Pentecost 24: 8 November Mark 12:38-44
We are about to hear Jesus’ dire warnings of the destruction of the temple in Mark 13. Warnings about the temple have been simmering under the surface of the narrative since Jesus reached the temple as his final destination in 11:11, travelling from Caesarea Philippi in the far north (8:27). The shrivelled fig tree interprets Jesus’ symbolic act in the temple as a statement of judgement (11:12-21). The temple, his Father’s house, had become a place of corruption. It was a mountain which faith must cast into the sea (11:22-23). Mark celebrates a new temple: a forgiving community of faith which will pray (11:24-25). It will be a community tended by leaders who will make it fruitful (12:1-9), a new construction build on the Son/Stone (12:10-11). This Jesus, the promised Son of David, but more (12:35-37, will build a true temple where mercy will matter more than sacrifice (12:28-34).
In 12:38-40 Mark is returning to the theme of corruption for which judgement will come on the old system. If in Luke the parable of the Good Samaritan contained barbed comment about lack of compassion among temple functionaries, this passage alleges downright exploitation. These few verses become a full chapter of woes in Matthew 23. Matthew reminds his hearers in 24:45 - 25:46 that such corruption is just as likely in the new community of the church, and that they are just as likely to find themselves sharing ‘the lot of the hypocrites’ (24:51). Human nature has a way of corrupting the most sacred and turning it to the ends of greed and self aggrandisement. The vehicle of grace which rescues us from the need to assert our importance and establish our worth becomes the instrument by which we seek to manipulate the same from others. People acting out of their inadequacy seek power, seek to impress, and it is little surprise that the abuse becomes concrete. The gospel is in part about finding a new adequacy given by the gift of love, which saves us and so saves others from such mechanisms.
It is not many verses back in chapters 9-10 that we found the disciples wanting the top seats and the chief places. We need to protect people from the abuse which that pattern generates. It is all around us, sometimes even institutionalised in our structures, and rewarded. We can wear it, sit in it, feast on it. We also need to bring salvation to the perpetrators who live out their sense of inadequacy in this way, if we are to break the cycle. Old parental and power patterns can be broken by the touch that allows people to drop the striving and stop long enough to be loved - deeply, thoroughly.
Mark is fond of contrasts. From the exploited widows, abused by religious power-people, we turn to one particular widow offering her all to God’s house. Mark no longer has the physical temple at heart, but he cannot pass by this story which he had come to know. It is one of those anecdotes about Jesus where he is not the hero: the woman is. The scribes exploit and grab in their spiritual poverty; she in her poverty has a wealth of generosity. She is a type of Jesus himself: a self-giving person. The parading men are upstaged by what most would have seen as a pathetic woman, probably a beggar (Greek: ‘ptoche’ - really poor). She is as memorable as the suspect woman who will anoint him a chapter later in 14:3-9. We miss the point of both stories if we press their logic and identify their causes. The temple is done for. Jesus needs no oil. In both, the point is the total openness, the costly self-giving, the vulnerability.
Mark reads the events of his time - the destruction of the temple - as divine judgement on a God-given system which had become corrupt. That comes next in Mark 13. It is speculative to claim that a changed attitude might have avoided that disaster - perhaps so. But Mark is clear about one thing: God’s way is the way of self-giving love and God’s community needs to be a place where love has freed people to be like that, and that includes its leadership, which can often become an instrument of violence. Leadership and the grace to liberate leaders from living out their own needs at others’ expense are a key theme.
One cannot help thinking back on the alternatives: the rich man too big for the kingdom, the disciples too obsessed with themselves to understand, the authorities needing to protect the confusion of their own interests unrecognisably tangled with what they saw as God’s. In contrast: the little child, Bartimaeus the sidelined, this widow, then the woman anointing his feet, and Jesus, himself.
Epistle: Pentecost 24: 8 November Hebrews 9:24-28