At 11 am on the 11th November 1918, the Western Front fell silent as the Germans finally called for armistice, a suspension of fighting to secure a peace settlement. In the end, the allies demanded, imposed and received unconditional surrender on the German nation.
From the little research I have done, I read around 70 million people were mobilised in this first world war. Between 9 and 13 million people were killed and around a third of those who died lie in unknown graves. In this obscene catalogue of death, are included 62,000 Australians who gave their lives and were killed in the war. Let us remember, on this day, 100 years ago, the guns fell silent at 11 am in the morning and be silent before the magnitude of that sacrifice.
When I read today’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44), I was aware how familiar we are with the story of Jesus in the Temple and his reflections on the behaviour of some in the Temple precinct, his scathing appraisal of the hypocrisy and posturing of those who seek to be seen and have influence, what they wear and where they sit in order to be noticed. And then, their treatment of the widow who is giving her last two coins into the Temple coffers. It is hard to hear it with fresh ears, just as we are being invited to hear and remember afresh the horrors of the first world war, and what came afterwards.
The Gospel tells us Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem, having entered the city in triumph. He has openly rejected the crowd’s implicit offer of power, and the potential overthrow of the Roman Empire to free his people from colonisation and imperial might through the use of violence and death.
Following his triumphal entry into the city, Jesus came directly to the temple where he was horrified at the raucous and noisy marketplace busily operating in the Temple courtyards and he tips over the tables of money changers and those who were trading in temple certified animals and gift offerings, people making large profits from those who came to worship and pray to God.
It’s worth remembering the Temple had a monopoly; it was a money-making machine. Those in authority and with power in the Temple were in a good position. After some robust debate with those around him, Jesus paused and in an outside court of the temple, where the women could go, Jesus chose to sit opposite the Temple treasury and watch. He did what we all do, he ‘people watched’. He then started teaching again on the nature of discipleship.
We hear about the hypocrisy of some scribes who enjoy their position, wealth and status; and about those who flaunt their wealth, position and piety, who seek adulation, prestige and expect to be influential. Then we hear about the widow, who gives all she has without drama or expectations of people, the religious system or the temple.
This small story told by Jesus is at the end of chapter 12; and by ch. 14 Jesus is starting his journey to the cross, and the passion story is told out. But in the middle, there is the small apocalyptic warning of the destruction of the temple.
Both the poor widow and the rich men are offering money to the temple, for its upkeep, for the worship of God, for its services. None of which make any difference or guarantee the permanence of the temple as an institution. We have also, already heard earlier in chapter 12, from the scribe who affirms the commandment to love God and neighbour is more important than offerings and sacrifices.’ (12:33).
Jesus sits quietly in the temple courtyard watching people give, and instead reflects on love, faith and hope; the surrender of one’s life out of both its abundance and poverty. In the mind of the gospel writer, Jesus already knows the temple is going to be destroyed. The monetary value of the gifts of the rich and poor are practically meaningless.
Its worth us pausing to consider how we might behave differently about our own worldly commitments if we seriously thought they were not reliable.
And, it is even more meaningless, if the act of giving is intended to distract from the obligations or denial of this obligation of love, faith and hope.
The widow is neither the object of charity nor a victim but a model of discipleship.
She stands in contrast to the rich and those of the scribes who ‘devour widows’ houses’ (12:40) through corrupt, unethical financial dealings, profit making and self-serving greediness.
Jesus points out her poverty, noticing her offering is not an expression of her neediness, as great as that might be, rather of her gratitude and trust. Her life, filled with such actions, is the real treasury, not the one rattling aloud with the large donations of coins tumbling into the Temple’s money changers’ chests. Her actions reflect the holy and abundant generosity that is the drama of the cross itself.
Jesus’ cross highlights the mystery of this grace-filled abundance as it works on, in and through the mystery of love of God for God’s creation and for us.
As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, love can either be present or absent from gifts, acts, powers or commitments. One of the things we notice about love is that it experiences gratitude and trust and is humbly amazed at the gift of existence and treasures this with and for others.
Paul is equally explicit in 2 Corinthians 8:9 when he says:
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich.
We know this, when we hear the stories of self-sacrifice that saves lives.
As I think about the millions of men and women who gave their lives in all the wars so that others might live, we must remember what such sacrifice has meant for us and for their families. And we must remember with what love, faith and hope this gift was given from their crosses, bearing witness to their lives and deaths and resurrection.
What we notice in our remembering of both the widow and the soldiers, is the blatant hypocrisy Jesus was commenting on with those who enjoy power and might, status and position, wealth and learning, who give what they can afford out of their abundance without any cost; who give orders without understanding the implications; who hide from the consequences of their actions and are without self-reflection; who refuse to listen to anyone other than themselves; or who chose wilfully not to learn from their mistakes.
The hypocrites who are not interested in offering hope except for themselves.
Jesus is highlighting the nature of integrity in the face of hypocrisy.
When we reflect on the destruction of the temple and the efforts put in to sustaining it, I remember the words of the Psalmist:
Children of earth, how long will you turn my glory to my shame: how long will you love what is worthless and seek after lies? Offer the sacrifices that are right; and put your trust in the Lord. Yet you have given my heart more gladness; than they have when their corn, wine and oil increase. In peace I will lie down and sleep; for you alone, Lord make me dwell in safety (Ps 4:2,5,7-8).
And in Psalm 127:
Unless the Lord builds the house; their labour is but lost that build it (127:1).
The widow is not necessarily a model to be copied. Lacking the ability to make any show of self-sufficiency, the widow is in stark contrast to those who hide behind their wealth (v41) or their long robes (v.38).
The widow is a sign to the rest of us about what an integrated, or perhaps a non-hypocritical life might look like. It will mean going all in without counting the cost, and doing so, because we cannot hide our need and we can only rely, trust, hope, have faith in God’s love for us.
The Lord be with you