The other week I was watching the World Series…where a certain team from Boston won… but I won’t get into that. I will say that watching TV every night for a couple of nights exposed me to a good number of commercials. Lots and lots of commercials.
All sorts of people telling me how I should feel, what I should eat, what I should wear, and what I should definitely, definitely, spend money on.
Last Sunday, I got to go on a date night with my husband. And the restaurant had a TV on in the corner…because what says ‘romantic dining experience’ more than a large screen TV over your head. And our eyes kept on drifting up to ad after ad for the political candidates. So many ads.
And the number of ads ramp up the closer we get to Black Friday….
All of this made me think about the art of influence. If a commercial is shiny enough, warmhearted enough, funny enough, sarcastic enough, scary enough… does it cause me to take action?
If I see an actor or a famous celebrity telling me to do something, am I swayed one way or another?
The grown up, experienced, sardonic person in me wants to “NO! I can’t be swayed by an ad.” But it does stay with me. Perhaps in subtle ways–shift my action.
It seems like we’ve always had the influential people in our society. The ones that somehow have a big ol’ spotlight shining on them. In our national culture, it’s usually politicians and celebrities. In our family structure, it’s usually the one who gets to decide where you go out to eat…or in a few weeks…who gets to carve the turkey. In some spheres, it may be the one who has the biggest income and in others, it may be the one who has the most diplomas and degrees hanging on their wall.
We’ve always had movers and shakers in our world
And yes…we witness these movers and shakers in our Gospel text today.
Some are easy to point out. Like the scribes. They were the academics of the day, mix scholar and lawyer into one, and had a lot of influence and power. Among many of their jobs, they would often oversee an estate after a husband or patriarch died. Where in the 1st century, widows had no rights or access to the estate, and there was a lot of room for scribes to abuse and embezzle. The powerful taking advantage of the powerless. Or as Jesus warns, they could devour widow’s houses.
But it wasn’t just embezzling that Jesus is pointing out in our Gospel…nope he’s also pointing to people like me.
I appreciate the translation of this Gospel from the writer Eugene Peterson, where in The Message we read,
“Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function…The longer their prayers, the worse they get.”
Mark 12:38-40, The Message
Some pretty harsh words for religious leaders. But true. How many times just this year have you read about someone just like me using our power and influence to cause harm… whether it’s the scandal of abuse of the most vulnerable in our society or hearing about someone just like your pastor raising money for their own personal jet. No… I don’t have a jet… but the clergy are often listened to as movers and shakers in the community.
And another group of movers and shakers that Jesus points to are the rich in our Gospel. Something that the original language of the Gospel points out, that our English translation sort of misses, is how the rich were giving. Not just how much they were giving, but the attitude by which they gave.
What comes to my mind, when thinking about this passage, is my childhood Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Dube. She wanted us kids to remember this passage, so when she played the part of the rich person giving their offering, she played the part! Strutting her stuff, counting her coins for everyone to see, and making a grand gesture of it all.
As Americans, we can corner the market of strutting our stuff and showing our worth. Whether it’s the guy down the street with his big, shiny new truck or the bazillionnaire who makes a big show about spending money on one thing or another, or me when I’m at my coffee shop and I have actual cash on me to put in the tip jar. I know my hand gets slower and I have a moment of gravitas to show that I’m tipping!
We like to show off the goods. We like to be seen as charitable, magnanimous, a promoter of good things. And perhaps most of all–as Americans–we like to be seen that we have our act together. Anything that points to a fault or weakness we want to quickly nip, tuck, cover, color, replace, or erase. We’re even willing to blatantly lie to ourselves and others to save face and to look like we have the power.
And on the other side of things, our Gospel introduces us to a widow. In the midst of the many rich giving much, Jesus notices one widow giving very little. During the first century, widows were among the begging crowds of the community. Sometimes they were taken in by their dead husband’s family, but so often seen as a burden or unwanted. And many looked at them as though they had caused this calamity of grief to come upon them.
But Jesus sees her.
Jesus sees her not as a beggar or a cause of calamity.
Jesus sees her for who she is…a courageous, faithful, child of God.
Jesus also sees his mission on earth in her. Her gift foreshadows the one Jesus is about to make: his very life. As the Apostle Paul wrote,
“though Jesus Christ was rich, yet for (our) sake became poor, so that by his poverty (we) might become rich”
2 Corinthians 8:9
As a pastor and as a family member, I have looked into the eyes of many widows and widowers. I have looked into sorrow-filled eyes, filled with questions– “how will I live without them? Where will I live without them? How can I navigate this life…without them?”
As a pastor, I have had the privilege to walk with many of you when calamity, chaos, or when the march of time catches up–and I give thanks for the witness you give. The witness to your faith. The witness to your love. And the witness to how we all truly rely upon the hand of God.
Back to those commercial ads and the art of influence.
Can we imagine this Gospel story as an advertisement for God’s kingdom?
In the backwards, upside down way to God’s kingdom the high and mighty are given a reality check, the rich are thanked but aren’t worshiped for their acts, and the most forgettable widow is the most memorable, model of faith.
Let’s think about that widow again.
Two thousand years ago in a land across the globe one, poor, destitute woman gave all that she had, for she had faith that somehow God would provide.
Perhaps that provision was God opening the hearts of her family to embrace her fully into their house.
Perhaps she had faith in a God who would crack into the institution of the temple whose institutional role was to honor God by providing for the least of these–the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner.
Perhaps it was the radical faith that God’s spirit of wisdom and truth would descend on leaders who tended to estates and the monetary systems, and guide them to offer an ethical and honest practice.
And friends…it’s more than that… for this unnamed woman has been an advertisement to us. She has been a mover and shaker for the kingdom of God. She has passed on the message that when you act and move in faith, God sees you.
But wait there’s more!
This woman…this unnamed woman of God…could never imagine that her action of faith is moving and shaking you and me. This one person’s act of giving has influenced billions of lives as her story has been passed from generation to generation.
So here’s the question for us. How will our acts of faith and generosity move and shake generations to come?
What about the child who is watching you move through the world–how will they be inspired to be generous and to give of their treasure to bless the world that our God treasures so much?
What about the friend or family member who can only see the world as a selfish, dark place? How will your act of giving–something that they may see when you think you’re unobserved–how will your act shine the light of God’s goodness in some of those dark places?
And even when we give in faith, totally unobserved, in the silence of our own space… and our gift may seem so little, a drop in the bucket in the face of so much… my friends, your gift is never in vain–for it speaks to your trust in the God who holds you, who loves you, and rejoices with you in your work in the kingdom.
So brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t wait, act now!