Thursday, October 16, 2008

a reflection on Luke 21 and Mark 12 regarding the widow's penny and the judgment of the second Temple

The widow gave her penny to the Temple treasury and Jesus said that she gave more than all those who gave greater gifts.

Mark places the story at the end of chapter 12 after several key passages. Most tellingly, the parable of the wicked tenants is shared here and Jesus addresses whether it is just to pay taxes to Caeser, whether marriage will exist in the age to come. the greatest commandment, and who the Christ is in respect to David. Jesus establishes that Israel was about to lose its place because of rebellion; that Caeser was due what was his (i.e. you DO have to pay your taxes even to an unjust and godless regime); that marriage will not exist in the age to come; that the greatest commandments are to love God and neighbor; and then to demonstrate that the Christ is referred to as "Lord" and so cannot simply be a son of David. He also warned against the teachers of the law, those who love to be greeted in the city and given places and reputations of honor. They devour widows and make a show of long prayers. They, if you will, oppress those in need and then present themselves as worthy of honor and respect. In short, they stand condemned for oppressing the very sort of widow who gave all she had to the temple treasury! It is after all THIS that Jesus praises the widow giving her penny to the Temple treasury. It is the very sort of widow whom Jesus said the teachers of the law devoured! He praises her after condemning those who devoured her.

Luke sets up the contrast in an equally startling way. The widow's penny precedes warnings about the end of the age. No less, Jesus predicts the destruction of the very temple in which treasuries existed for the widow to give to! The widow's gift is praised by Christ right before He prepares a warning that the Temple itself to which she gave everything will be destroyed!

This is something to consider in hope. The Lord will have regard for the gifts we give sacrificially to the cause of the Gospel even if the institutions through which those gifts are mediated are so corrupt and in defiance of God the Lord Himself predicts their destruction. This is important to know because sometimes we can be discouraged and need a reminder that the sort of wealth we are called to lay up for ourselves is not physical wealth. Nor is it even in what we give to ostensiby sacred causes, since those who gave much did not give with a heart that was toward the Lord's work, it seems.

Our Lord Himself was offered, so to speak, as a sacrifice of one man's life so that the nation of Israel would not perish in another feared messianic uprising against the empire of Rome. Caiaphas said that the rest knew nothing at all and told them that it was better that one man perish than the nation be lost. The priest was willing to sacrifice an innocent man to preserve the very temple system which, on account of its corruption, Christ predicted would meet an end. A man was condemned for the sake of the nation, yet by that very means the nation itself was condemned.

We are in a peculiar place before Christ. If we take up defense of ourselves, our honor, our dignity, our lives, we reveal our guilt toward Christ. And the widow's penny becomes part of the word of warning against us. She will be remembered and spared but the Temple system that we seek to defend will still be judged and cast down by Christ Himself.

We can easily forget that while Christ praised the widow for giving her penny He still condemned the Temple as being overrun by a den of robbers. Take heart, the gifts you give for the cause of Christ are regarded by the Lord even if the recipients of that gift are under the condemnation of the Lord Himself. Though the Temple was not destroyed until years after the death of the Lord the condemnation remained. There is a sobering lesson here. If God's people lose their way and forsake the Lord for preserving an earthly interest, whether it be power or money or influence or all the above as the Pharisees and Sadducees sought to preserve all these by colluding to kill Christ, then we are capable of the same weakness and making the same rationale that we are doing God a favor by condemning the innocent and accepting the money of the poor and the powerless to further what is finally our own agenda.

But that doesn't mean the widow can't give her penny. There is a strange, paradoxical beauty and ugliness in the moment. Christ both praises the generosity of the widow in Luke's gospel and then proceeds to condemn the corruption of the recipient system. This is a strange, puzzling paradox that I don't understand, but I don't have to understand it. The Lord is the Lord.