Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembrance Day Sunday

Mark 12
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. (Did you get the reference in my handy memory aid?) I don’t actually want to talk about the inspiration for my new favourite mnemonic. Instead, I want to travel back in time together Tudor-era England.

I want to travel back to London circa 1500 and just look around. So we travel, travel, travel and we're there. You're likely thirsty after traveling 500 years back in time, so we better have a pint. You can't drink the water, trust me. Stick to the ale. Now, a medium quality ale is going to cost you a ha'penny. So you look in your money sack and you don't have a ha'penny. Not to worry, let me help.

With a penny, we can both have a pint.
If you have a groat, you have enough for eight pints.
A shilling, enough for 24 pints: now it's a party.
2 farthings will get you that pint.
And 12 mites, deep in the bottom of your sack, will also get you that pint.

So how small is a mite?

A pound is 4 crowns, 20 shillings, 60 groats, 240 pennies, 960 farthings and 5760 mites. This monetary system seems to have some sort on internal logic.

So a mite is small. Mark tells us that the widow’s mite was two copper coins, worth barely a penny. My capitalist brother could tell me if this is deflation or inflation, but I’ll ignore the question and settle for small. A mite is very small. Small, but mighty, because Jesus makes it the point of his story. Jesus said:

Beware scribes and ministers who wander around with their doctoral gowns and pointy hoods, demanding to be greeted with titles and claiming the best seats at the Gala. Beware of their waywardness and their lengthy prayers.

Sitting down near the temple treasury, Jesus watched one-by-one as the people made their offering. The rich put in the red bills and the brown bills, the ones you hardly ever see. A poor widow came by and put in a mite or two, barely anything at all. “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “this widow has but in more than Frank Stronach and Galen Weston put together. For they have contributed from their abundance, but she from her poverty, and she gave all she had.

The passage is about sacrificial giving, something we encourage, by the way. But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to talk about naming rights, and how the nature of giving never really changes. Back in my day, they didn’t really have naming rights. Sure there was the Guggenheim in New York, and the Eaton’s Parade, but buildings didn’t change names every 15 minutes based on who had the most cash.

Today we have Rotman, Ivey, Schulich, DeGroote, Ted Roger’s (I hear he has a stadium too) and The Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba (have they heard about CanWest Global?). Now, I don’t want to disparage these men, some now departed, but it hardly meets the mite test. In fact, securing naming rights is about as far as you can get from the concept of giving without any thought of return.

It actually gets the mind going—Tim Horton’s United Church, Weston—lemme get back to you.

And giving without any thought of return is precisely what the poor widow does. She is not trying to impress anyone or earn anything, simply giving what she can. Some make giving dramatic, some want everyone to know. She did the opposite, and did it without any thought of return.

So if the first glance at this story could be summarized, we might say rich versus poor, or generous versus really generous. Funny how this reading always comes up in November, about the time someone says, “maybe we should have a Stewardship Sunday.” But that’s not what I’m on about today.

Instead, I want to take a second glance and call it ‘scribes versus widows.’ Remember, Jesus condemns the scribes in the first section, and praises the widow in the second section. So, if we ignore the obvious contrast between rich and poor, we look at scribes versus widow in a new light.

The scribes were a unique religious class, at one time dedicated to administration, and later, interpretation of the law. When Israel became an occupied people, the scribes become experts and teachers of the Law of Moses. The fact that Jesus came to restore the Law, to draw people back to the centre of the law, such as “love your neighbour,” meant that he would be in constant conflict with anyone who disagreed with this emphasis.

Enter the scribes. They had come to enjoy their position in society, to the extent that they were given such a harsh critique in the first part of our passage. In Matthew 23, the critique grows, and Jesus condemns the scribes for ignoring mercy and thinking only of tithes. It was the duty of the religious to follow the law, and the law was no clearer than Exodus 22:

22 “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.”

I would say God is pretty clear here, speaking through Moses, at Mt. Sinai, when all the golden calf people are still feeling a little sheepish and listening very carefully. And the scribes job was to teach this stuff and remind people every day.

So why, Jesus asks without asking, would this widow be allowed to give all she has to the temple treasury? Where were the scribes to intervene and say, “No ma’am, you are exempt, you are too poor to be expected to give.” But give she did. She gave even when the law of God might give her an exemption, she gave even when most would stop and wonder why.


Most of the young men on these plaques knew the danger they faced when they enlisted. They signed attestation papers, underwent physicals, and trained in complete knowledge of the danger in Europe. They didn’t enlist to impress anyone or try to win favour, they just wanted to serve.

Many of the soldiers, particularly in the Great War, were born in the UK and returned with a sense of protecting friends and family. Many had only distant connections to Europe and simply wanted to help the cause.

Whatever their motivation, it would be accurate to say that few—if any—went in pursuit of glory. In a conflict with 65 million combatants, there would be very few Billy Bishop’s or Earl Haig’s. The average soldier toiled in complete obscurity, a fact that makes their service that much more unique. Like the widow’s mite, the service of most was a small part of a larger whole, but they gave all they had.

To put this another way, my father would be unable to name the thousands of men and women who liberated Holland, though he has met a few and thanked them through tear-filled eyes. His liberation memories are the memories of a hungry 12 year-old, of white bread dropped from Lancaster Bombers, tasting chocolate for the first time in six years, and joining every man, woman and child in a smoke, because—like manna from heaven—cigarettes fell too.

And so we pause today, to honour those who did not seek glory, but only the opportunity to serve. We remember the men and woman who appear on countless plaques and memorials, including our own. We read the names knowing that they represent a lasting gift given to each of us. And every day we give thanks. Amen.


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