played by Judas is to hold all of us who seek to follow Jesus in our lives accountable to not selling Jesus out for our own selfish motives.

But I don’t really think it was about the money. Money, in and of itself, is nothing but a means of exchange. It isn’t money itself, it is what money signifies, what money buys, how money functions as an identifier of social standing and social worth, THAT is where money moves from being a means of exchange to exchanging one God for lesser, idolatrous, gods.

I think it runs even deeper than money (even though we are so easily wowed and cowed by people who have a lot of it.) I think the simplest explanation is that the religious authorities needed a scapegoat, a fall guy, someone who could take the heat off of them even as they hatched their self-serving, insidious, plan to rid the world of Jesus.

Does that really happen? Powerful people using less powerful people to blame, to deflect responsibility, to “get the job done” even as they gain “plausible deniability”? Of course it does. The question is, when it happens, would we be able to notice it?

Let those with eyes, see.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, Judas has long been for us a warning of how easily we can be misled into doing the wrong thing, even though we are convinced that we are right. Judas reminds us of the danger of turning money into an idol. And Judas convicts us in that we know how easily we can be swayed. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:3-9

October 5, 2020

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Mark 14:3-9

It has been said that you can learn a lot about a person by the company he keeps. As we walk with Jesus in the last week of his earthly life, we find him having dinner in the home of Simon the leper.

Simon the leper.

Today we know that leprosy (called Hansen’s Disease) is a bacterial infection that attacks the skin, the peripheral nerves, the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. Left untreated, it can be horribly disfiguring. It is not very contagious – you need to have very close and repeated contact with an infectious person to catch it. And it is both treatable and curable.

They didn’t know any of that in Jesus’ day. As far as people knew back then, a leper had been cursed by God and was a danger to the community. Lepers were outcasts, suffering both from the effects of their illness and the pain of social dislocation.

In terms of social rejection and public fear, until the coronavirus pandemic, the HIV/AIDS crisis is the closest most of us have known to the experience of leprosy in Jesus’ day. In terms of health, it was simply a dangerous and deadly virus. But left in the hands of people with their own agenda, it was cast as a shameful illness and a sign of God’s wrath. Doubly tragic.

It says a lot about Jesus that he chose to have dinner in a leper’s home.

Suddenly the party is crashed by an unnamed woman who surprises everyone by anointing Jesus’ head with oil. “Messiah” means “anointed one.” The Hebrew expectation was that the Messiah be a king, a political leader, who would liberate the people and usher in an era of peace. Jesus praises her for her action – everybody else thinks it was a waste of money.

A leper. An unnamed woman. And a group of people who seemingly have no idea who Jesus is or what Jesus is up to. Quite the motley crew.

Whatever you think about Jesus, leave room in your understanding to appreciate the company he kept.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, yes, we still remember the woman who lovingly anointed your head. We can imagine the rich smell that filled the room. May our minds and hearts continually be open to the ways that you always show up in the most surprising places, among the most unsuspecting people. Especially now as we taste of the fear, the loneliness, and the misunderstandings around the coronavirus. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 14:1-2

October 2, 2020

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” Mark 14:1-2

Irony: [noun] “The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.”

We all know the story at the root of the celebration of Passover – God rescuing God’s people from slavery in Egypt and leading them toward the Promised Land. Over the years, that memory came to include many other memories of God’s continuing work of bringing people out of slavery into freedom, of sustaining their lives in difficult times, of sending prophets to bring both challenge and hope.

Passover is a festival celebrated at home, around a table, with family and special guests. An empty chair is left for Elijah, a visible symbol that we are not just looking back at a storied past but we are looking forward to God’s continued work. Jewish families are encouraged to invite Gentile friends. My wife and I have been invited to such gatherings and they are beautiful.

The closest observance in secular America to the meanings of Passover is the traditions surrounding Thanksgiving. We eat ceremonial food. We gather with extended families and maybe some special guests. We remember the romanticized – but still wonderful and vitally important – story of the Pilgrims being sustained by the local knowledge and support of the Indigenous people who helped them. In addition to thanking their hosts, we can trust that the Pilgrims first and foremost offered thanks to God.

