Jesus and the Moneybox
A Meditation on Mark 12: 38 – 44
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church November 11, 2018
Jesus is sitting across from the money box. Did you catch that? Across from the money box. Does that make you feel just a little uncomfortable? Thursday I was in at the Presbyterian Home for Children attending one of our quarterly Presbytery meetings. We always begin the day with worship, and, naturally, an offering is received. Having forgotten my check book, I scrounged around in my purse, relieved to find a couple of crumpled dollar bills to add to the plate. I guess it was because today’s passage about Jesus in the temple was on my mind, but I had this image: there was Jesus, one of the ushers passing the plate at our worship service. I saw myself digging in my pockets and my purse, looking for one more coin, wishing I had my checkbook, worried about what he would think if he saw my meager contribution. I saw myself looking over to him and mouthing: “I give on-line!” Surely, Jesus reads lips, right? Did I just see Jesus wink at me?? Or was that a slight shake of the head? An eye roll?
After imagining Jesus being an usher, I went down the rabbit hole of also seeing him as a child, walking ever so carefully down the center aisle with the light held high. Little boy Jesus acolyte. I saw him as the welcomer making the announcements at the beginning of our worship service, going off script, of course. I heard him as the liturgist reading the call to worship, and then the scripture passage…after which he expressed his concern over how easily things could be misunderstood, misinterpreted. Then, I saw myself tearing up my sermon and telling him to keep on speaking. Preach, Jesus!!
If Jesus were reading us today’s passage from Mark, he would be troubled. He would understand humanity’s best efforts to record his words – as remembered by those who wanted to walk in his way – but he would also be troubled at how quickly things can be twisted. We’ve seen this in the aptly named “clobber” texts used to condemn our GLBTQ+ friends. Returning to the original scriptures, returning to the original context has much to do with interpretation, but that’s not all. It isn’t just about the interpretation of the words themselves. As with our own language, punctuation matters! Commas matter!
You’ve probably seen tons of examples of comma failures, examples of neglecting to use commas or using them incorrectly. Here is one of my favorites: A 2010 issue of “Tails” magazine, a publication for pet owners, featured television personality Rachel Ray on its cover, holding her adorable dog. Next to the photo, the subtitle read: Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog. The print issue had been released, but fortunately, the missing commas were inserted for the online version, possibly preventing Rachel Ray from being accused of eating her pets or her family members.
In today’s text? We have done the scribes a similar disservice. Listen again to verses 38 – 39. “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. ” (CEB)
Or “Beware of the scribes (comma), 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! (NRSV)
The Greek does not contain these grammatical markings, so, this is how it should read according to Columbia Seminary professor Mark Douglas: “Watch out for the legal experts (no comma) who like to walk around in long robes.” (Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 386)
The way it is translated in our Bibles, we have words in Jesus’ mouth that he did not say. It implies that he thinks ALL legal experts are the same, that all of them are pretentious and self-absorbed. Instead, he is cautioning about a particular way of being. Such subtle changes help support an anti-Semitic interpretation of scripture. Lest we forget, Jesus was a faithful Jewish man. He, like the prophets who came before him, Isaiah, Micah, John the Baptizer, sought to reform and renew their faith practices, not abandon them.
An issue much like this comma situation arose this week as Leslie Poss and I were discussing today’s worship service. Look at the pastoral prayer that is printed in your bulletin, a prayer we will be saying later in the service. The opening lines read like this:
Pray for those who are hungry.
Pray harder for those who will not feed them.
Pray for those who struggle each week to pay their bills.
Pray harder for those wealthy who do not care…
When Leslie read this she was worried that the fourth line could be misconstrued. As it was written, it said “pray for the wealthy who do not care.” Like the words we have put into Jesus’ mouth, it implied that there is not one wealthy person who cares about those with financial struggles. We know this is far from true. With thanks to Leslie for highlighting this concern, we changed “the” to “those,” so that we could avoid that trap of stereotyping others.
Jesus didn’t carry money. He didn’t own a home. He didn’t even have a donkey to carry him from place to place, much less a $54 million private jet plane (as requested by one televangelist this past May.) Not to imply that he didn’t work for a living after his stone mason days, but rather to say he never expected a regular paycheck or a benefit plan, like pastors today. Like me.
Jesus didn’t even have two tiny coins to put in the money box.
But this is what he saw: a widow, a woman with no financial means of support placing her last two coins in the treasury because that is what she had been taught to do. Writing in Feasting on the Gospels, Deborah Rahn Clemens explains: “Everybody who was anybody in Jewish society had to pay their temple tax, an obligatory levy placed on every Jewish family. The tax was a mandatory assessment to be paid to the temple coffers each year. It was due, like it or not, use the temples services or not, worship or stay away.” (Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, p. 392) It was always due.
Jesus, from his perspective of watching the money box, saw a once sacred system that had broken down. He saw wealthy scribes who were benefiting from a system that was oppressing the poor. “They devour the widows’ houses.” What a jolting image. God have mercy. How many times did the prophets preach against this? How many times did God, through the prophets, say that this type of behavior would lead to ruin? How many times did Jesus show us through his own example that we are to care for the vulnerable? When religious leaders and institutions cause pain, it is a deep, deep pain for it is a pain that has God’s name attached to it. Yet the widow seemed amazingly unfazed by the injustice of it all.
As a church, and in some powerfully significant ways, a very atypical Southern church, we labor for justice. We march, we write letters, we show up, we vote, we advocate for change. We engage in acts of compassion and ministries of companionship. Even as we explore how to renovate our building, we know that much of the vision that is unfolding is centered on creating safe spaces of welcome and nurture for our community. We do not all have financial gifts to give this church. That’s okay. If you do have the ability to give, know that your gifts enable us to continue to be a light in our little corner of the world. Regardless of your ability to support the church financially, you each have gifts to bring. Gifts of laughter and music and wisdom. Gifts of service and teaching and compassion. Gifts of prayer. What would our church look like, if, on every pledge card, there was a space to write your commitment to pray for our church? Not because all these prayers would rain God’s blessings down upon us, but because prayer transforms those who pray.
Jesus watched the money box. Which just seems so puzzling to me.
So many of our stories of Jesus are more like scattered, disconnected scenes, which makes me wonder about the back stories, the connecting threads. I have wondered about this one many times. I imagine this: Jesus is approaching the Temple. It is massive and beautiful and teeming with people: wealthy people in fancy clothes, working people, and the disenfranchised poor. Jesus blends in with the crowd, dusty and dirty, without a coin to his name. He sits to rest for a moment just outside and while his eyes are closed, someone drops two small coins in his lap. Someone feels sorry for this rough looking man. When he opens his eyes, he sees the coins, coins he doesn’t want, doesn’t need. He in turn places the coins in the hand of a widow. But she hadn’t asked for them either. She doesn’t know what to do with them…but then it comes to her, and she smiles. She enters the Temple, with Jesus by her side, and as he watches, she joyfully places the two coins in the treasury box. Maybe those little pennies are her little joke on those scribes who oppress the poor. “Maybe,” she says to Jesus, “maybe it will make them think.”
At least it has the potential to make us think. Of broken systems that oppress, of gifts freely received and freely given. Of never repaying evil with evil. Of the power of prayer to change us…
May it be so. May it all be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.