Two Tiny (nearly) Weightless Coins

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

Psalm 146:1-3 Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil. It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; vain, too, to eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Introduction

I spent the week thinking about how exhausted and isolated and sad many of us feel. If it means anything, I feel it…in my bones. This pandemic seems endless as we cruise into wrapping up year two. It’s still wreaking havoc on our world, on our country, on our state, on our county, on our families and friends, and on our own bodies (heart, mind, soul). On top of that the political divisions and consistent social unrest feeling like threats of WWIII—this thanksgiving and Christmas we can gather with extended family…or can we? (It might be safest yet to speak of only religion at those tables!) And let us extend our view to our larger society: as crises continue to rise, our brothers and sisters struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, to exist in the world. I want my kids to go freely to school and their myriad activities without having this extra weight on their shoulders. I want you, the people of God entrusted to my care, to live your fullest lives infecting others with the holy and divine love of God…not a potential life-threatening virus. Truly, the psalm I just prayed echoes through my exhausted body eager to rest, to just exist, to just live…in person…with others, without threat, without fear, without hyper-vigilance, without divisive divisions.

So, this week, maybe even more than last week, I believe we need love amid our sadness, our isolation, our exhaustion, our fear, our sicknesses; we need to marinate in the divine love of God. We need to keep this divine love we receive as the focal point of our days-in and days-out. Love is active as I said last week. And that’s true, it is; love’s language is always action…in some form.

The thing is…it doesn’t have to be grandiose and massive, as if to catch everyone’s attention. It can be small. Simple. That’s the thing about love’s language as action: the full extent of love is there even in the smallest seemingly most simple thing…Like two tiny, weightless coins slipping unnoticed into the treasury.

Mark 12:38-44 

And then after sitting down in front of the treasury, he was gazing at how the crowd cast copper/bronze into the treasury. And then many wealthy people were casting [in] great things; and then came one destitute widow, and she cast [in] two very small pieces of money, which is ¼ of a Roman monetary unit. And then calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this destitute widow cast in a much greater value of all those who are casting into the treasury. For all people gave from their overflow/left-over, but from her need/want of all she had, she cast [in] her whole/complete life.”[1]

Mark 12:41-44

Moving forward in Chapter 12, Mark tells us that Jesus (generally and polemically[2]) drags the bulk of the scribes—excepting, I’m sure, the one who is not far from the kingdom of God (v.34). It seems scribes had some reputation, according to Mark, for liking the finer things in life and the power coming with their prestigious position in the community. They desired[3] to strut about in their long and fancy robes,[4] greeting[5] each other in the public places, sitting in the most honorable—”the chief most”—seats in the synagogue and at the banquet table of the evening meals.[6] It brought them pleasure to do these things (ἔρος). However, Jesus goes on: it’s not just that they like the finer things in life—the things afforded to them due to their role and privilege in their society—but that they did it at the expense of the disenfranchised, the ones who consume the house of widows…(ἔρος run amok). A scribe couldn’t claim ignorance to how much God detested “defrauding” widows; it was woven through the scriptures.[7] Thus, the end for these scribes is, according to Jesus, a much greater divine condemnation.[8] They know better. Shema O Israel!

And then Jesus sits down in front of the treasury in the Court of the Women[9]—the nearest point of the temple building open to women.[10] Jesus’s rebuke of the scribes comes with divine force; so, too, does his sitting down in front of the treasury—like a judge. Many people came and cast their offerings into the treasury: clinks and clanks of copper and bronze, of gold and silver coins[11] echoed as they hit the trumpet chests; fiscal support for the work of the temple.[12] The bigger and more substantial the offering, the bigger and louder the sound and spectacle.

But then a destitute widow comes in. A “little-one” (Mk. 9:42) comes in—whose bodily presence would go unnoticed by the crowd, as well as her meager offering of two small copper coins smaller than a centimeter in diameter and worth less than 1/100 of a denarius.[13] On any other day, these two small coins would slip into the treasury without garnering attention and respect, just as she would slip into the temple with the same response. But this day was like no other day. God saw. And God loved.

God sat opposite the treasury and saw this humble human give her whole life[14] to God.[15] Her faith—her love for God—sounded louder than any other gift dropped into the treasury at that moment as she dropped her whole life into that treasury. She gave not from an overflow of excess, but from her need, from her want, from all she had. This is not a treatise on tithing or a rebuke of the wealthy;[16] this is a declaration of love. It’s this destitute widow who hears and loves God with her whole heart, whole mind, whole soul, and whole strength; she—not the fancy-pants, privileged scribes or the wealthy giving from their extra—she is the one who satisfies the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor as themselves (cf. Mk 12:28-34). Where the scribes have succumbed to negligent ἔρος in consuming the livelihood of widows, she, a destitute widow, is consumed with ἀγάπη. Her small, miniscule offering was born out of big, massive love. Because love’s language is always action, even if it’s as small as two tiny, nearly weightless coins slipping unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!

Conclusion

Our isolation, our exhaustion, our sadness isn’t going to magically disappear any time soon. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t. We are here, and here we’ll be until we are no longer stuck in this atmosphere and environment of virus and anger. But I am not hopeless. Why? Because…love. Infinite Love in its most finite form keeps popping up. A note. A smile. A gift. A hand to help. A meal. A hello. A moment. A kindness. A presence. A giggle. A brief connection. A look of knowing. These are the small things our community is dependent on right now. While our bodies are forced into distances and our persons experience continued isolation, our love and our hope doesn’t have to. We can overcome the distance and separation in new ways, in abstract ways, in small ways.

