Which Side of the Wall – November 11, 2018

by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens

Image:  David Hayward, www.nakedpastor.com

On this day, we honor and celebrate those veterans in our lives: our friends, our families, our ancestors who have served valiantly and bravely faced the realities of war. This weekend we also mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, a four-year war that killed an estimated 14 million people.

But the anniversary that slips under the radar during this time, is one we mark on November 9th: the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year we marked the 29th anniversary!  On November 9th, 1989, the wall that stood as a barrier between East and West Germany, between confinement and freedom, between separation and unity, crumbled –  uniting a long-divided nation.

* A little reminder of history: After World War 2, the city of Berlin was divided, into four sections: the Western part of Berlin was divided into the French, British and American sectors and the Eastern sector was Russian. There were talks after 1945 to united all four sectors, but the reparation agreements fell apart between the West and Russia in 1946. The French, British and American sectors united in 1947.

* For 16 years, East and West Germany co-existed, uncomfortably, but they co-existed. Until one night in 1961. “Soldiers began the work over the night of August 12-13, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border. The wire was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine gun posts and searchlights. East German officers known as Volkspolizei (“Volpos”) patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.” (1) 

(As a side-note: my parents were married on August 12, 1961 and they talk about being married one day and overnight the Berlin Wall was up!)

“Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. “ (2)  But the Wall was much more than the separation of people; it was the sight of lives sacrificed, people killed, opportunities lost, families divided. Such are the barriers we erect to keep some outside and keep some inside.

We create similar walls today: between Israel and Palestine, in North Korea, at our  Southern border and all over the world. But we also create walls that seem more pliable, walls not made of brick and mortar, but walls that separate us one from another: walls that divide us by political party, by class, status, culture, wealth and power.

And standing on each of those walls – crying for the destruction of the barriers that separate us… is Jesus. Jesus shows up, sometimes unexpectedly, at our walls with a hammer and a chisel, ready to start the dismantling, ready to start making trouble.

As we see in our gospel lesson today from the book of Mark 12. To set the scene a bit, let’s review the timeline Mark is working with:

This scene takes place within the last week of the earthly life of Jesus and it begins with a triumphant entry, palms waving and crowds shouting “Hosanna in the highest!” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the king of the Jews! He rides into town and goes to the temple, but it was late, so they went to Bethany for the night. The next day, he and the disciples return to Jerusalem, and upon entry into the temple, he becomes enraged and drives the moneychangers out of the temple and turns over the tables of those selling doves. (Why does he pick on the dove-sellers? Doves were the poor people’s offering… price was too high. ) This act of anger encourages the Scribes and Pharisees to conspire against Jesus. Jesus and his disciples again go out of town for the evening. The next day they return. And, in the temple, Jesus is questioned by the Pharissees and Saduccees and scribes and teachers of the law…. He taught and argued, then finally gave this lesson about the scribes….

Beginning at verse 38:

38 As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

The scribes,“ the educated,” the legal or biblical experts, are said to be people who want

    • to walk around in long robes, this means they couldn’t hurry or work, these are men of leisure.
    • to be greeted in the market places –  the word “Rabbi” literally means “my great one”.
    • to be considered honored guests in worship and at community dinners. (Reminded of all those people who have their own seats in church…)

But there is a more significant and devastating accusation included in this teaching. Jesus accuses the scribes – the religious leaders – of “devouring the houses of widows.” What does that mean?

Perhaps he was referring to the practice of temple sacrifice: Religious officials, including the scribes, received a cut from every Temple sacrifice and were the beneficiaries of a five-shekel tax on every first-born child.  This generated great revenue.  Author John Petty reports that “several other offerings–or perhaps better, taxes–brought in even greater wealth, so much so that priests got into the business of lending money, which means that they also were in a position to foreclose on property if the debt was not paid.” (3) So they literally were destroying – foreclosing on – the houses of widows.

