By Linda Rex
November 7, 2021, PROPER 27—One of the hazards to being a pastor is having to sit before God’s Word, letting it penetrate to the core of one’s being, while maintaining one’s ability to speak that Word to others. The Lord showed me years ago that when I read the Word, I must let him speak to me first by the Spirit through it, and then speak to the congregation. This means that the Word applies first to myself and then to those I am responsible for ministering to. I am often convicted by God’s message, cut to the heart and broken, but find I still have to preach that message in such a way that others may also experience God’s penetrating ministry. Thankfully, this is the work of Jesus Christ by the Spirit in me.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 12:38–44, Mark brought up two significant and powerful lessons which were intertwined into a central theme—false religiosity contrasted with humble, sacrificial giving. First, Jesus spoke to the crowd, warning them about the scribes, whose ostentatious displays of religious observance hid hearts full of greed, pride, and self-aggrandizement. Secondarily, Jesus showed the profound difference between giving out of one’s abundance and giving out of one’s poverty.
On the one hand, the scribes, who were often the ones entrusted with the financial wellbeing of the widows and handled their legal affairs, many times worked it out so they were, through the temple, the beneficiaries of the widows’ livelihood. Those they were to protect and defend ended up being taken advantage of and made dependent upon others due to the scribes’ clever manipulation of their affairs. Even though the scribes feasted upon the adulation of the people, enjoying the notoriety of special greetings in the marketplace and the seats of prominence in the synagogue and banquets, and gave lengthy showy prayers, these scribes were facing acute condemnation due to the true state of their hearts. They looked great on the outside, but their inner beings desperately needed cleansed and restored.
Then, as Jesus sat and watched the people enter the women’s court in the temple and place money in the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, he pointed out the profound difference between the size of the gifts given. On the one hand, the wealthy entered the temple and poured extremely large amounts of money into the boxes. What they gave was impressive and, no doubt, brought them admiration and praise for their generosity. But Jesus was not that impressed.
What caught Jesus’ eye was the widow who came into the area and went to place her gift in the receptacle. She, possibly a victim of the scribes’ graft and greed, poured the last two coins in her purse out into her hand. These two lepta, the smallest of the Roman coins, were all that she had left. But she placed them in the box. Jesus was deeply moved by this woman’s willingness to lay all she had at God’s feet, trusting he would care for her and provide for her. She did not think about how the money might be mismanaged or misused. She simply gave, from the heart, all that she had to God.
On both of these levels, we see that the central issue is a matter of the heart. Who has the heart Jesus is looking for? Obviously, the widow. She is the one who best resembles her Lord, the One who would soon lay himself down on the altar of sacrifice, offering all of himself in our place and on our behalf. Jesus shunned the notoriety, ostentation, and prominence that the scribes thrived upon. He preferred to be humble and self-effacing, displaying a servant’s heart throughout his life and ministry, willing to give it all up for our sakes.
We often struggle with the idea of the kind of generosity the widow displayed. It is instructive that her generosity provided a teaching moment for Jesus to use with his disciples. Some of us would say that she was very unwise, and should not have given her last bit of funds to the temple. Some of us would say that she would have been better off using those few coins to provide for herself in some way. But she seemed to understand something many of us struggle to understand and it is simply this—God knew exactly what that widow’s situation was, knew exactly what she needed, and was already working in that moment to provide for her and take care of her needs. Her security was not in her money, but in the God who was trustworthy, dependable, and faithful.
In 1 Kings 17:8–16, we read of when Elijah was told by God to go to Zarephath and find a certain widow. This widow was in dire straits, having only a little flour and oil left, enough for one last meal for her and her son. There was a famine in the land, so it was a real struggle for her to find anything for them to eat. Directed by God, Elijah asked the woman to give him a piece of bread before she fed herself and her son.
What was the widow to do? Logically, it would have been insane to give the last of what she had to the man of God simply because he asked for it. Why should she risk death by starvation any sooner than necessary?
But, as we see in this story, the woman did not put her faith in the oil and flour. She did not put her faith in her ability to stretch what little she had out as far as possible. She simply trusted that what Elijah said was true—that once she served him first, she would have a continuous supply of oil and flour from then on. She trusted in the Lord’s provision, even though what she had been asked to do didn’t make any sense at all.
