“[The teachers of the Law] devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Mark 12:40 (NIV)
Over the years I have had the privilege of serving certain clients in the monitoring, coaching, and providing Quality Assessment (e.g. “Your call may be monitored for quality and training purposes.”) for their collections teams. The process of working with customers who owe you money can be a sticky wicket. We’re not talking about third-party collection agencies who just want to bully people into paying so they can quickly get their cut and make their margins. My clients are businesses who want to collect the debt, but also want to keep most of their customers knowing that the lifetime value of that customer’s business far exceeds the amount they are past due in the present moment.
As I always remind both my team members and my clients: “When you are dealing with people’s money, the conversation takes on additional layers of complexity and emotion.”
In today’s chapter, Mark continues to share episodes from Jesus’ final days. There had always been conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious power brokers and rule keepers in Jerusalem. Most of His ministry, however, had been in the region of Galilee far from Jerusalem. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem and is teaching in the temple during the most crowded week of the year. Three times in previous chapters Jesus has told #TheTwelve that He was going to Jerusalem to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and then He would rise from the dead. The episodes Mark relates in today’s chapter illustrate the escalation of conflict between Jesus and the institutional religious powers.
In the first episode, Jesus tells a parable that metaphorically states what He has said plainly before: The religious rule-keepers killed the prophets that God had sent in the past, and now they’re going to kill God’s own Son. The parable antagonized Jesus’ enemies who have already been looking for a way to make sure Jesus “sleeps with the fishes.” Ironically, Jesus said that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days, He would spend three days in the grave. [FYI: That’s a reference from The Godfather for those of you who didn’t catch it.]
What follows is three different attempts to trip Jesus up with religious questions that were political hot potatoes. The intent in at least two of the three questions was to try and get Jesus to say something that His enemies could either spin to diminish His approval rating or condemn Him. Each time, Jesus deftly handles the question and leaves His enemies flummoxed.
On the heels of these trick questions and attempts to trip Him up, Jesus speaks critically of His enemies and warns His audience to “watch out” for the teachers of the law. He then offers a curious accusation that is lost on modern readers. Jesus says that the religious power brokers “devour widows houses.”
In most cases, women had very poor legal and social standing in Jesus’ day. This was especially true of older widows who might have been left with her husband’s debts. With limited means and a social system that made it virtually impossible for her to produce an income, the widow was incredibly vulnerable. Unless she had an influential and/or wealthy male advocate, the widow fell prey to wealthy and powerful men (remember, the religious power brokers were “Teachers of Law” (aka lawyers) within the Jewish religious, legal, and social system. These lawyers would use the law to seize a widow’s home and assets, leaving her destitute and living off the mercy of others. Even though the Law of Moses demanded special consideration for the defenseless (including widows), the “Teachers of the Law” found legal loopholes to justify their greedy victimization of these women.
What was most fascinating for me in today’s chapter is the very next episode. Right after criticizing the Teachers of the Law for their treatment of widows, Jesus leads His followers to the place where people came to give their “offerings” to the temple treasury. Wealthy Jews from around the known world were in town for Passover, so there were certainly many wealthy travelers using the annual pilgrimage to give generously (and publicly). Jesus sits and watches the riches being offered to the temple coffers. Then an old widow (I wonder which Teacher of the Law there at the temple now owned the home she once shared with her husband along with all of its possessions?) steps up and puts in two pennies.
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Two things stuck with me this morning. The power brokers in this world have their way through systemic advantage, intimidation, instilling fear, dishing out punishment, and eliminating the opposition. This is true of any number of systems including criminal, political, governmental, organizational, business, financial, social, educational, legal, military, familial, and even religious systems. It is obvious in the episodes Mark shares that there is rapid escalation between Jesus and His enemies, and His enemies have political, religious, social, legal, and financial systemic power. They want Jesus dead, and Jesus knows this. In fact, He knows that they will kill Him. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to fearlessly speak spiritual truth that both condemns His enemies and pushes the buttons that will ensure the signature on His death warrant.
The second thing that struck me is that I have infinitely more in common with Jesus’ enemies than with the widow whom Jesus praises.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
In other words, Jesus is in the Collections business.
Most days the chapter and my meditation leave me encouraged, challenged, inspired, contemplative, and even comforted.
Today, I leave my quiet time very uncomfortable.