What Jesus Saw / The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 12:36-44

And He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box.

A mountaineer and author of the best-selling book Into Thin Air, which described his 1996 expedition to Mt. Everest in which numerous climbers died in a blizzard. He wasn’t prepared for the deadly blizzard because he didn’t know it was coming. He stood on top of Mt. Everest and saw some cloud formations and thought nothing was wrong.

Later he met another climber who had returned quickly to base camp when he saw those same cloud formations. He hustled back down the mountain. Why? This man was a pilot. In his years flying over dangerous storms, he had come to recognize thunderhead cloud formations. He had studied them from high overhead. These are a sure sign of dangerous weather. So, when he was down below a thunderhead, he recognized it instantly and turned around and headed for safety. If you’re a mountain climber, it pays to know the weather conditions that may affect your journey.

Just as that pilot was a keen observer of the weather, Jesus was a keen observer of human nature. In today’s lesson He’s in the Temple. As He taught the crowds that came to the temple for worship and instruction in the faith, He observed two groups of people. First, there were the teachers of the law. Jesus wasn’t very impressed by them. Listen as Mark describes the scene:

As He taught, Jesus said, watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.

That may seem like harsh words. But think about it, these were the most religious people in the community and Jesus judges them quite severely. It’s clear that these holy men weren’t as holy as they wanted people to think they were. Of course, that’s not unusual as it may seem. There are people who try to “fake it until they make it” in every profession.

Recently I read a story about a man, a moderately talented soccer player, who attempted to pull off such a charade. Carlos was born in 1963 in Brazil, a country that’s known for its superb soccer teams. Carlos was a naturally athletic young man, and at age 16 he joined a professional team. Sadly, he was cut from the team not long afterwards. In spite of his athletic abilities, Carlos’ soccer skills simply weren’t at a professional level.

But that wasn’t the end of Carlos’ professional soccer career. If this were a Hollywood movie, Carlos would begin a punishing workout of soccer drills every day, change his diet and his mindset, and he would soon become the most impressive soccer player in all of Brazil. The movie would then fade out with Carlos being hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders after he kicks the winning goal in the World Cup. That’s how Hollywood would do it. But that’s not how Carlos did it.

He decided to con his way onto as many professional soccer teams as possible. Whenever coaches were looking for a few extra players, Carlos would apply. After all, he looked like an athlete. His friends all claimed he was a great athlete. They just never said that he was a great soccer player.

So, Carlos would get a short-term contract with a professional team. Then he would claim that he needed at least a month to get in peak physical condition before he could go out on the field. During that month, he would collect a paycheck without actually playing soccer. When he finally did get called out to play on the field, Carlos would suffer an alleged “injury” very quickly in the game, a pulled muscle was hard to disprove back in the 1970s and early ’80s. So, he would need one month to six weeks to recover from his injury before he could play.

But while he was on the bench (and still receiving a paycheck), Carlos would bribe local reporters to write news stories about his amazing athleticism and soccer skills. Fans demanded to see him play. Teams would compete to offer him a better contract. Carlos ended up getting contracts with ten different professional soccer teams without ever having to play a full game of soccer.

Here’s what’s hilarious: Carlos’ con almost got exposed in the late ’80s when he played for one of the local soccer teams. The owner demanded that his coach put Carlos into a game. Carlos had to think quickly. He ran over to the opposing team’s stands and started a fight with a fan who was heckling his team. The referees threw Carlos out of the game for fighting. To escape the wrath of the team’s owner, Carlos claimed that the heckling fan had insulted his boss’ honor. He was so pleased that Carlos defended him that he gave him a 6-month extension on his contract.

Some people have a talent for running a con. Jesus had a talent for recognizing people running a con. After all, He could see people’s hearts. He could see what they really were on the inside. And that’s what Jesus saw when He looked at the religious leaders.

The teachers of the law were the most respected members of their communities. They had spent years studying and memorizing religious law. They were the ultimate religious authorities in their society. They expected praise and honor for their spiritual leadership. They expected to be applauded for their faith. But Jesus wasn’t impressed. He knew it wasn’t a good idea to judge by outward appearances. Sometimes things aren’t as they appear. Jesus irritated the religious leaders because He wasn’t impressed by them. Jesus was sickened by people who made a show of their religion.

They expected to be rewarded for their piety. They expected to be first in line. They expected to get the best seats in the house. And all that praise and prestige went to their heads. Even worse, some of them abused their position of spiritual leadership to manipulate people into giving more money than they could afford. Notice that phrase about “devouring widows’ houses.”

Jesus was condemning the greedy, predatory way in which the scribes and other members of the religious establishment wouldn’t hesitate to ruthlessly drive people into poverty, while making themselves rich, through their demands for offerings or payments in the name of religion. Even if those payments would include seizing a widow’s estate, leaving her with no place to live. Despite this deliberate cruelty, the scribes would then put on a visible appearance of being very religious by saying lengthy prayers in public, and otherwise displaying their supposed piety in places where other people would see them and praise them for it, while also enjoying all the tangible benefits that came with their status as members of the religious hierarchy, such as the seats of honor at religious feasts, or in the synagogue during worship. Jesus said that their punishment in eternity would be the worst of all, because of their hypocrisy.

And that brings us to the second thing Jesus saw that day: He saw a poor widow. Listen to the words of Mark’s Gospel once again: 

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Jesus said to His disciples, Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything, all she had to live on.

Widows in Jesus’ day were vulnerable. The only social safety net they had was the synagogue and/or their family. If others didn’t help them, they’d be hungry or homeless. And yet, in spite of her low status and her poverty, she gave all her money, all she had to live on, to the temple treasury. She didn’t draw attention to herself. She didn’t do it to impress anyone. If it hadn’t been for Jesus, no one would’ve known how great a sacrifice she made. Why did she do it? Because she trusted God and she obeyed God’s commands. Because loving God is its own reward. And the more we love God, the more we’re willing to sacrifice to follow Him. We should never let our fear of the unknown, dictate how much we trust in God. Or another way to say it; never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.

Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God. That was the widow’s secret. That’s the essence of faith. Faith isn’t an outward show of piety but an inner trust that God will provide you with everything you need. The widow in the temple had that kind of trust in God and gave her all to God. The religious leaders, for all their pretend piety and theological training, didn’t have a clue about the real meaning of faith. And Jesus said that one day they would regret it.

The religious leaders put on a show for the people who were under their care. The poor widow had an audience of one, but that audience of One was more important than all the people packed in all the religious temples of the world combined . . . and His name is . . . Jesus.