Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

by Bear Wade

The Perfidy of the Scribes
Mark 12:38-44
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
analysis by Ed Schroeder

Sabbatarians,
I. All Saints Day in Lithuania
is a national holiday, so shops are closed even though it is Saturday. But that does not mean no one’s out on the streets. On our trip down town and back this morning, it seemed that everyone–in cars or on foot–was carrying flowers or wreaths on their way to cemeteries. At the public market in old town row upon row of the stalls, usually piled high with foodstuffs and home-made products, were just as full with floral offerings to help the faithful keep the feast. 
Since Lutherans here let the day pass unnoticed, we dropped in on a Roman Catholic mass at Mary Queen of Heaven near the market. We had had our Lutheran binge the day before, the 480th return of Reformation Day. Many from our seminary found their way 200 kms east to Kaunas, the nation’s second city, for a festival service there. The newly printed “official” eucharistic liturgy was introduced for the occasion–complete with eucharistic prayer, anamnesis & epiclesis. Not genuinely new, it presents an amalgam of the two liturgical traditions in today’s Lutheranism here: the St Petersburg tradition (as they call it) from the days when Russia ruled and the Prussian Union tradition when segments of the country were under Prussian control. It is intended as an interim step on the way to a genuinely new worship agenda a few years hence. The bishop, in full regalia (mitre, crosier, et al.) presided and preached with at least half of the national church’s clergy–which means about a dozen–scurrying about assisting. 
Ninety percent of the full-house congregation were women, and many of them “babushka-ed” grannies (which, as you may know, is what “babushka” means in Russian). Friday was a “working day,” so few men were free for an 11:00 a.m. liturgy. No surprise, Reformation Day is not a national holiday, if for no other reason than that less than one percent of Lithuanians today call themselves Lutherans. So much for local color this weekend.
II. NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL – A CROSSINGS MATRIX The Gospel appointed for Pentecost 25 (Nov. 9) in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is Mark 12:38-44.

PROLEGOMENA

  1. In Sabb. 85 I suggested that the Gospel for last Sunday, Pent 24, the paragraphs immediately preceding today’s text, constituted “the grand finale of Jesus’ pre-passion encounter with Israel of his day.” But Mark adds on the two bit parts of this Sunday’s text before he launches into Chapter 13, his apocalypse, which segues straight into his passion narrative. Question: were these two small pieces still left on his cutting table, so he simply tacked them on here at the end of his earthly ministry narrative, having found no other place to put them? Maybe, maybe not.
  2. The only apparent connection between these two pericopettes is the figure of the widow. In the first episode widows are cited as victims of scribal oppression in Jesus’ strong denunciation of such oppressors. In the second a poor widow receives Jesus’ high commendation when she “puts all that she had to live on” into the temple treasury. The OT text for the day already speaks of the poverty-stricken widow in Zarephath, to whom God sends Elijah. The prophet bids her not to fear, to proceed with her preparation for what she sees as her last meal, to give him some first, and to trust that Yahweh will keep her pantry supplied as he has promised. It’s clear that anyone with the name Eli-jah [My God is Yahweh] has connections.
  3. There is no trace of widowhood in the second lesson from Hebrews. Nevertheless I intend to appropriate its soteriology in the Crossings matrix below, to give substance to Stage 4 of the matrix. The few verses we have in the day’s Gospel do not quite cover all the bases in a six-stage matrix. So, “go to the neighbor and borrow a cup of sugar.”
  4. There may well be significance in Mark’s mention of the “temple treasury,” but my resources here do not give me any help on that. On the “morning after” Reformation Day, I’m unable to dismiss from my mind the “treasure” Luther speaks of in #62 of the 95 theses: “The true treasure of the church is the Gospel of the glory and grace of God.” That can’t be far from Mark’s theology either.
  5. How to link these two disparate pieces of the day’s gospel into one Crossings matrix? I propose to try the following: take the (villainous) scribes as the subjects for the diagnosis, and the give-it-all-to-God widow as the person for the prognosis. Major weakness of this proposal is that the scribes get no new prognosis as a possibility from Christ after their Stage 3 “greater condemnation” is spoken, and conversely the widow does not get diagnosed so that her later “greater commendation” from the ochlos Messiah could appear as though she did it all by herself. But maybe we can merge the two of them on both sides of the matrix, without excluding scribes from any possible new prognosis, nor making a self-made saint out of the widow. Let’s see.

