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November 11, 2018

“Observational Theology”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Psalm 127

Mark 12.38-44

November 11, 2018

Jesus has some harsh words for religious leaders in the Gospel reading today. These words extend to anyone in authority, institutions, and those who have the potential to misuse power. Many of us like to imagine Jesus as a supporter of religious institutions. After all – he is the reason Christian churches exist! Our entire belief system and operating system is based on Jesus. So, when Jesus is reprimanding a leader of a religious organization we might cringe a little bit. Jesus reminds those in religious institutions of how easily we can lose vision. Sometimes ministry is done for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we can become distracted.

The passage in Mark is held in the temple. Jesus is pointing to the scribes who were leaders of the synagogue. They were educated and people looked up to them. We read that they are showy in their leadership and they enjoy the perks of authority. They sit at these extravagant meals and eat all the food and leave none for anyone else. Their prayers are long for the sake of being long, as if to show off their religious knowledge.

Jesus goes on to say that they “devour widows’ houses.” They are preying on people who are the most vulnerable in society. In Jesus’ day widows were taken care of by the church because men were the ones who could earn money and provide for the family. The synagogue was responsible for caring for the widows, yet Jesus points out that the scribes have fallen short of this duty. Professor Rodger Nishioka calls them “leeches on the faithful.”[1] The scribes are not the only ones able to do this – synagogues and churches are not the only ones who abuse power. This can happen anywhere there is a hierarchy, so perhaps Jesus is not just calling out religious leaders, but anyone who abuses power.

Next, Jesus does something very interesting: he sits down and observes. He sees all the rich people in the temple put their money in the offering plate. Then, he notices the widow bringing in her last coins, dropping them into the plate with what seems to be the loudest clunk, because it is the most noticeable in this passage.

Many times this passage is seen as a way to increase stewardship. The widow is sacrificing her last coins and not considering her survival. She is all in, and it is beautiful to see the faith this woman portrays. To say we are going to give all that we have means that we have a deep faith. We have to trust in God if we are going to let go of all that we imagine keeps us secure in life.

Yet, her two, echoing coins are not the entire story. First, how many of us are willing to give every cent that we have to the church? To any organization? What about life insurance? Health insurance? 401ks? Doesn’t God also want us to be responsible stewards?

Second, we must look at the context of this passage. Jesus is in the temple. He just finished telling the scribes that they are not doing their job correctly. He goes so far as to say that the scribes are “devouring widows’ houses.” Is this woman giving freely of her money? Is she forced to give her last penny? Is the temple actually supporting her as scripture calls us to do? Taking care of widows and orphans is a refrain repeated throughout scripture. The scribes would have known this and the people would have known this. Jesus is not necessarily commending the widow’s actions, but continuing to condemn the system that oppresses.

This is what Jesus does – especially in Mark. Jesus is a prophet. He sits down and he observes. He has called out these leaders on their actions and then watches it happen again. He challenges the people and calls for a change. Prophets were people who observed the world around them. They noticed what was happening and warned people that if they did not change their ways, the outcome would not be pleasant.

Jesus is restructuring the temple. He calls for reform. Many times in Mark I have brought up Dr. Deborah Krause’s theory that the author of Mark was moving from place to place, attempting to redefine these places. Here, Jesus is trying to redefine what it means to be a temple – how to act as people of God.

I believe that is a challenge we are always met with – how is God redefining us? How is God creating a spark of change within us? We are at an important place in the world and in the church. Our world is clearly hurting. Too many tragedies are happening in too many places. Too much division separates us in politics. The national church is being reshaped, and our local church is, as well. As we look ahead to the retreat in January, we are seeking how God wishes for us to serve in the community in the coming years. We are to discern not only the next year, but also the next two hundred years. How is God redefining Hanover Presbyterian Church?

Part of how we see that redefining is through prophets. Who are the prophets in our world? Anyone who observes. I would say writers, activists, people who are quiet and listen, even you. When you observe the world, what do you see? Shout it out – what do you notice in the world?

What is the message God is asking us to give the world?

As I was reading about this passage I came across a quote from Ched Meyers, who wrote Binding the Strong Man. He wrote: “The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. As if in disgust, Jesus ‘exits’ the temple – for the last time.”[2] Jesus has had enough and he leaves – never to return. How many people do we know who have observed lack of faith or hypocrisy in the church and then never stepped foot in the sanctuary again? Can we blame them? Jesus criticized the religious institutions but also goes out and practices what he preaches in the world. I believe this is fundamental. We can observe, we can criticize, but we must still follow our faith. An institution may not live up to our hopes and dreams but that doesn’t break our faith. Institutions are created by human beings – flawed beings. Faith is created by God.

The psalm is one that came up in lectionary fairly recently. We can practice our observational theology as we read it. The psalmist tells us that we must pay attention to the foundation of our house, or our faith, or our actions. We must observe. Why do we act the way we do? Is it because of God? Is God at the root of our actions?

The second part of this passage might be harder to understand in a different culture. At the time the psalmist wrote this sons were viewed as essential in creating and continuing community.[3] Just like we noted in the Gospel of Mark with the widows, men were at the core of survival for a family, because only men could earn money. Our times have obviously changed. There are many times in scripture when one’s faith is tied to one’s ability, or inability, to procreate, yet I do not think God works that simply. To say God’s blessing is for someone who has children assumes that someone who does not have children does not carry God’s blessing – and I do not believe that to be true. Perhaps this passage, viewed over time, can portray the intimacy of God. Perhaps we can see that cares for us on a very deep level. This is not to say that God is controlling each part of our lives, but that God is interested in our lives at all levels, even something as “personal as childbearing.”[4] God is with us in all aspects of our lives.

So, if God is with us in all moments of our lives, how do we choose to respond to God’s kindness? How do we respond to God’s deep love for us? How will we step back, observe, and then be the prophetic voice in the community? Amen.

 

[1] Rodger Nishioka, “Mark 12.38-44” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 286.

[2] Jill Duffield, 25th Sunday after Pentecost, The Presbyterian Outlook.

[3] Kat4e Foster Connors, “Psalm 127” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 274-6.

[4] Connors, 276.