God has a special place in his heart for widows and orphans. He knows how hard it is to hold everything together when it’s just you. He also understands the intensity of the temptation others face and fail to resist of taking advantage of the weakness, poverty, and defenselessness of these vulnerable ones, and he offers them his grace. And he sees the heartfelt self-sacrifice and service of those left at the mercy of others that so often exemplifies the heart of God expressed in his own self-offering in Christ.
Mark’s gospel message resonates within me on all levels, calling me to reexamine my heart and my motivations for what I do. Why do I get up each day and do the work of a pastor? Are my motives self-seeking or are they self-sacrificing? Do I depend upon myself or others for my security and worth, or do I simply trust in the love and grace of my heavenly Father, and in my kinsman-redeemer Jesus Christ to meet my every need? These are matters of the heart—and Jesus came to write God’s law and ways on our hearts, enabling us to be and do what does not come naturally to us. He is the One who with a pure heart, offered himself in such a way that each of us by faith can have his heart living within us by the Holy Spirit.
Today is a good day to pause and look at our loving Savior, asking him to renew by the Spirit his heart of humble service and self-sacrifice within us. We can practice his presence and trusting in his provision by praying a simple breath prayer. Breathe in: “Trustworthy Father;” breathe out: “I trust you.” Or, breathe in: “Jesus, pure of heart;” breathe out: “I rest in you.” May you find comfort and peace in the presence of the one who knows our hearts and loves us still.
Heavenly Father, thank you for caring so tenderly for us, and for reminding us of what really matters to you. Grant us the humble, serving, self-sacrificing heart of your Son. By your Spirit, may we worship and serve you whole-heartedly, for your glory and praise, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you?’” Ruth 3:1 (2–5, 4:13–17) NASB
“And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:(24–26) 27–28 NASB
“In His teaching He was saying: ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.’ And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.’” Mark 12:38–44 NASB
By Linda Rex
FEBRUARY 9, 2020, 5th SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY—What is the difference between being unable to see, and simply being fully blind? I realize there are different levels of blindness—some people can see the shape of large objects, but nothing else. Some can see that it is light outside, but cannot sense anything else through their eyes. But the reality is that even those of us who are blessed with sight will not see a thing if we are in a place where there is absolutely no light.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle John wrote about Jesus, that “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend [overpower] it” (John 1:5-6 NASB). The original Light, which existed long before light itself was created, was present in the world in Jesus Christ when the Word came into human flesh. This Light was meant to give all of humanity an ability to know and have a right relationship with the One God who created all things.
When Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he meant something significant. He meant that, apart from the disciples’ active presence in the world telling the world about Jesus Christ, people around them would not be able to truly see. Jesus’ intention was that by following him, the disciples would provide the world around them with a visual perception they would not have otherwise, and communicate to the world the truth about the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit, and how each person could have a right relationship with God.
The problem we so often run into as human beings is that we have a tendency to reduce the depth and wonder of God’s love and grace down into something we have more control over and can measure and use as a means of distinction between ourselves and others. Let’s be honest with ourselves about this—we would not have so many different church denominations and congregations if this were not the case. We would not have such an issue with legalism and license within the church if this were not true.
It’s time we told the truth—we too often are guilty of taking the light God has given and hiding it under our devotion to the things of this world, or under a long list of rules, regulations, and traditions. We have denied the Lord we profess by allowing the pure salt of God’s love and grace to be tainted and corrupted by the way we reject our neighbors who are equally made in God’s image to share equally in his glory. The prophet Isaiah addressed this directly as he shared God’s word to his people (Isaiah 58:1–9a (9b–12)). He reminded them that all the sanctimonious professions of obedience and worship are worthless if they are unaccompanied by genuine love and compassion for one’s fellowman.
In many ways our efforts to make a distinction between ourselves and others are a lot like the teenage method of “being different”. We tend to make ourselves different by becoming like all those who are like us. In my teens it involved bellbottoms, disco music, and platform shoes—nowadays it’s something entirely different. But in the case of us as followers of Jesus Christ, it is too often our interpretation of God’s Word and our efforts to create our mini-kingdoms of religiosity where we get ourselves in trouble.
Salt is a necessary, though limited, part of our human diet, as well as being extremely useful in other processes including metallurgy and food preservation. There are many types of salts and not all of them are edible. Pure salt crystals are normally white or clear, so when they are a different color, this normally indicates that there are other chemicals or substances present which may or may not be edible. There is often a purifying process involved in edible salt production.