MARK 12:38-44

DIAGNOSIS:

STAGE 1 The Perfidy of the Scribes Living “as if” they are righteous, and making a “big show” (Greek: prophasis) while doing so. In the very midst of their piety routines they devour (Greek: gobble up) widows’ houses. Throughout Mark’s Gospel Jesus has distinguished between “sinners in fact” who live “as if” they are not sinners, and “sinners in truth” who `fess up to the fact and make no “as if” pretense, no “prophasis.” Here the scribes are still “as-iffers.”

STAGE 2 Jesus denounces the scribes for “desiring” to live in such duplicity, and not merely doing it. So the behavior he condemns is rooted in their hearts and not simply in some possible ignorance of what they are actually doing. Their claim (see Mk.12:30 & 31) to love God and neighbor “with all your heart” falls apart under Jesus’ diagnosis. He exposes what it is that these hearts [of “sinners in fact”] actually love.

STAGE 3 The God-relationship “in fact” of such sinners is the “greater condemnation.” “Greater” than whom or what? At the very least, their dilemma (and its condemnation) is “greater” than that of “sinners in truth,” who in encountering the synoptic Jesus regularly hear him say: “Fear not. Come, follow me.”

A NEW PROGNOSIS:

STAGE 4 Nowhere in the 7 verses of our text is there a specific reference to the ochlos Messiah. By the time we readers get to the end of chapter 12, Mark expects us to comprehend–as the disciples did not yet–that Jesus is what’s missing from the scribes’ God-relationship, and what’s present in that of the give-it-all-away widow, even though Mark doesn’t say so explicitly in either case. If we need a reminder of where salvation lies, Mark has given us a powerful one in the parable that opens the chapter we’re looking at. In the third of his passion predictions (Mark 10) Jesus predicated the term “condemnation” to himself. Even the “condemnation” which the scribes merit is one that Jesus offers to “sweet-swap” with them–taking their condemnation to himself and granting his (and God’s) kingdom to them.

If we want to “go to the neighbors for a cup of sugar” to get needed ingredients here, the second lesson has resources. It frames the Good News about Jesus in the imagery of the temple. It’s also about offerings, but not coins in church coffers. Instead it is Christ “offering himself” once for all “to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

Crossings colleague Bob Bertram once preached on this text and moved Mark’s “ochlos” imagery to God himself. Since God seems to be so partial to widows, mused Bob, maybe God is a widow too. And in “offering up his only son,” God “put in everything he had, God’s entire life.” This offering (ala Hebrews) “before God’s heavenly temple” Jesus makes so that sinners, penniless widows all of us when we become “sinners in truth,” might ourselves “live on” [accent on “on”.] And then while living on, we will “live on” [accent on “live”] God’s give-it-all-away offering. But this puts us already into stages 5 and 6.

STAGE 5 When sinners receive that offering–call it faith–they live, and not die, and they live on and from it as it becomes their heart’s desire. Or expressed in a line from yesterday’s Reformation Day pericopes: “The person justified by faith shall live.”

STAGE 6 To live that way is to practice the widow’s largesse, to give our lives away. RSV translates Jesus’ words about her gift as: “all that she had to live on.” Literally the text says: “her entire life.” Even so, the “ochlos” character of her giving “out of her poverty” comes home when you check the cash value of her two copper coins. It’s one-sixty-fourth of a day’s wages. That will not make much of a dent in temple repairs or staff salaries. But if the one who owns the temple (and thus manages the treasury too) says it’s “the most,” who are we to argue?

Peace & Joy! Ed


P.S. Crossings prez, Mike Hoy, relays to me from the states that he received an inquiry from Simon & Schuster about publishing this stuff via their print medium. What do you cyber-buffs think of that? Would any of you buy it? Would anybody else?

Author

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