A sermon on Mark 12: 38-44 by Jan Coates, 8 November 2009
I’d like to start with a couple of definitions which I think we need to keep in mind when discussing tonight’s gospel reading. Firstly, hypocrisy can be defined as insincerity. Secondly, humility means having a humble attitude of mind – being ‘down to earth’ if you like.
Verses 38 to 40 give us the following:
‘Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogue, the best places at feasts…and for a pretence make long prayers.’ says Jesus.
Here we have a group of people who have been elevated to positions of power by their education in, and understanding of, the Scriptures. The average person looks to them for guidance, believing that these scholars should be looked up to, and their advice followed. It would appear that the scribes, like many in positions of power, have become corrupt – taking advantage of the gullible and vulnerable, abusing the power and status granted to them to obtain the best for themselves.
From this brief description, I get the feeling that Jesus is less than impressed by their use of position for personal gain, and by their public displays of piety. They certainly don’t display the kind of humility that Jesus impresses elsewhere as the way of life we ought to aspire to. His final comment on this group: ‘These will receive greater condemnation’ is a twofold warning, not just to the disciples, but to us as well.
First, we are explicitly warned against following such leaders – they are insincere, only seeking their own glory, not the glory of God. Fortunately, most people today are more aware and better educated, than the average person in Biblical times. Unfortunately, we also have some people who are willing to set themselves up as leaders like the scribes – exploiting the vulnerable and gullible people who still exist among us. So, we need to be wary of those who we perceive as not totally honest with us – whether they be leaders of religion, politics or in any other area of our lives. We need to think carefully about whom we give power to, and be willing to call them into line when they appear to be going down the path of corruption.
The second, and less explicit, warning is about our own hypocrisy. I don’t know about you, but there have been some days when I‘m not sure why I come here, and other days when I know I’m not here for the right reasons. I’m here, doing my own version of hypocrisy: mouthing the words, partaking of the rituals, but not really committing myself to them. I doubt anyone really notices the difference for the simple reason that you don’t know my thoughts, feelings or motivations, any more than I know yours. I’m no different from the scribes Jesus so rightly calls into question, especially on those days when I wonder what I’m doing here.
The fact that we still walk through that door, still feel drawn to come in and participate, says a lot for our acceptance of our failings. Being here allows us to offer our hypocrisy as a sacrifice in our worship, and seek the forgiveness that we know will be lovingly bestowed.
In verse 41, we are told:
‘Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much.’
The rich give from their surplus: they don’t really miss what they give, because they have more than enough to meet their needs and they can give without causing hardship – and Jesus comments on this very fact. I would almost bet that they carefully calculate just how much they can give without affecting their lifestyle but ensuring that they make a good impression. I would also bet that some of them do it with as much fanfare as they possibly can – letting everyone know just how generous their contribution is.
Then in verse 42:
‘Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites’
Notice the difference in the descriptions of the manner of giving? The rich ‘put in’; the poor widow ‘threw in’ her offering. It seems that she is embarrassed to admit to how little she can give in comparison to the others who have passed the treasury box. Jesus points out to the disciples that the poor are actually giving more, simply because they can least afford to give anything. The widow gives all that she has – not what she can afford, not from her surplus, but all she has to give: even if that means going without something else to help someone who has even less than she does. She is like the birds of the air and lilies of the field – trusting in God to provide for the future. She is truly making a sacrifice to honour God.
I reckon the themes we have here are still hypocrisy and humility – and the contrasting ways that the offerings of the rich and poor are both made and received reflects the contrasting stands of both parties involved. Now, this is not to say that every rich person is hypocritical in their giving and unable to be humble. Nor is it to say that the poor cannot be hypocritical, but are always humble. People are people, no matter what their financial status. We tend to categorise people, and then attach a stereotype to that category. There are some quite rich people who regularly give away money for a good cause, or just because they can make a difference to someone else’s life, without fanfare. There are some poor people who act like they have all the money in the world, living (and giving) extravagantly and beyond their means.
How does this apply to us, though? I suspect that most of us have sufficient for our needs and maybe a bit more. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a struggle, but rarely are we at the point where we don’t know where our next meal is coming from. We may not exactly be rich, but neither are we classed as poor. I think it is more of an attitude thing for us – do we give because we want to give, or because we think we ought to give, or because it makes us look good to give? My guess is most of us give what we can when we can, for no other reason than we want to do it. Sometimes there might be a bit of guilt in there – we put in a bit extra because we didn’t put in so much last time. Rarely have I found someone here who advertises their contribution, thinking it to be better than anyone else’s.
We all have our failings. We each have a gift. It is how we use our failings to improve, and our gifts to help others that make us one in Christ. It is not in being judgemental, but in being accepting of our faults and those of others, that we find grace and love. And it is in giving and sharing we find true wholeness.
Humility and hypocrisy – opposites assigned depending on your perception. And assign them we do: over and over. Do we have the right to determine who is humble, and who the hypocrite? Do we know enough of the workings of every persons mind to be able to say, convincingly, that we know their motives? Can you even say that your motives are pure in everything you do and say? Christ, in his perfection, may judge our behaviour. We, in our imperfection can only follow his advice: be aware of the humility of our own behaviour, and beware of judging the hypocrite.