Until the decision the congregation I serve made to become a multi-cultural, bilingual, congregation with intentional outreach to native Mandarin Chinese, I never realized the significance of Chinese New Year. But it is very close to Thanksgiving and Passover. People go home to their families. They eat traditional food. They celebrate their gratitude for life and each other. Had it not been for the coronavirus, last January we would have had nearly 500 people gathering to celebrate the Chinese New Year at Faith Lutheran Church – Chinese speakers, English speakers, Spanish speakers, church members, guests, folks from the neighborhood, young and old.

Do you see the key themes?

God’s redemptive activity in the world. Gratitude. Hope. Encouragement. Family. Home. Plenty of room for special guests, for strangers. The only proper language is the shared language of love.

All of that is why pilgrims flocked to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. It was why the city was jam-packed with excited people. Children who had been looking forward to the festival for weeks.

Here is the irony – in the midst of all of that, the only thing on the minds of the chief priests and scribes, precisely those who ought to have known better, was finding a sneaky way to kill Jesus.

Next week we will follow Jesus into Jerusalem. Today, let us focus on the goodness of God in the world – the gratitude, the togetherness, the family of humanity, the promise of release to the oppressed, the constant need for the sustaining providence of God – even as we keep our eyes open for those who would rather just use people for their own selfish ends.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are love. Where there is love, you are there. Where there is darkness, evil, and hate, you are the Light of the world. Shine in and through us as we bear witness to you in a world that still wants you out of the way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 13:32-37

October 1, 2020

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:32-37

This might not be fair to the text but, the truth is, we know the rest of the story. We know what is coming next. We know that Jesus would soon take his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, he would tell them “Keep awake.” And what happens next? Every time Jesus returns to them he finds them fast asleep.

I realize mine is not the only interpretation of the “end times” stuff here in Mark. As I said yesterday, I think the end times warnings are about challenging us to be accountable for our lives in these times, throughout all times. The end will come – but it is far more likely that our own personal “ends” will come long before the universe implodes. The challenge to accountability thus speaks personally to each of us.

Similarly, the challenge to “keep awake” is a challenge to vigilance. To be aware of what is happening around us. To be attentive to the voice of the Holy Spirit within us.

Back in the olden days when I was an athlete, every sport had its own version of the “ready position.” All included the basic fundamentals – knees slightly bent and shoulder width apart, on the balls of the feet rather than back on the heels, your head on a swivel, constantly attentive to what is happening around you, staying mentally alert and physically prepared. But notice, that is the “ready” position. You don’t STAY there but you always RETURN there to be ready for what happens next.

It would be very easy for us to hear these words and succumb to worry and anxiety. Lord knows there is much to be anxious about these days! But worry and anxiety do us no good. They get us stuck. They make us want to hide. They isolate us.

Getting in the “ready position”, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically, does just the opposite. It draws us out of ourselves and sets us up to handle what lies before us. It frees us to do what only we can do, the next right thing.

“We don’t know what the future holds, but we know WHO holds the future.” The wisdom in that simple line can speak encouragement into our lives every day.

Dr. King said that “the universe bends toward justice.” We trust that. And even more, we realize that WE are part of that universe. Our lives, our actions, rooted in justice, thus participates in this universal bending toward the justice that God desires.

All we can do is to do all we can do. God is in that. And God can handle it.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, let us know be deceived or distracted by all that takes our eyes off the truth of your love and the meaning of our lives. Keep us vigilant in our expectation that you are present, active, involved, and powerful in all the seasons of our lives. Let us not look to escape but to redeem the time given to us by heeding your call to alertness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 13:24-31

September 30, 2020

“But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Mark 13:24-31

William Miller was a Baptist preacher in New York. He was fascinated by the apocalyptic passages in the Bible, seeing them as “predictive.” In 1831 he began teaching that Jesus was soon “coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Eventually, he named the date. October 22, 1844.

His followers took him seriously. They sold their land and all they had. They gathered on a hill when the fateful day arrived….oops….

I don’t know how long they waited. I don’t know how they expressed their disappointment. I don’t know if they went back to their neighbors to “undo” the sale of their lands. All I know is that they weren’t whisked off to heaven. Did that cause a shift in their understanding of the Bible? No, they just figured they must have gotten the math wrong. A new Christian denomination was born.

In the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of faith shared by the vast majority of Christians, we confess “He ascended into heave and is sitting at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” That confession is not about timelines or Bible math or following the latest crackpot end of the world predictions. It is a simple expression of trust that life is moving toward God. And it is about accountability.

We are accountable to God. Our words and actions have consequences. How we act. How we treat others. How we do our daily work. How we respond to the world around us. How we use the resources that have been entrusted to us. We are accountable for our lives.

