Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Mark 12:35-13:8) transports me to a planet on the fringe of deep space, where the Klingon warrior Worf discovers a colony of his people who have assimilated with their enemy Romulans. Worf hears a group of Klingon children singing a nice little song, and he is incensed, because the song he hears was originally a great battle song, and they have turned it into a sweet play song. He tells them they might know the words, but they have no idea of the context or the meaning of the song. He proceeds, then, to teach them their heritage, their culture, their identity of what it means to be Klingon.
What a strange trip, to go from Mark’s gospel to Star Trek: The Next Generation. The scene came to mind, though, because the passage in Mark contains a teaching of Jesus that has been turned into a sweet little illustration, when in all likelihood it was originally a battle cry of sorts. The early church, like Jesus himself, was a fierce force for economic justice, a salty leavening agent in the midst of a culture that exploited the poor and celebrated the rich. Somewhere along the line, though, the church was colonized by the culture of conspicuous consumption, and assimilated. And the great battle cries for economic justice were slowly transformed into sweet little lullabies, lulling the followers of Jesus back into a comfortable peace with a consumptive culture that values capital over community. The battle cry in question today is Jesus’ famous observation about the widow’s mite. Jesus is in the temple, observing people as they pass by the offering basket, and he comments on the rich folks who make a show of their big offerings, and makes an example of the poor widow and her penny offering. He comments that she gave more than all the rest, because she gave all she had, she gave her whole life. Those of us who grew up in church probably heard more than one lesson on the widow’s mite, lifting her up as an example of “little is much when God is in it.” We have used it over and over again to praise humble and genuine generosity, over against showboat giving.
I can picture Jesus making a trek down to planet earth today, observing the incredible amount of resources that go into sanctuaries and church gyms and fellowship halls and seeing the faithful driving to and from these structures in the finest cars while many widows and single moms of the community struggle to make ends meet. I can picture Jesus hearing a children’s sermon about the widow’s mite, and responding with a Worf-like angry rant about what the context and real meaning of that story is all about. It’s all there in Mark’s gospel, but we have been blinded by our assimilation with the contemporary culture and rarely see it. Just look at how the widow’s mite story is book-ended: On the front end, Jesus is teaching in the temple courts, and he’s ranting and raving against the temple leadership that makes a show of their religion while exploiting the poor, devouring widow’s houses. On the back end he’s ranting and raving again, predicting that the oppressive opulence of the temple system would soon be dismantled, would be “thrown down” stone by stone. In between these rants is the observation of the widow giving all she had. Instead of lifting her up as a praiseworthy example of giving your all to God, the context tells us that she’s also part of Jesus’ angry jag; he is pointing her out as an example of the devouring of widow’s houses that the temple obligations brought on, the kind of exploitation of the poor that would soon cause the temple system to come crashing down, stone by stone.
The poor widow of Jesus’ day surely represented one of the most vulnerable classes of people in society – with hardly any means of support or security. The faith community had turned its obligation to care for these vulnerable women on its head – now the poor women were obliged to give their last penny – their homes and their lives – over to the temple in order to access the presence of God. I’m not sure where all the direct analogies are to our religious systems today, but it is clear that whenever the focus of our faith community turns inward – whenever our budgets and our energies go toward the creation and maintenance of grandiose structures over against the needs of the most vulnerable, and whenever we sing nice Jesus songs while we heap onerous obligations on the single moms in order for them to access grace, we’re liable to hear Jesus giving a Klingon wake-up call and a stark prediction that this system is going to come down stone by stone.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.