Passage – Mark 12:38-44
I was in a bible study on zoom the other day and one of the participants asked a great question- “How do you know whether you’re a Christian?” I responded by pointing to the work of Christ and whether a person has trusted him as the Saviour for their sins. I talked about following Jesus as the Lord (or leader) of their lives. I also mentioned the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life as a mark of God’s ownership of them. These are all true, but the more I reflected upon it, the more things came to mind as evidence that a person is a follower of Jesus. I then came across this short section in Mark’s Gospel, that many of you will have read this past week, and was struck by a rather surprising truth, and it is this- how we handle money shows whether we’re following Jesus. As is Mark’s practice, he often places two stories side by side to make a contrast, as is the case here between the teachers of the law (the Scribes) and a poor widow. Although money is prominent in the passage it’s not really about money. The money is a window into the heart. It’s really about who am I trusting in life?
Beware of the Scribes (v38-40)
We know that Jesus is on a collision course with the Jewish religious leaders, which will lead to his death and to Israel’s judgment, for rejecting him. The religious leaders have been trying to trap Jesus and arrest him, so Jesus delivers this warning- “Watch out for the teachers of the law”- and then gives reasons why. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the market-places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets.” (v38-39) Basically they love to be seen by people and made a fuss of as important. Jesus’ popularity with the crowds must have irked them. However, behind this public persona is a dark truth- “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” Throughout the pages of scripture, God’s people are called to look after the vulnerable. Exodus puts it plainly- “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.” (22:22) But here are the scribes, revered by everyone, secretly fleecing the most vulnerable in their midst for personal gain, whilst covering it up by their “lengthy prayers”. They may be able to pull the wool of people’s eyes, but not God’s- “Such men will be punished most severely.” (v40) The scribes’ problem was that they trusted man. It was human approval they lived for and so their religion was all a public performance whilst secretly they were greedy for personal gain. Elsewhere Jesus declares- “You cannot serve both God and Money” and then declares- “The Pharisees, who loved money” (Luke 16:13-14). Sadly, rarely does a year go by, without a well-known Christian leader falling, the most recent being revelations of the life of Ravi Zacharias, prior to his death in 2020. There’s an all too familiar ring to these stories of a disconnect between popular public ministry and private sin, usually involving money, sex and power.
Be like the Widow (v41-44)
In contrast to the man-centred religion of the scribes who were greedy for financial gain, Jesus points his disciples to the example of a poor widow, a member of the very group whom the scribes had been exploiting. Jesus places himself near the temple treasury and observes the giving habits of the worshippers. (Not a practice that church treasurers should employ!) “Many rich people threw in large amounts.” (v41) The act of giving on the part of the rich was also a public performance, just like the scribes, because they “threw in large amounts”, so that everyone could see and no doubt hear them do it! Ultimately, if you’re trusting man then you will want people to know that you give and make a fuss of you about how generous you’ve been. “But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.” In contrast, she “put in” two small coins. No-one would have noticed her or made a fuss of her because her gift was absolute peanuts. But importantly Jesus saw what she did and gave his verdict- “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything- all she had to live on.” (v43-44) You see God measures giving not by what we give, but by what we keep for ourselves. And here’s the thing, she gave all that she had! Her giving showed who she really trusted, and that is God! She demonstrated that she was dependent upon the Lord for her life.
What does it look like to follow Jesus?
The scribes and the rich givers, in how they handle money, show that they’re trusting man not God. Whereas, the poor widow, in how she handles money, demonstrates what Jesus teaches about those who’d follow him. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (8:34-38) We cannot ‘give’ our way into God’s Kingdom, no matter whether it’s a fraction of a penny or a large sum of money. Salvation cannot be bought. The poor widow shows powerfully a life that truly belongs to Jesus, where her act of giving was in grateful thanks to the one who had given everything for her. Paul puts it brilliantly to the Corinthians in his second letter- “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (8:9)
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