beware the scammers

Sermon 11-7-2021, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Mark 12:38-44

My Mammaw had Alzheimer’s, and the last couple of years of her life were confusing – for everyone. She lived alone in her own home until just a couple of weeks before she died this summer, and my mom and aunts walked through a long season of slowly taking control of different parts of Mammaw’s life that she couldn’t manage on her own – cooking, cleaning, mail and finances.

Somehow, Mammaw got on all the non-profit, elder-scam mailing lists. You know the ones I’m talking about, right? A flier in the mail with a photo of a sad child, begging for money. A phone call from a representative asking for funds. There’s an entire industry built arounds scamming elderly people out of their money, and my Mammaw wandered her way square into the center of it all. She wanted to help, and she couldn’t tell what was reputable and what wasn’t. All she saw were people in need, and she wanted to do the right thing. Mom would go over to Mammaw’s house and see photos of strangers on the fridge, ask who they were and learn that it was some child who had asked for money through the mail. Mammaw ended up writing checks to false front orphanages, buying regular supplies of algae pills, and in a strange, confused trail of illogic that I can’t understand, a pro-fracking organization…which she somehow believed was feeding hungry people.

Mom and my aunts knew what was happening, and were able to safeguard most of Mammaw’s savings. But she insisted on writing checks to the people who asked her for help, even when those people were clearly scamming her. It happens all the time – charlatans scamming old, kind-hearted poor people out of the few resources they have. It is both sad and kind of gross, thinking about all the ways that people take advantage of the vulnerable among us.

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In her reflection on this passage – which we often call “The Widow’s Mite” – Barbara Brown Taylor says that the widow dropping her last two coins into the Temple Treasury is something like what happened to my Mammaw. She says that this story is a story of powerful people taking advantage of vulnerable ones.

This is NOT how we usually hear this story of the widow and her two coins. If we’ve heard the story told before, it might have been as an encouragement during stewardship season – if even a poor widow would give up her very last coins in contribution to the temple, how much more should we, people of means, be giving? Giving to the church or the temple or whatever institution it is that safeguards our religious practice and devotion is GOOD, right?

But in Mark’s story, Jesus never praises the widow. He does not say “look, you should be more like her!” Instead, this little glimpse of the widow and her mite acts as a counterbalance to the scenes that surround it. Jesus has just finished WARNING his disciples about the ways that some religious leaders use their positions of power to cheat and oppress the poor: 

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And immediately after he points out the widow, one of Jesus’ disciples marvels to him about the grandeur of the temple where they’ve been hanging out: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” But Jesus, not missing a beat, says “Yeah, you see these huge buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

The story of the widow and her mite – two coins which amount to about a dollar – literally, as Jesus says “her entire life” – is not meant to be read as an affirmation of sacrificial giving. It is sandwiched here between warnings and prophecies about the destruction of oppressive religious systems that “devour widows’ houses” and, because of their abusive practices, will not survive in God’s new realm.

Jesus points out the widow because he wants his disciples – and us – to see what things look like from the underside. He is dragging our attention – as he does so often – away from the people and places that the world tells us are the most important toward the ones that Jesus himself declares are important. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus points out the widow to his disciples – this widow who no one else bothered to notice at all – in order to turn our expectations upside down. 

“If he had taken a Polaroid snapshot of the temple that day,” she writes, “and handed it to the disciple with one question written underneath – “Where is Christ in this picture?” – they would never have guess the answer. There were MAJOR CHARACTERS in that room, after all – doctors of the law and patrons of the arts, rich people and smart people, people with names and faces – any one of them a better bet than the thin woman in the widow’s weeds, a minor character if there ever was one. “she’s the one,” Jesus tells them when their time is up. “The one without a penny to her name, she’s the one to watch.”

Jesus is saying “look. Do you see what the religious leaders of this system that is about to be obliterated are doing to people? Do you see how hungry she is, how without resources, how alone? And she believes that giving her last pennies to this temple, which we know treats her like dirt, is the right thing to do.”

The moral of this story is not “be generous like the poor widow.” It is, instead, “beware the religious leaders who like to walk around in fancy clothes, insist on being greeted with respect and invited to the seat of honor at dinner and reserve the best seats in the synagogue, the ones who prey on the poor and weak and demand that they sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of the abusive system.”

