Last week, as we read together the dispute that arose around whether it was right for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day to pay taxes to the Roman empire, I suggested that what Jesus did in his famous ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ was to push back against the tendency to jump too quickly to the details, to become obsessed with the minutia of the law, and to miss the bigger question of what the law was actually for. Jesus, I argued, took the question about tax and turned it back as a question about identity, about what belonged to God and what to human authorities; a question that was about the heart of faith, not its details.
And it seems as if at least one of the scribes listening heard Jesus’ words the same way; for he comes to Jesus with the question that is the most logical follow-up: if Jesus is encouraging people to move their thinking away from detail and towards the big things that truly matter, then what they need to know is what matters most.
So he asks Jesus “Which commandment is first of all”.
It’s a more subtle question than it first appears; because for many faithful Jews, especially amongst the Pharisees, there was an attitude to the law which said that to break any part of the law was to break the whole thing. The idea that one part of the law might be more important than another was, to them, a misunderstanding of the whole law. So the question invites Jesus to respond “no part is first; it all stands as a whole”.
But he doesn’t. What he does, in fact, is to pay the scribe who asked the question an almost unique complement: he answers the question. Directly as it was asked.
In the simple act of answering the question, Jesus makes the strongest declaration: “now that,” he says in effect, “that is a good question, a question worthy of an answer.”
And of course, the answer he gives is one that we are all very familiar with; one which has a better claim than any other declaration in the whole of the Bible as lying right at the heart of the Christian faith – for it is, after all, what Jesus declared most important! – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. This is the core, the key; it is through this command that all of the others are to be interpreted, and any reading or understanding of the Bible or the Christian faith which leads you away from this love of God and of others is ultimately flawed. On the other hand, the scribe, who simply agrees with Jesus’ assessment that the love of God and neighbour is more important than all offerings and sacrifices; just for this declaration, Jesus pronounces that he is not far from the Kingdom of God.
And as it is in the light of this core truth of the gospel that we read the whole of the Bible, it is particularly the framework for reading what comes immediately afterwards. The contrast that Jesus draws between the scribes and the widow.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!”
But hang on, didn’t Jesus just praise a scribe, call him “close to the Kingdom of God”? But now it’s “beware of the scribes”? Oh the harm a misplaced comma can do. We always read this as “beware of the scribes, for this is what they are like”. But actually it makes just as much sense to read “beware of the scribes who are like this” – not all of them, but those who are. For of course there were scribes who were genuine in their faithful following of God, just as there were many Pharisees amongst the early followers of Jesus.
But those who like the long robes, like the respect, like the privilege and benefits that come with their position; those you need to beware; they are the ones who have totally lost the sense of what it means to be servants of God.
For they have that respect, that honour, because they have been called to, gifted with, an important role. They are the ones who keep the written law, who study it, copy it for future generations, apply the ancient writings to the present moment. This is an important role, a high calling, and so they are treated with respect.
But they have come to take this honour for granted, to take it as their due, to treat it as an end in itself.
And with it, they have accepted the privileges of the honour as their right. So far have they strayed from the living Torah, that the command, repeated throughout the scriptures to care for those in need, and quite explicitly, to protect the widow and the fatherless – those with no economic clout of their own – that Jesus can describe them as ‘devouring widow’s houses’: not just failing to live up to their calling, but using their calling to bring about the exact opposite.
Which of course sets up a beautiful segue for Mark into the story of the widow’s mite.
A story, of course, beloved of Church leaders who are trying to persuade their congregations of the merits of generous giving (to the Church). The widow, we hear, was praised by Jesus for her giving, because she gave everything; those who gave from their excess, their abundance, Jesus implies, are somehow less, almost cheapskates, compared to the widow who gives all she has to live on.
I wonder if you’ve spotted the irony. Of Church leaders using the story of the widow’s mite to encourage people to give beyond their means, when just moments before Jesus was condemning those who used their positions of religious influence to take from those who really needed to receive.
For there is a sense, surely, in which Jesus’ observation about the widow’s mite serves to illustrate the point he had just been making – that the system of offerings, and the religious structures of the day were abusing, taking advantage of, the poor, to fund the extravagance of the rich.
There is surely no doubt that Jesus valued the generosity of the widow and her willingness to give in the honour and service of God, just as he received all who brought honest and committed worship; but there is no call in this text for others to do the same, and still less is there a mandate for those who have positions of power to ask it of those who do not.
Instead, it seems to me, we find an implied critique of the religious system in which the natural, encouraged, way for a genuinely pious woman to show here devotion to God was a process which served to increase the inequality that the law of God was intended to address.
It was, if it were needed, simply a further illustration of how the faith of the day had strayed so far from the living Torah, the call to live as God’s people according to the way of God; how to live, as Jesus put it, in the Kingdom of God.
Which really brings us full circle, back to the one question we ought to be asking of every text, every story: what is it that really matters?
“the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Is that reflected in our worship? in our lives, together as a community and individually in our lives? is the Christian faith characterised by, illustrated with, devoted to, the love of God and neighbour?
To the extent that we can answer that question “yes”, or must answer it “no”, we can judge our true fidelity to the message, the gospel, of Jesus Christ.