When Jesus said his disciples were salt as well as light, he meant that his followers would have the qualities of both. Not only would we be purveyors of the good news of God’s love and grace, telling the world how Jesus us brought us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light—we would also act as a preservative and cleansing agent in the world. We cannot be an effective preservative or cleansing agent when we are centered anywhere but in the midst of the love and grace of God in Christ.
Jesus said that our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, who loved the praise and flattery of people and the political power and prominence of being religious leaders. Jesus often called them on their public expressions of devotion to God—they were hypocrites, often saying one thing and doing another, and this quenched any light they might bring by their words and actions. They kept people enslaved to rituals and traditions, missing the whole point, which was God’s love and redemption for his people which they were to respond to in faith and devotion.
When we as followers of Jesus Christ become so adamant that right relationship with God rests in what we do and what we say, in our keeping of certain rules and regulations, and not solely in the Person and work of the living Lord, we are in serious trouble. We are denying the One through whom every human being finds salvation—we are keeping the world in darkness and losing our power of cleansing and purification—losing ourselves as being salt and light in this world.
Jesus Christ is the Light of the world—the truth of our existence as human beings, and the centre of our relationship with God and one another. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the Salt which cleanses and preserves each of us—washing us in his blood, giving his life for our life. Whatever we say or do as followers of Jesus Christ, it is merely a participation in what he has already done and is doing, and will do, in this world to transform, heal, and renew all things.
The apostle Paul teaches how we are to live out our lives as believers—not drawing upon our own wisdom or gifted speaking, but focusing solely on the crucified One, the Lord Jesus Christ, and being filled with and led by the Spirit of God. When our focus is on Jesus and he is at work within us and through us by his Spirit, we find God’s love being expressed not only in our words but also in our actions. We find ourselves caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. We find ourselves overflowing with compassion for those in need and we act upon it, doing what we can to ease those burdens they are unable to bear on their own.
The law of Christ finds its way into the core of our being, and our actions and words rise out of the very heart of Abba within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long way from what Isaiah and Jesus found fault with—this isn’t religiosity, but rather the true religion the apostle James wrote about in James 1:27.
Please understand: I’m not saying there isn’t any value in gathering together as the body of Christ or finding a common faith and being of one mind with other believers. It doesn’t remove our need to learn from Scripture and those called by God to preach his Word. What I am saying is we need to remove the false undergirding which lies beneath all these things—most specifically, the belief that somehow, we can be good people or please God by our own efforts or gain some merit by doing good deeds.
We, as believers, need to follow Christ and live in him in such a way that whatever kindness we show, whatever goodness we do, whatever truth we speak, is drawn out of the deep Source of light within us, the Spirit, and is purified by the One who cleanses and nourishes us, Jesus Christ. In the community of faith, the attributes of salt and light meet together, by the Spirit being poured out into the Body of Christ, so that we may participate in Christ’s mission in this world, to tell everyone of Abba’s love and grace, to free those who are enslaved by evil, sin, and death, and to bring healing and renewal to those who are broken, lost, and suffering.
Is it possible that we are not living in a dark world, but rather are living in a world where those who have been given the light have buried it? Is it possible that those who were meant to act as a cleansing and preserving agent have been so busy trying to cleanse and preserve themselves that they have become tasteless and useless?
Jesus has only one message for each of us which we are to share with the world around us: Your heavenly Father loves you, so turn and receive the gift of eternal life, sharing in Christ’s perfect relationship with Abba both now and forever; receive Jesus and by his Spirit, live and walk freely in the life Christ purchased for you, loving God and loving your neighbor as the image-bearers of God he created you to be. Come with me, and let’s be salt and light together!
Dear Abba, thank you for your grace—we are guilty so often of misappropriating what you give us, and of not living in loving relationship with you and one another. Our righteousness so often is just for show or even non-existent. We have not been salt and light in this world—your forgiveness is so needed by us, but also God as you grant us grace, grant us repentance and faith as well. Grant a renewal within the body of Christ as a whole, that we may begin to live as we ought in this world, bringing through Jesus and by your Spirit, your light, your cleansing and renewal on this earth in the sharing of the good news in both word and deed arising from your own heart within us. Amen.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. … For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-16, 20 NASB