Whenever I think of the word “accountability” as it pertains to our relationship with God and other people, I always want to remember the “accountability trinity.” We all need to know that we have a God we can count on. We need to know that we count to God. And other people need to know they can count on us. In all things.

Those first readers of Mark must have been much like the followers of William Miller. They heard the words – “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” – and they took them literally. They were sorely disappointed. Maybe some quit. But others humbly re-imagined their meaning. They walked away, not disappointed that the celestial armies didn’t descend to trounce the Romans, but encouraged with the promise, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

We ought to do the same.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we don’t know what the future holds but we know you hold the future. Shape, form, and use us that we might be good news in the world. May our hope for your good future keep us going every day, always mindful that what we say and do matters. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 13:14-23

September 29, 2020

“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter.

For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.

And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ —do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything. Mark 13:14-23

You would think that it is much easier to remember the past than to predict the future but, in the reality of our lives, it isn’t as simple as that. Memories can be deceiving. Four children growing up in the same house will have four separate experiences and thus four different ways to understand their shared past. As for predicting the future, even stockbrokers are required to assure us that the future might not mirror what past experience seems to suggest.

This does make life much more complicated and mysterious than we prefer. We like answers. We don’t want anyone trifling with the understanding of the “past” that we are comfortable with. Just look at the varying responses to the removal of statues celebrating Confederate leaders. And we want clear direction for where we are going in the future – even if mindlessly following our GPS makes us take a wrong turn into a lake.

Many Christians read the apocalyptic literature in the Bible and see it as a roadmap to the future, to the second coming of Jesus. They play deciphering games with the symbols, numbers, and poetry. They see these verses as “predictive” of what will happen in the future in order to prepare people for what is coming. That isn’t my understanding but I can appreciate the allure for those who do.

I prefer to see these passages as “descriptive” of what has already happened. They were written to bring comfort and encouragement to people as they pass through difficult times. Rather than looking forward to the second coming of Jesus, I see them as faithful witness to the continual coming of Jesus.

The “desolating sacrilege” in the first verse likely reaches back to Daniel and the memory of the defilement of the Jewish temple under the Greeks.  After the victory of the Maccabean’s, the temple was cleansed and rededicated – only later to be defiled again when the Romans would demand daily sacrifices to Caesar. That memory was triggered when the Romans destroyed the temple in the more recent experiences of Mark’s readers.

As for “false messiahs”, we do well to heed this warning for there has never been a time when there hasn’t been voices calling out for us to follow them into the Promised Land. Idolatry requires false messiahs. Cults require leaders. Throughout history, politics and religion have coalesced to be primary sources for false messiahs that take our eyes off of Jesus.

In our day that might include Democrats who saw President Obama as God’s anointed leader to usher in a new day of hope and change or Republicans who weren’t repulsed by President Trump saying things like “I alone can fix it” or standing in front of a church holding a Bible upside down after sending in troops to clear the way.

Jesus tells us this morning not to be deceived. He has told us all that we need to know. He is the Past and the Future. He is with us now. All of us.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we are scared. We feel overwhelmed. It is as if the world is crumbling away under our feet. We are torn by the voices of those shouting for us to follow. We are afraid of a virus we can’t see and natural disasters that we can. Where can we run but back to you? Give us the faith, hope, and love that will see us through. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 13:9-13

September 28, 2020

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13:9-13

It is fashionable for some people to say that the Christian faith has long been under assault in the United States. Such complaints range from the design of Starbucks coffee cups to public policies and laws that some Christians find objectionable. Most recently, the public health initiative to ban or discourage large gatherings of people, including Sunday morning worship services, have been denounced as “anti-Christian.” Such charges demean a phrase like “under assault.”

In fact, there are places in the world where it is exceedingly dangerous to be a Christian. Places like Pakistan where church buildings have been bombed. India, where people have been killed for converting to Christianity. El Salvador, where a death squad entered a church and killed Bishop Oscar Romero while he was celebrating Mass. Saudi Arabia, where pastors serving international congregations have to register as “postal workers.” Places in Africa and the Middle East where minority Christians live in fear of majority Muslims.

Yet even in those places, it isn’t just about theology or Christian discipleship. It is always about tribalism, about political power, about domination, about scapegoating.

