Proper 27, Year B, 2018
St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Today’s Gospel offers so much in terms of imagery, subtext, condemnation, and maybe even a little Good News. Of course, as clergy, one might be tempted to forgo vestments or the prayer of humble access on a day with such readings, but in all fairness this passage offers us much to think about today. We have just begun our stewardship campaign, our national mid-term elections have just recently passed, today marks the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end of World War I …the, “War to End all Wars”, and of course we draw very near to the close of the Church year. Jesus is now in Jerusalem, well after his triumphal entry, and he is teaching in the temple. And by teaching I mean completely provoking the religious institution.
Before we reflect on what the Gospel has to say, there is a small piece of context I think is important for this particular passage. In verse 40 as Jesus is talking about the scribes he says, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” This is a piece of the Gospel that might be easy to gloss over, as it is a detail to a much more brilliant mosaic, but a cultural context makes the story of the widows mite even more striking. In First Century Palestine, as I’m sure you’ve heard before from myself and other preachers, women had very little standing socially, and virtually none legally. When a man died, though his estate was legally his widow’s, she was not deemed fit or capable of managing it. So legally, the estate had to be put into a trust, and managed by none other than the scribes. This detail, which of course would have been obvious to First Century listeners, but isn’t necessarily something that jumps out to us puts in even greater contrast these scribes with the long robes and demands of high status, skimming off the estates of the widows and the widow herself, putting in two small copper coins. The widow who is giving all she has to live on, very possibly due to the scribes in their fancy robes.
So with that in mind, as we look again at this passage, it makes the criticism of the institution…the criticism of the legal system which feeds off the widow, a system intricately tied to the grandiose temple, to which the widow is devoted, a far sharper criticism. Chapters 11 through 13 are the most critical on Jesus’ part of the religious institution of the Temple, and this is the last teachings Jesus will offer before being arrested. It is all a larger final act of teaching and pointing directly at the religious institution of the time and how it has completely fallen away from the point of its existence. Today’s discussion about scribes, widows, and who is giving how much to the temple ties to Jesus’ driving the money changers from the temple, it ties to the other criticisms in chapters 11 and 12 about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and it is the broader truth to the fig tree which Jesus curses and will no longer bear fruit.
All of this condemnation and pointing out the failings of very human institutions could certainly feel like there is very little we can find about this that is the Good News. It would be too easy to say that this is only a condemnation, and that’s where it ends. Jesus is just pointing out the failures of the structure and poking fun at the officials for good measure. But that’s not all Jesus does and it’s not the end of the conversation about the temple. Next week we will hear more about the destruction of the temple, but for now I see Jesus very much inviting us to reflect on the systems in which we find ourselves today.
Stewardship season is a great time to offer us space for contemplating why the church exists. Where do we place our value, and how do we show that? Many denominations especially have started acting more like organizations. We hire consultants to talk to us about trends, we survey people to understand what keeps people coming back, we worry about relevancy, and membership, and income streams, and Twitter trending, and while none of this information is inherently bad, it’s the concern for existence that will put a church or denomination onto the wrong path. That’s not to say I’d ever want the Episcopal Church to stop existing. In fact I’d probably take that pretty hard if it happened. But my commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God has to be bigger than our structures. And yet I also think structure is important. It helps us organize our resources into ways that allow us to be the most effective at reaching those in need, living out the values of the Kingdom, and doing the work that Christ has commanded us to do. It is how the resources are managed, how the values are lived out, how we as the church seek and serve the least that makes the institution worth existing.
When we talk about taking up our cross and following Jesus, I think the sort of images we usually have are of torn, dingy robes, a begging bowl, always on the verge of starvation to ensure everyone else has enough. I think we often forget that taking up our cross also looks like Jesus taking his belt off and using it to drive the animals out of the temple and flipping over the tables of the money changers. It looks like questioning authorities who fail the integrity of the Kingdom of God, it looks like setting in sharp relief the failings of institutions when they cease to do good. This is the final acts of ministry Jesus does while in Jerusalem, and they are important not to forget alongside the more marketable acts like feeding the five thousand or walking on water.
This isn’t meant to be an advertisement for pledging, or a rallying cry for membership for St. Andrew’s. I think this is the perfect time to ask ourselves what fruits are we bearing? St. Andrew’s for its average Sunday attendance, or ASA, does a lot. We work hard, we give of ourselves, and we do so because that is what we believe we are called to do. As full time clergy you send me out into the community to make connections with other institutions, to help those in need, to invite in those who are seeking something more, to call those in authority to task when they lose sight of the greater good. So the question is what fruits are we bearing together here and what new seeds do you want to see planted? I would certainly hope that no one sees us as that cursed fig tree, but rather fertile ground in which there is much more to come.