Perhaps Jesus was referring to the age-old practice of religious leaders taking advantage of the gullible and vulnerable by deception or manipulation, swindling women out of their money. This was the theory of first-century Jewish historian Josephus. (4)

Perhaps it was something less literal. Perhaps this was a condemnation of the religious leaders who like to dress up in robes, who like to play the role of the leader, reciting long prayers and sitting in the proper seats… but while they are “playing”, while the scribes and Pharisees and those who run the temple are “pretending” to be the messengers of God, the widows – the poor and vulnerable –are being systematically destroyed.

Jesus warns his followers, “Beware of these so-called leaders who like to get all the attention, gain all the wealth and lavish in the privilege that comes with their power. Beware of those who, just to keep their positions in the hierarchy, will sell you out. Look at these scribes, these educated biblical experts. They, above anyone, know God’s law and yet, they devour the houses of the poor and the vulnerable.”

And then he sat down.  It’s a fairly scathing attack on us religious leaders, and one that could be applied today. Think about the leaders in our world – not just the religious leaders – but all who will do whatever it takes to hold on to their positions of power, their places of honour at the feasts.

And so, there Jesus sat down. Where?

“Opposite of the Treasury” was in The Court of the Women.  Just imagine this for a moment…. Jesus sat down in the Court of the Women. Now, this was not the only place women could go in the temple… but the farthest place the women could go. The Court of the Women obtained its name because women were not allowed to proceed farther. (5) This was the women’s Berlin Wall…. And now Jesus positions himself right at the spot where conflict, where opposition to the wall would become apparent.

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

This last word is bios which means both “property and possessions” and “life”… So it literally means, “out of her poverty, she contributed her whole life.” 

So Jesus sets up this comparison: we see how he feels about the religious leader and now in contrast he gives the example of the WIDOW. As we saw in last week’s scripture lesson about Naomi and her daughter’s in law, becoming a widow was a fate feared by women in the Ancient world. They were people with no means of support. They didn’t own property. They usually didn’t have any way to earn money. They lived off handouts from the community or from family. This widow’s whole life was dependent upon the grace of other people.

How do you picture this woman approaching the treasury, knowing who she is and where she is… and how much she has to give. How does she approach the offering? With humility or with pride – in the house where they are devouring her? I imagine that she approached that wall with fierce courage: she was in the temple, knowing that they – the religious – were supposed to care for her and instead they were devouring her house, eating up her resources, with their greed and selfishness… and she places her two pennies in the coffers, knowing it was a small amount, but it was all she had. Everything. Not one tenth of her income. Not even half of her income. She didn’t hold anything back. She gave it all.

That kind of giving takes courage, and faith and little bit of recklessness, to depend fully on what God provides.

Jesus didn’t comment on WHAT was given, but HOW was it given. What is our motivation in giving: do we give our time, our energy, our talents, our possessions, our wealth, our selves out of reckless faith, or courageous love, or do we expect something in return? Next week, we will bring our pledges before God, we will celebrate what we’ve been given, by offering our gifts for the work of the church. How will we give?

We, as the family of God, are called to offer our best to God. We are called to care for those who are vulnerable in this world: for the poor, the powerless, the hungry and homeless. And if we in the church, who profess to be the followers of Christ, do not give of ourselves – our gifts and talents and our whole SELVES –  for the work of God, how will the work get done?

The Lord sits with us in the Court of the Women. The Lord lives with us as we depend solely on him.The Lord dwells with us, the Lord dances with us and sings with us, when we stand in opposition to those human-built walls that separate us from each other. And the Lord rejoices when we break through those walls and begin to dance with each other. May we understand and rejoice in the Jesus who erases the walls we draw to separate ourselves one from another. And may we too, pick up our OWN erasers and begin to be the people of peace and reconciliation God calls us to be.

  1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/berlin-is-divided
  2. Ibid
  3. John Petty, found on http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2009/11/lectionary-blogging-mark-12-3844.html
  4. William Barclay
  5. Found on http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/temple02.htm