Monday, November 9, 2015

Two Farthings

38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. [6] 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44 (ESV)
 “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
“But she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
We can see it, there in the outer courts of the temple, where the unclean, the gentiles, the women, the sick and infirm and pious Jews who touched nothing dead, would not enter a gentiles home, gathered in the midst of men selling pigeons, sheep, cattle, and goats for sacrifice. There where you could smell the salted sacrifices roasting on the massive BBQ they called an altar, where you could see the smoke billow up, and if you looked real hard within the dim light of dusk you could even see the offering of incense burn before the curtain that hid the holy of holies with in this grand complex of ornate gates, golden limestone and marbled colonnades and grand staircases made of cut stone. This is as far as most people could go on any day of the week. And here, so that everyone who visited the city had equal opportunity to give to the temple, to donate to its building and upkeep the treasury was set up. Jewish sources from the first century don’t provide a whole lot of detail, about it. But they do tell us that that it was a box, or possibly a series of boxes, with thirteen trumpet like holes protruding out of it, and a person could choose where they wanted the money to go by choosing to deposit the money in one of these thirteen trumpets. Jesus has been watching for a while.
You get the impression that perhaps he is watching because of a bit of cynicism. He has just finished berating the scribes for devouring the houses of widows, and for a pretense saying long prayers. Scribes and lawyers were one in the same in first century Judea. They were called scribes because they copied the scriptures letter by letter, so careful not to lose a letter that when the oldest manuscript of Isaiah now known to exist was found in the Qumran, the famed Dead Sea scrolls, it was compared to the oldest manuscript we had up to this day, the manuscript which provides the basis for the Hebrew Old Testament I have in my office, a manuscript from the tenth century called the Leningrad Codex because it has been in a museum in St. Petersburg since the 19th century, originally purchased in Cairo. In any case, the comparison was done between these two manuscripts that had at least 1,000 years of separation and were found to have almost no differences whatsoever, a couple changes to spelling. It was an absolute incredible discovery that blew that whole telephone game theory of text corruption, that is still heard today touted by ignorant angry atheists, out of the water. The scribes were meticulous in their copying of the scriptures, and that made them experts in the law of the land. They knew it inside and out and could argue for it and against it three ways from Sunday. So they knew how to plunder a widow’s house. I mean essentially what Jesus is berating them for is breaking the tenth commandment, taking their neighbor’s house in a manner that appears right, has the appearance of looking legal. Perhaps the way a developer uses imminent domain to scuttle off the poor and move them out of the way so he can build a shopping mall for the good of the community. And they were rich. It was a rich man’s occupation.
Jesus watches them, one by one. All their fine long robes, dressed to impress. It was funny I once had a Baptist pastor berate me for wearing long robes during the service because Christ spoke against it. Evidently, according to his mind, Christ wore something like the seven hundred dollar suit he was wearing. I think he missed the point. Everyone wore robes in Christ’s day. And Christ himself would be found wearing a robe so valuable the soldiers ensuring his execution would play a game of craps for it rather than cut it up to be sold by the yard. One wonders where the son of man would have received such a gift, but there was evidently a rich man somewhere that loved him enough to give his best, perhaps like the woman who during these last days of Christ’s life that he spent in the temple would pour the expensive nard worth the years wages of a common laborer over his head to prepare him for death. These were men and people of means not unlike these finely dressed scribes dropping their denarius’s with a loud thump echoing out of the trumpet like mouth of the coffer. Jesus could hear their offerings drop, as they congratulated themselves. But he watches because he sees a widow in mourning for her husband.
God showed up in her life and now she has nothing but the long nights of the soul known to Job. Jesus, of course, omniscient as he is, knows everything even of this woman. But she had to look out of place visiting the temple during this festive time. Out of her poverty she gives all she had to live on, more than all who have given from their wealth. Two farthings, make an empty din among the loud thumps of the heavy denarii, but that thin din lifted Christ’s chin.  These were the thin and small penny like copper coins for which a person could buy two sparrows with in the market place, according to Luke she could have bought five for her two farthings, some sort of first century baker’s dozen I don’t care to ever understand. Sparrow, it’s what’s for dinner! Maybe they made for a good pot pie. But she doesn’t buy the pauper’s meal, the po’boy sandwich. Perhaps because she knows she is worth more than two sparrows, or even five.
It’s funny, when I read this story and think of what possesses a woman to do this? The first thing that comes to mind is complete frustration. It’s almost worthless. A penny saved is a penny earned we say. But we rarely if ever think a penny is worth saving. If all I had left to my name were two pennies, I don’t know what I would do. But Jesus praises her. It isn’t frustration. It’s gratitude in the midst of distress, the kind of gratitude that stems from a profoundly deep faith and trust in a God who considers you far more valuable than any two sparrows that can be purchased for a penny, any two sparrows for which God himself cares and provides for, allowing them to life within the rafters of his glorious temple, watching as any one of them falls from the sky, or makes dinner for a feral cat. Here she is in the temple, the blood of the sacrifices slaughtered that day still sizzling upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, coagulating in the trench at its base. Here she knows her value to God.

No, she won’t hold on. She won’t try to carve ten percent off a farthing. She won’t let the rich despise her gift. If she is worth more than a sparrow to her Lord, then she will trust, she will give when most think she should be receiving. And the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world looks on, praises her faith. He too knows that she, whom the world despises is worth more than all the gold or silver the rich poor into the coffers of the temple. For her life, like yours, is a life he will redeem, a life he will purchase from slavery to sin, slavery to death, slavery to the devil, not with gold or silver but with his precious blood, with his innocent suffering and death. He doesn’t die for two sparrows, no farthings, or denarius. But he dies for you. And a God that loves you to death, is a God to trust. 

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