In the first century after Jesus, the Christian movement was a tiny minority. Despite the outlandish numbers in the book of Acts, according to Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, in The Rise of Christianity, there were less than 8,000 Christians in the world by the end of the first century. In every age, minority status invites majority oppression.

It is easy to imagine that those who first heard or read the book of Mark would have seen their life experience reflected in what we will hear from the 13th chapter. The aftermath of the disaster in Jerusalem would have continued to echo. For the dominant culture, from the perspective of Rome, the death of Jesus was a political act. He was an insurrectionist whose followers challenged the supremacy of Caesar. It was his impact on the hearts and minds of his followers that needed to be snuffed out. But they couldn’t do it.

Martin Luther used to teach that people can’t confuse the “public” church with what he called the “hidden” church. Such an idea gives rise to a line like “sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car.” (Probable Corollary: Standing in a pulpit doesn’t make you a pastor.) Luther’s distinction is less about how humans respond to God and more about the mystery of God’s work in the world. God can’t be stopped.

The coronavirus has spread so widely now that it is the rare person who can’t name a friend or loved one who hasn’t gotten sick or even died. When Mark was written, it would have been a rare Christian who couldn’t tell stories of friends or loved ones who had suffered because they followed Jesus. Yet they kept the faith. They trusted the promise that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, keep us strong in the faith. Let us not be distracted by attackers or swayed by the shifting sands of public opinion. Give us the courage to speak truth to power. Protect those who live in fear because of their faith. Help us endure to the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 13:1-8

September 25, 2020

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. Mark 13:1-8

The disciples marveled at the size and majesty of the temple. The heart of Judaism. A big, impressive, monumental building. That, one day, would all come tumbling down. By the time Mark was written, the temple was already gone.

We are still in the month of September. We are still in the grip of a world-wide pandemic that has taken the lives of over 200,000 Americans. Wildfires in the West have taken lives, homes, and businesses. Hurricanes in the Southeast have done the same. As I write, we in the Houston area are breathing again after yet another storm closed life down this past week. More homes were flooded. Social unrest continues. We lost a hero in Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We still live in the memory of 9/11.

Watch TV, listen to the radio, or attend the right churches (stubbornly still hosting in-person worship) and you will hear the voices of religious leaders warning that the end is near. The end is near! The end is near! The sky is falling! Everything is falling apart!

And Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray”.

We aren’t the only, and we aren’t the first, people to pass through gut-wrenchingly difficult times. The New Testament was written in the aftermath of times like this. The Roman army had destroyed the city of Jerusalem. After years of little skirmishes led by rebellious Jews, Rome’s hammer fell. In 70 CE Jerusalem was put under siege for months. No food. No water. Until finally the army marched in. By the time it was over, the city was destroyed. The majestic temple was reduced to rubble. Judaism, as it had been practiced for centuries, would never be the same.

People always look for scapegoats when times get tough. The tiny fledgling Christian movement served that purpose (minorities make great scapegoats). After the destruction of Jerusalem, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah were no longer welcomed within their own families or worshipping communities. Christianity was forced beyond its beginnings as a reform movement within Judaism.

How were they to understand what had happened? They started writing. Mark, then later Matthew and Luke, and still later, John, were all written to the decades following the fall of Jerusalem to guide peoples’ understanding of the purpose and the significance of the life and ministry of Jesus.

As you will see in the 13th chapter of Mark, the writer uses a literary genre called “apocalyptic.” From a Greek word meaning to “uncover”, apocalyptic writing wasn’t new to Mark. There are places in the Old Testament, in books like Ezekiel and Daniel, that use the same literary forms. They use symbolism, numbers, and poetry to uncover the end of the world. It is a type of writing designed not just to comment on the world, but to bring hope to those losing hope. The final book of the New Testament, the Revelation, is an archetype of apocalyptic literature.

All next week we will hear from chapter 13, Mark’s “little apocalypse.” But don’t be misled. Keep following Jesus as he teaches us less about fearing tomorrow and more about living today.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, day after day we hear more and more that is discouraging and disheartening. We long for rescue. Remind us, and guide us, to trust both that the future is in your hands, and that we are your hands, in building a better tomorrow. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:41-44

September 24, 2020

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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. 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.” Mark 12:41-44

Oh Oh! Now he’s preaching!! Suddenly Jesus digs the knife a little deeper for the hypocritical scribes and Sadducees. He hits them in the wallet. In front of the crowd, no less!

