~ Mark 12:38-44/Psalm 146 ~
Last Sunday, in our observance of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day and Día de los Muertos, I talked about some of the differences between these observances. When it came to “saints” I noted that these were people of the past that were particularly faithful, champions of the faith, if you will. Sort of extra special Christians. If there is a particular word that characterizes such saints it is the word “devoted.” Saints were particularly devoted. St. Francis was seriously devoted to God. Mother Theresa was especially devoted to God. Everyday Christians like you and I we might very well admire such devotion but probably would not count ourselves among such company.
What does “devoted” look like? Well, I could refer to all kinds of biblical, spiritual language. But instead maybe a love song from back in the day first performed by the Everly Brothers and covered by many others including Carly Simon and James Taylor. Its entitled Devoted to You.
Darlin’, you can count on me
Till the sun dries up the sea
Until then I’ll always be devoted to you
I’ll be yours through endless time
I’ll never hurt you, I’ll never lie
I’ll never be untrue
I’ll never give you reason to cry
Through the years my love will grow
Like a river it will flow
It can’t die because I’m so devoted to you
The devotion of romantic love? Maybe not too dissimilar from a saint’s devotion to God. Undying love; total commitment – that’s devotion.
So, a question I could ask this morning: Are you devoted…enough? In not so subtle ways this question permeated my religious upbringing. Over and over, Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon the message was “you need to do more.” You need to pray more, read the bible more, witness for Jesus more, even fast more. No matter how much time you spend in personal devotions you can do more. No matter how many times you come to church you can come more. No matter how much you give you can give more. No matter how devout you may think you are you can be more devout.
It made for a very anxious faith. I and my friends were constantly worried that we weren’t devout enough; guilt upon guilt upon guilt. But it also made for a judgmental faith. I found myself measuring myself against other Christians. And, for the most part, I was proud of my accomplishments because I certainly tried to step up to the challenge. One of the overt demonstrations of such devotion was making a vow to serve God in full-time Christian service. And I did that…several times!
Years later, when I was indeed doing “full-time Christian service,” I found myself working with a group of radical inner-city ministers who took this idea of a completely devoted commitment to a new level. This was the idea that the poor have a special innate capacity for spirituality, for devotion, that those who are not poor just can’t ever achieve. Now, as our Psalm reading today makes clear, God does have a special regard for the poor and oppressed. God “executes justice for the oppressed,” “gives food to the hungry,” and “upholds the orphan and the widow.” For my friends the logical take away, then, was that the poor must have an innate “superior piety” than we who are “rich,” we people of privilege.
In time I came to realize that this was our particular, but not necessarily biblical, ideological overlay on God’s genuine agenda for the poor and oppressed. Whereas I do believe that we Christians of privilege must have ears to hear the insights and critiques of the poor, that does not mean the poor are innately more spiritual or devout. Devoutness can’t be characterized in such ontological terms.
Yet, one of the places where such ideas arise is in our gospel story today. Certainly, the story of the “Widow’s Mite” is such an example of the “superior piety” of the poor, isn’t it? Isn’t this story a clear example of what true devotion looks like? Unlike those people who are religious only for show (the scribes), this widow demonstrates what true devotion to God is all about. Whereas the rich only make a contribution, she gives everything she has. It’s like the proverbial story of the chicken and the pig. The chicken says, “How about some ham and eggs for breakfast?” To which the pig says, “That’s fine for you to say, because for you, you’re only making a contribution; for me it’s a total commitment.” This story seems to tell us what true devotion is – total commitment. You’ll sacrifice everything if you really, really love God. That is true piety, true devotion.
However, I have come to learn that is not what this gospel lesson is really about. This is not a lesson in devoted piety. It’s not a lesson in measuring how much you love God. No; this gospel lesson is about economic justice – really. Let’s explore.
The story takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, holy week. Ever since Jesus got into town (Jerusalem, that is) he’s had run-ins with the leaders of the temple. The moment he entered the city he went right to the temple and caused a huge ruckus, knocking over tables and disrupting temple business. They started plotting to arrest him. Then he predicted that the temple would be destroyed. They tried to arrest him. And now, here he sits, as might a judge, across the street from the treasury watching the people bring their tithes and offerings to the temple treasury.
