When Religion Has Lost Its Soul

Text: Mark 12:38-44
Date: Pentecost XXIII + 11/8/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, we approach the telling of the end of our Lord’s earthly ministry, and of this world of sin, separation and death, and the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth for which we long in the day of the resurrection of all flesh, the Day of Judgment. The events leading up to Jesus’ central, most important work the Holy Church celebrates in detail during Holy Week and Easter, namely, His one, singular offering of Himself to bear the sins of many, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says it. All the Evangelists paint the picture of the drama building between Jesus on the one hand and the official religious establishment on the other. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the establishment or “organized religion” as some call it, meaning established divisions of various kinds of service in the Church. It’s just when the institution forgets its original character and mission and begins to operate only for the purpose of its own self-preservation that it incurs the judgment of God. This was the situation that prevailed in Jesus’ time. In fact the mystery is how God used the very spiritual deadness of His people and His official religious teachers and representatives to bring about the Gospel of forgiveness and freedom for the whole world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, on the cross of Calvary.

How dark were the times? We can identify with the fact that, on the one hand, the people of Israel in general looked up with respect especially to the scribes, the teachers of God’s Law, much like we look up to our pastors or maybe one of our synodical seminary professors or officers of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I mean, regardless of other thoughts or opinions, we would naturally want to stand and make a relatively big deal out of greeting or welcoming Gerry Kieschnick our synodical President or David Maier our (new) District president, or one of our seminary presidents, Dale Meyer of St. Louis or Dean Wenthe of Ft. Wayne if they were to walk through the door right now. And that would be “good, right and salutary.” Yet, truly worthy servant-leaders remember that they are just that, servants; humble servants of Christ and of His people.

Nevertheless, Jesus, in his teaching, warned, “Beware of the scribes.” That they walked around identified in public by their long, white robes and were greeted in the marketplaces and usually given the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at feasts wasn’t the problem in itself. It was, rather, as Jesus said, that “they liked” all that adulation and honor. They sought it and played it for all it was worth. And, the best I can make out of Jesus’ accusation that they “devoured widows’ houses” is the implication that they were not only not taking care of widows and orphans as was the proper and godly thing to do, but that they were allowing these most in need to deplete their resources even in support of them and the synagogue rather than receiving the more of God’s grace, mercy, protection and assistance. That Jesus says they make a “pretense” by offering long prayers about it all instead of helping them means they knew, at least down deep to some extent, that they needed to cover their lack of responsibility and of love.

Lack of love. That’s the issue. Biblically, that’s the issue with the breaking of the whole law of God, for it all boils down to this, says Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Dt. 6:5) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Love of God is summarized in the first three commandments, love of neighbor in the last seven of the ten.

This little incident actually concludes the account of Jesus public teaching, preaching and healing. For now He and His disciples move out of the temple, across the valley. From there He will begin to tell them of the coming destruction of the temple and of His holy passion. One more little observation is made as a sort of post-script to His words denouncing the scribes.

As they sat by what was called the treasury of the temple, there where thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles for the people to deposit their offerings on their way into the temple. Our translations say that Jesus “watched the people putting money into the offering box.” That word, however, is usually translated “throwing” or “casting” their money. Mark then tells us, “Many rich people put in large sums.” Now, isn’t that reasonable? expected? This sentence should not be read with a sneer or as some sort of criticism as seems to be the increasing attitude among some in our country today who use class envy to foment anger or worse between people. Jesus was not criticizing people for being rich. Of greater spiritual value and significance is, of course, the percentage of giving as an expression of heartfelt gratitude to God who gives us all we need and have. God loves a cheerful [regular, proportionate, first-fruits] giver.

Then Jesus noticed “a poor widow” putting in only two small copper coins. These were the smallest amounts of coinage, and Mark translates their worth in terms of Roman currency, actually (if you want to know) one one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth of a denarius or days wage. “Penny” about says it all. Stop to think about it for a moment and notice that this poor widow could have offered God just one coin and kept one for her own needs. How many of us give 50% of our income in the Sunday offering plate?! But this was even more! In Jesus’ words, “out of her poverty (she) put in EVERYTHING SHE HAD, ALL SHE HAD TO LIVE ON.” Now who actually demonstrated the Law of Love? The scribes or this poor widow? “You shall love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your might,” 100%! A pastor once told his congregation, “Sometimes Christians ask me what portion of their income they should really give to God and his Church. When they ask it like that, I tell them, ‘You should give it all!’”

You “give it all” when you realize that Christ gave His all. You will give it all, eventually; give it all back. Of course we don’t mean to mislead people to be irresponsible with their money and what they owe to their families and other loved ones. It’s just that that use is to be seen, ultimately, as serving God who gave it all in the first place. This story is all about the faith-filled soul that trusts in God for everything, and makes no claims of right for self.

From here on in Mark’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’ ultimate offering of Himself in total love for the world by the giving of His life. “God so loved the world….” This is what faith holds as its greatest prize: the love of God. This is what faith demonstrates when it is alive in believers: the love of neighbor.
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Rev. Allen D. Lunneberg      [1247]