The rich people put in large sums. Oh, how impressed we are with rich people and large sums. Maybe it has always been that way. There is nothing new about materialism and greed. The Bible has plenty of rich heroes.

Despite Abraham’s humble beginnings, not only did he become a hero of the faith, he also became a very wealthy man. To focus on his wealth twists the story into equating wealth with being blessed by God’s special favor. (NOTE: Beware of those who constantly talk about “God’s favor” in talking about the Christian faith.)

Solomon was born in David’s palace and soon parlayed that head start with an obnoxious accumulation of wealth, splendor, hundreds of wives and concubines, and all of the idols they brought into his life. All that proved his downfall yet we still somehow respect someone who turns the millions they are born with into even more millions. (NOTE: Beware of those who are born into money and forget the advantages that gives them for the rest of their lives.)

But wealth alone doesn’t do it. It isn’t enough. It is what wealth can buy. But that isn’t enough either. It really is about how other people think of you when they see the signs of your ostentatious wealth. It is about honor and privilege, about fame and acclaim. As Jesus said yesterday, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!”

I know a few people of great wealth who do not define themselves by their money. They see their wealth as a gift of God that comes with a deep responsibility to be a good steward. They know that, for those to whom much is given, much is required. 

Bottom line – even though we do it all the time, we can’t judge a person by their bank accounts, their stuff, or their charitable contributions. It isn’t about what we have; it is always about what we do with what we have. And beyond that, it is about noticing the societal systems we set up and defend that create ever greater advantages for the rich to get richer while keeping the poor poorer.

Enter, the widow. Remember that Jesus has just pointed out how the scribes abuse widows like her? Now she comes before them as a model of financial stewardship. She gives all she has. Why? What else ought she do with her last two copper coins? She gives it all away. She casts herself completely on God’s care and keeping. Her gift is an act of trust.

The rich give large sums. Good for them The work of the temple requires financial support. And if their hearts are in the right place, such gifts are good for the giver too. But, no matter how much they give, rest assured that they have will have plenty left over. But the widow gave all she had with no back up plan. No back up plan beyond trusting God.

Life in America is never perfect, we are always striving to be better. But today we don’t let widows starve. We have established systems of social support that take care of people who need it. We have learned that, when we share out of what we have, there is always enough for everybody.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, protect us from the subtle idolatry of greed and materialism. Teach us to do the best we can with what we have, always mindful that all that we are, and all that we have, is a gracious gift from you. Teach us to be good stewards, including provision for the common good, lest anyone be left behind without access to the basic necessities of life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:35-40

September 23, 2020

While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And 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, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Mark 12:35-40

Today we continue with this series of exchanges between Jesus and his opponents, the Sadducees and the scribes. Remembering David, Jesus fires another broadside at the Sadducees who don’t believe in the resurrection and teach that God’s Law has been cast in stone (except when they twist that law to their own advantage.) The crowd loves to see that one. Today Jesus teaches them, and us, a lesson about hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a problem for all of us. The word itself comes from the Greek theater where the same actor would play several roles, each differentiated by the hand-held masks they would hold up for each role. This is where the phrase being “two-faced” comes from. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another. They play to the crowd. They shamelessly live with a radical disconnection between the values they espouse and the reality of their words, actions, and true beliefs.

The Sadducees and the scribes were easy targets for Jesus’ assertion of the depth of their hypocrisy. Both groups held significant societal power. What they said and did made a difference in the lives of everybody else. But they didn’t wield that power for the common good – they did so only to enrich themselves as they basked in the glow of their positions.

Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Notice that Jesus said, “They devour widows’ houses…” If you have any understanding or appreciation for the Bible, then you know full well that there is a preferential place in God’s heart for widows, orphans, strangers, foreigners, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the poor, the sick, and the lost. Jesus has absolutely no interest in helping the rich get richer or the so-called “honored” among us getting more acclaim.

Both the Sadducees and the scribes had powerful positions of impact in the lives of others. Human community requires such roles. It is why football requires referees and baseball requires umpires. We need leaders and we need rules and we need leaders who follow the rules.

What are the rules which God sets in place for all of us to follow? To love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The hypocritical Sadducees and scribes among us – no matter how often they abuse the word by using it – wouldn’t recognize love if you spotted them three of the four letters.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, today we will be mindful, in ourselves and others, of how our words and actions align with the deeper values which you have placed in our hearts. Open our ears and open our hearts to the acid of hypocrisy lest it eat what is best in us and leach into the soil of our common life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.