Jesus is really ticked off at what he sees. What he is sees is a religious institution, the temple of the one true God, being used to exploit and oppress the poor folk of the land. As Jesus watches the poor widow drop her two tiny coins in the treasury box he is not so much celebrating her devotion as he is lamenting the temple economic system that compels her to do this. As scholar Addison Wright observes, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.” In her “destitution,” Jesus says, she gave everything she had – her whole life. In his ongoing criticism of the scribes and the temple they control, Jesus proclaims that they have robbed this poor woman of the very means of her livelihood. Instead of protecting widows, they religiously exploit them for economic gain.
Where does this idea come from? Well, just a few lines up. In describing the scribes in their religious opulence (long robes, best seats, fine dinners, honor in the market place), Jesus says that under the pretense of pious prayers they “devour widows’ houses.” We don’t know precisely the inner workings of this exploitive temple economic system. But the essential point is this: Jesus debunks the piety of the scribes as a “thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation” (as scholar Ched Myers puts it). And because of this Jesus says they will receive a far greater condemnation. Jesus leaves the temple in disgust never to return, telling his disciples that this building, this temple, will be destroyed – not one stone will be left upon another.
In essence, Jesus is saying, “because you’ve abused your position as leaders in this house, the house will be torn down.” Or, to put it another way, Jesus agrees with the prophet Isaiah when he says, “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims – laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children” (Isaiah 10:1-2). A powerful condemnation, indeed.
Now, we do not live in the “temple economy” of Jesus’ Jerusalem. But we should make no mistake about it, every economy has moral implications. Every economy has the potential to “make misery for the poor.” As Sojourners’ writer Jim Wallace says, “Budgets are moral documents.” Our economic system is no exception. Indeed, it is probably just as oppressive, if not more so, as any other.
Now, I’m no economist. I don’t pretend to know all the ends and outs of our economic system (although I do have opinions). But it seems to me that part of being a disciple of Jesus is to be engaged with the development and implementation of our economic system, be it on a city level, state level or national level – to be engaged as Christians to address how our economy affects the destitute, the defenseless widows, and the homeless children. To be engaged in the politics of economic policy at least as a moral compass.
How personally devoted are you to God? That’s not the question, really. But how devoted are we to doing God’s justice, to be engaged in the economic justice that “lifts up those who are bowed down,” as the Psalmist says? That, I believe, is true devotion.
Coincidently – or maybe not – we are entering the season of stewardship here at Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church, the time of year when we are encouraged to consider our individual pledges for next year’s budget. This week you’ll receive in the mail a letter from me and a pledge card. Then, over the course of the next few weeks we will be encouraged by “witnessing stewards” to consider what each of us can contribute to the ongoing ministry of this church in the coming year. On December 2 we will have, as part of the worship service, the dedication of pledges.
The purpose for all this, this emphasis on stewardship during this month of November, is not to guilt us all into giving more out of some sense of religious devotion. Rather, it is to help us get a good read on how to formulate the budget for 2019. Knowing how you all plan to give in the coming years helps immensely in figuring out the budget. Fortunately, because of this congregation’s foresight in the past to recreate this building into a significant asset, we have a really good income from renters and performing groups. That generates a significant income for the ongoing ministry of this church. But our pledges, our individual commitments, are also a vital part of our ministry budget.
In January, at our annual congregational meeting, the session will present the budget for the coming year. In the meantime, they will be crunching numbers (OK, the main number-cruncher is Cindy Cake, our treasurer who is one of the most diligent number-crunchers I’ve ever met!). The pledges we bring on December 2 are a huge help in determining what we can do financially next year.
In that vein and in light of my topic this morning, how can we address the issues of economic injustice through our own budget? In a small, yet not insignificant way, our financial support of Noe Valley Ministry makes it possible to do something like the mobile meals outreach that we are doing today (thank you, Brian for leading this). And serving at St. Martin de Porres (thank you, Kay, for taking the lead on that). And making dinners early in January for the homeless men in the SF Interfaith Winter Shelter Program (thank you, Carol).
But could we do more? Could we, through our budget even, address some of the structural economic issues of our city? Might we find a way to be more involved in addressing the formidable issues of homelessness, housing, and poverty in our city? Might we be more pro-active in partnering with other churches and non-profits, financially and otherwise, to do more. Maybe, just maybe, it would be in that collective effort as Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church that we live out true piety, true devotion. The session and I welcome your ideas.
In closing one more thing: I recently heard about a pizza restaurant in Austin, TX. Its name is Pieous – P-I-E-O-U-S. Its motto? “Simply devoted to real good food.” Now that’s the kind of devotion I can get behind! Amen.