As we give into what is demanded of us right now, we need not lose hope. Hopefulness gives way to hopelessness when we keep our eyes fixed on what was and we keep trying to rebuild what was. Rather hopefulness is born of love in this very moment, right here and right now, in what is. Accepting the strain and drain, the exhaustion and isolation, even the grief and sadness isn’t succumbing to the forces of evil and giving up unto nothing; it’s the very opposite. For in that weakness of accepting point-blank what is as it is, is the source of the strength of humanity in God, of God in humanity. Embracing now, allows us to unleash the determined, the dogged, the tenacious, the carpe diem and live new, exist new, connect new, to love new—not in big and grand ways, we don’t have the energy for that or the stamina; but we can love new in small and simple ways, in sustainable ways.

Like Jesus asks his disciples to reexamine what it means to give, what it means to love, what it means to lead, what it means to be a disciple, we, too, must hear these questions addressed to us. We must reexamine what it means to love right now as those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem. We must reexamine what it looks like to love God and to love others right now. Because it might just look like slipping two tiny, nearly weightless coins unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] France Mark 489. “In this context the effect is to offer the crowd a choice as to the sort of leader they will follow, and Jesus pulls no punches in exposing the shortcomings of scribes in general. How far this constitutes a valid and ‘objective’ assessment of first-century scribes may be debated; certainly 12:28-34 with Jesus’ recognition of some tenets of scribal teaching (9:11-13; 12:35) points in another direction. But this is polemics in the context of a highly charged and potentially fatal confrontation, and a suitably broad brush is applied.”

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 490. “θέλω, often a rather colourless word, here has a strong meaning (BAGD, 355b, 4.a, ‘take pleasure in’): these are the ambitions of the scribes.”

[4] France Mark 490 “A στολή is not an everyday garment, but a festive or celebratory robe (cf. Lk. 15:22; Rev. 6:11; 7:9) and suggests ‘dressing up’.”

[5] France Mark 490. “Deferential ἀσπασμοί are a mark of social standing (Mt. 23:7-12 expands the point).”

[6] France Mark 490-491.”For the social significance of the front seats in the synagogue (i.e., those in front of the ark, facing the congregation) cf. the comments of Jas. 2:2-4 concerning the Christian συναγωγῆ, and for the best couch at a dinner cf. Lk. 14:7- 10; see Josephus, Ant, 15.21 for flattery by means of the best seats and greetings. Cf. Jn. 13:1-17 for a graphic repudiation of a similar preoccupation with status and reputation among Jesus’ own disciples.”

[7] France Mark 491. “The vulnerability of widows is a recurrent theme in biblical literature, so that to defraud them is particularly despicable.”

[8] France Mark 492. “Similarly, while κρίμα sometimes means the act of judging, its normal meaning of ‘condemnation’, ‘punishment’ is demanded by the context here. The reference cannot be to an earthly or human judgment (which would hardly take cognizance of ostentation as a punishable offence), but must be to God’s eschatological judgment, of which Jesus has spoken so vividly in 9:42-48.”

[9] France Mark 492. γαζοφθλάκιον “Its reference here to the collecting chests in the Court of the Women is demanded by the context, which has an ὄχλος including a woman, ‘throwing in’ donations.”

[10] France Mark 489. “The scene is in the Court of the Women, so-called not because it was specifically for women but because it was the nearest point to the temple building proper which was open to women. Here stood a range of thirteen ‘trumpet chests’ (m. Seq. 2:1; 6:5; so-called presumably from their shape) designed to receive monetary offerings, including not only the half-shekel temple tax but also ‘freewill offerings’. The half-shekel was obligatory for men, but any contribution to the other chests was voluntary, and would be noticed by anyone who, like Jesus and his disciples, was watching…Perhaps it was a recognized tourist attraction.”

[11] France Mark 492. “χαλκός is strictly ‘copper’ or ‘bronze’, and the widow’s two coins would be of copper. But the large sums donated by the rich would presumably in silver or gold coins (as were the half-shekels for the temple tax, which had the sense of ‘money’.”

[12] France Mark 493. “All contributions were therefore for the work of the temple; charitable donations for the poor were made separately.”

[13] France Mark 493. “There is no reason to think that she was the only such person present, but Jesus singles her out as an object lesson. The λεπτόν (Hebrew peruta) was the smallest denomination of currency in use, a copper coin less than a centimetre in diameter and worth less than one hundredth of a denarius (which was itself half the value of the half-shekel temple tax). Mark identifies its value by reference to the Roman κοδρἀντης; (a transliteration of quadrans, which was the smallest Roman coin, a quarter of an as).”

[14] France Mark 493. “The point is laboured in the wording of v. 44: her ὑστέρησις (destitution) is compared with their περίσσευον, the spare change which will never be missed…she has given πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν (cf. the example of the disciples, 10:28, and the failure of the rich man to do likewise, 10:21); it is ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς, and yet she voluntarily gave both coins, rather than just one! While Jesus was not averse to exaggeration to make a point, it is quite possible that in first-century Palestine the donation of two perutot would have left a poor widow without the means for her next meal (cf. the widow of Zarephath, 1 Ki. 17:12).”

[15] Working from the literal translation of: ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς. ὅλος (whole, complete, entire) is also the word used in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe about the foremost commandment in Mark 12:28-34. I’m working with the idea that this story follows to exemplify what it looks like to love God with the entirety of one’s self and love your neighbor as yourself.

[16] France Mark 489-490. “Jesus’ comment on the widow’s offering is not an attack on wealth or the wealthy as such, but rather on the scale of values which takes more account of the amount of a gift than of the dedication of the giver. It develops further the new perspective of the kingdom of God which Jesus has been so assiduously teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem…But this private teaching agrees closely with the tenor of his public rebuke of the scribes, whose desire for public honour typifies the superficial values of conventional society.”

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