Watch, Jesus is saying, what happens to the pure in heart when these systems devour them. Pay attention to this, he says, because the very same thing is about to happen to me.

It is important to name that Jesus wasn’t critiquing Judaism, and he was not implying that ALL the scribes were selfish and abusive. He’s just had an encounter with a scribe that goes very well – the one who hears Jesus teaching and asks him about the greatest commandment. Jesus says, well, of course the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all you are, and the second is really similar: love your neighbor as yourself. And the scribe approves, and says, of course, you’re right. Loving God with your whole life is much more important than any kind of offering or sacrifice. And Jesus recognized that he was someone on the same journey and said “you are not far from God’s kingdom.”

Jesus isn’t condemning Judaism; he is condemning powerful religious leaders who oppress the poor and pure in heart. He is issuing a prickly warning about preachers who want to be seen more than they want to serve. He is affirming what he has already taught: in God’s world, the last are FIRST and the ones we think are first in this world, well, they’re often last.

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Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question about this story that’s helpful for us to reflect on as we try to turn our own perspectives about who to watch upside down: “Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution? Was is right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she? What if she were someone you knew, someone of limited means who decided to send her last dollar to the 700 Club? Would that be admirable, or scandalous? Would it be a good deed or a crying shame?”

What do you think?

I tend to fall in the “crying shame” camp, once I read around the passage and consider all the ways that Jesus got so angry and promised judgement on the religious leaders who ignored and oppressed and abused the people in their care. “Crying shame” is how I feel about my Mammaw sending money to all those scammers, thinking she was doing good. No judgement for the widow or my Mammaw – just like Jesus didn’t pronounce judgement or praise on the widow in the text. Just attentiveness to how twisted the system is, and what a shame it is that the most vulnerable are the most taken advantage of.

Jesus rarely gets angry in the gospels, but when he does, when he pronounces judgement, when he warns of the wrath to come, he is almost always aiming that anger and judgement at hateful, dishonest, scamming religious leaders who mistreat the people in their care. Jesus is crystal clear that cruel religious leaders – the abusive, selfish scribes and the scamming Pat Robertsons and the church bureaucrats who sacrifice vulnerable people in favor of institutional survival – these folks will receive “great condemnation.” 

This interpretation of the story asks us all to upend our assumptions and expectations. It is not the priests and scribes that we should be paying attention to, and it is not the wealthy, big givers who deserve the lion’s share of our respect. Jesus, in this story, is asking us to turn our attention upside down, to prioritize noticing the least, the last, and the ones who are caught and chewed up by the gears of a religious system run by those leaders.

If we read the story this way, we might hear Jesus asking us to organize our common life together not around the decisions and desires of the most powerful, but instead to organize our life together around the needs and accommodations of those least likely to be noticed. What does this mean, practically?

This week, I have seen SO MANY beautiful pictures of brave kids getting their COVID vaccines. And one theme in the comments that their parents shared has been that these kids are being brave and getting the shot not so much for themselves but for their dear friends who are immunocompromised: so that they can eat lunch with their best friend who has asthma; so that their cousin who has health issues, might be able to come to their 8th birthday party in February; so that they can hug their elderly grandparents. That is an example of centering the most vulnerable in decision making, straight from the mouths of kiddos.

During the pandemic, we have tried to make decisions in this way at Peace Covenant, too. We are still wearing masks in the building, even though almost all of us are vaccinated, because we know that there are some among us with compromised immune systems. And we know that our beloved kids have not had that privilege up to this point. The mask-wearing is an attempt to center the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Another, non-Covid related example: I know of a congregation in Pennsylvania that learned so much about white supremacy and racism in the United States that they collectively decided to make it a regular practice in their classes, meetings and worship to make space for the Black women in the congregation to speak first. Knowing that Black women live at the intersections of multiple kinds of oppression in American society, they decided to prioritize their perspective and their voices in their fellowship. They have actually trained themselves to wait until one of these church mothers has spoken for the rest of the discussion to continue.

What would happen if those selfish scribes decided to do their jobs with people like the widow as their priority? What would it mean for us, here at Peace Covenant, to center the opinions and needs of the most marginalized among us? 

What would it mean for us to follow Jesus’ nod and pay attention to the widows among us? How would our life together change if we prioritized the perspectives and needs of the most vulnerable? I’m curious to know what you think.

[With gratitude for Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection “The One to Watch,” in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993).]

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