Mark 12: “A Good Answer—Whatever it Takes”

Sunday morning worship, June 17, 2018

 

Last weekend I was privileged to listen to some really smart people.  I do so much teaching that spending quality time listening is very important to me.  Several key concepts struck loud chords inside me. Yes, I probably had heard them said before, but the way I heard them last weekend made them special.  One of those chords was that life is more about the journey than any accomplishment along the way. The first time I heard that chord struck was while reading a science fiction book one summer while in seminary called the Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson. But, like so many other lessons I’ve had to learn in my life, I either don’t get that lesson down perfect the first time I hear it, or I get distracted or push it to the back of my mind and focus on other motivations.  Reflecting on that subject again this week in preparing for this message and while reading through Mark 12 several times, it occurred to me that we are all on a journey to the same destination—death. And, when we reach that terminus, we can’t take our accomplishments, awards, trophies, money, titles, or anything of substance from this world with us beyond this world’s encounter with death.

 

Mark 12:28 says, “One of the teachers of the law came and heard [Jesus and the Sadducees] debating.  Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” That phrase, “had given them a good answer” struck me.  As a pastor and teacher, I strive to give good answers to the questions people ask me. I value highly life’s important lessons. When Jesus had finished giving His answer, the same man told Jesus, “Well said, teacher…You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:32-33). So an honest teacher of the law of Moses asked Jesus an honest question.  Jesus gave him a “well said” answer and Jesus then told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34).

 

We’ll come back to this in a few moments. Remember I started out talking about a journey. A fact I didn’t learn until seminary is that the Gospel writers didn’t always write about things in chronological order.  They are telling a story taking us on a journey that they desire will lead us into an eternal relationship with Jesus.  So they put different stories together, in their respective places, to tell that story, to make a point. So we find what follows this encounter with an honest teacher of the law asking an honest question is Jesus asking His audience a question, which He doesn’t answer, and then addressing the teachers of the law whom Jesus says “will be punished most severely” (12:40). In a church history class in seminary the professor stated his belief that there are levels of punishment in Hell.  I’d never encountered that idea and it didn’t sit well with me when I first heard it.  I’m still not sure I agree or even how that would work, but there are phrases like this one in other places in Scripture that would seem to lend some credence to that opinion.  I always just thought being eternally away from Jesus’ presence would be so bad in and of itself that levels of punishment made no sense.

 

But what follows the two teachings of Jesus in verses 35-40 is the story of “a poor widow [who] came and put two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents” into the temple treasury.  Jesus called His disciples together and told them, “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” (vv 41-44).  I guess how we interpret the widow’s actions speaks a lot about us.  I wonder.  Was she, like the widow in Zarephath God sent Elijah to save about to gather “a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die” (1 Kings 17:12)? Had she just resigned herself to an ugly fate and had no one or no where else to give those final coins? 

 

Last weekend I asked those gathered to dream up the church to which they would gladly surrender their lives. If instead of resignation we view this widow as realizing a total and complete surrender to God was her only hope, and in giving these two small copper coins she was making a statement of her faith in not only God but His temple on earth, our journey takes us down a different path.  See, that Temple in Jerusalem had just witnessed Jesus “driving out those who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (11:15-16).  The church for which Jesus actually did give His life was both His Father’s house and a house of prayer for all nations (11:17). But His Father’s house in Jerusalem was not a house of prayer for all nations.  It was a place where rich people put on a display so that the crowds would see them “putting their [large amounts of ] money into the temple treasury” (12:41).  It was a place where those who ran the temple liked “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 widow’s houses and for a show make lengthy prayers” (12:38-40).  It’s very likely one of the temple leaders was the one who devoured the poor widow’s house so that she only had two small copper coins left. 

 

So why give all you have to give to a place that devours and destroys you? That’s the question so many people are asking of us in the church today.  Jesus came with good news to set people free from the bondages of the Law of Moses and to give them abundant life.  But that’s not always the good answer we give people who come with honest questions.  Whatever it is about our nature I can’t figure out.  But it seems to me that we would rather have everything spelled out in a law or a rule so we can hate that law or rule and rebel against it than be set free and learn to live by the good answer Jesus gave the teacher of the law.  Why can’t we just make church about loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves?  Why can’t it be that simple? How can we, like the poor widow, give everything we have—our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength to a place that devours us?

 

Let me ask this question of each and every one of you. Think long and hard about your answer.  I wish I could sit down and wait while you wrote out your answer before I continue, but we’re not at camp, we’re at church, and time marches on. Here’s the question. What do you think happened to the poor widow on earth, again on earth, after she gave all her worldly belongings away?  If Walt Disney were making a movie, Judas would take all the money he stole from the money the Apostles were given and Judas and the poor widow would live happily ever after. The widow would have a son, Judas would have a change of heart and love Jesus and his neighbor and his entire life would have been different. Maybe that’s what Jesus was showing Judas. If our church’s Stewards were Jesus’ disciples, the widow would have been cared for in the short run and told to come and join us in the long run. The pessimist would write that she went home and died alone.  My Pollyanna story would be that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to fill her with a sense of God’s loving, gracious presence and it doesn’t matter what happened on earth after that. You can write your own sequel. 

 

But I bring this story to our attention for a different reason.  Jesus gave a good answer that didn’t change the way the group who led the temple worship continued to lead the temple worship. Yet the widow still gave out of her poverty to the temple and the God she loved. There are two very significant lessons to be learned from this widow and from Jesus.  When we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves, (1) we can give out of our poverty, and (2) we will love His church despite all the terrible things that have been done and still are done in the name of Jesus.  When we truly love God and our neighbor, we can worship God anywhere and what we give we give to God to bless and use how he sees fit whether we agree with what we see or not. In our Evangelical world, I believe Jesus would add we have leaders who love to be right.  Looking back, I can hear bishops, denominational leaders, lay delegates, pastors, and all the people who make up our denomination say, we may be small, but at least we can say the Bible is preached in every church every Sunday, we make all of our decisions based on what the Bible says, and we stand for the truth.  I know what I’m telling you is true because I internalized those statements.  I stood on them for years.  I’m so glad that Jesus and really important people in my life have taken beyond that statement back to loving Jesus/God/Holy Spirit with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and every person God brings into my life the same way.  The church that I continue to give my life to is not a building or a single group of people, it’s a single person who rose from the dead and gave me life—not just a new life, but real life.  He has taught me to love and to give out of my poverty.  With Jesus/Holy Spirit alive in me I can now do things I could never do before.  The world is our church and every hurting person is an opportunity to give out of my poverty all I have.  It has to be directed by Jesus and what God is doing in that place at that time.  I can’t give without God giving through me.  So, no, I won’t give to every beggar on every corner or every hurting person. I will do what I see God doing.  But where God is, can be anywhere.  And what God both can and will do is the impossible.  When we invite God into our life situations, we are truly Fathers.  And when we do what we see our Father doing, we deserve to be honored on Father’s Day. Fathers give. Fathers face each situation with courage and eternal strength to give hope to a dying world. Anything less and we don’t deserve to be honored on Father’s Day. In Jesus, Father’s are this world’s greatest super heroes.