A Time to Cheer & A Time to Weep 11-8-15
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
I wonder are we supposed to cheer or to weep? Jesus is in Jerusalem. Three days ago he rode in with shouts of Hosanna. Yesterday he drove the money changers out from the temple. Today he debates the Pharisees and the Sadducees. By whose authority are you teaching? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? In the resurrection whose wife will a woman who had seven husbands be? Which commandment is the first and the greatest? Scripture says “…the large crowd was listening to Jesus with delight” (Mark 12: 37).
Now, just four days before he goes to the cross, Jesus motions for us to come sit with him across from the treasury. ‘There are those who seek the greatest respect, the best seats, and places of honor whether in the marketplace, the synagogue, or at banquets,’ Jesus says. Beware of those who build themselves up at the expense of the widows and the poor.
Just look around. People like this are not hard to find. Jesus is seated in the temple court of the women, where the treasury was located. The historian Josephus said it is a magnificent and beautiful setting with its lofty porticos supported by exquisitely ornate pillars. There are thirteen trumpet-shaped repositories there, marked for various kinds of offerings. The place is bustling with activity: people moving back and forth, many rich people putting large amounts of money into the temple treasury make a great show of it.
Then Jesus points to a person in the crowd. ‘You see this woman,’ Jesus asks? She tosses two small copper coins—worth about a penny—into the treasury. “They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (vs. 44). I wonder as we watch this destitute woman give her last two cents to the Temple, slip away into the crowd, presumably to starve—are we supposed to cheer or to weep?
We’ve all heard the stewardship sermon. I’ve given a few of them myself. You know, where we change the spelling of widow’s mite from mite to might. This woman’s selfless generosity, her willingness to give her all mirrors the struggle going on in the mind of Jesus who is about to go to the cross. She is a preacher for Jesus. She is a teacher for all of us. We owe our entire life to God. All of this strikes me as most certainly true. But while she owes everything to God does she owe her whole livelihood to the Temple? Here’s where we run out of track and off the rails.
Jesus offers one scathing critique after another of the economic and political exploitation he witnesses all around him. Once the widow leaves the Temple, Jesus leaves, too, and as he does, an awed disciple invites Jesus to admire the Temple’s mammoth stones and impressive buildings. Jesus’ response is quick and cutting: “Not one of these stones will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I wonder if the widow is still on Jesus’s mind as he predicts the destruction of the Temple? He has just watched a trusting woman give her all to an indefensible institution, one that refuses to protect the poor. No edifice steeped in such injustice will stand.
Jesus notices the people who go unnoticed among us. Jesus will judge us, our church, our society, our political and economic systems by how well we care for the poor. The Greek word for “widow” occurs about twenty-five times in the New Testament. The widow epitomizes the reversals and subversions of political power in God’s kingdom. That God cares for widows, and that his people should too, are prominent themes throughout the Bible.
While we cheer for the successful, the famous, and the wealthy as the livelihood of poor widows is destroyed, Jesus weeps. So what does God call us to do? Proverbs 31:8–9 puts it this way: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
We stood up for the poor and needy nine times this year for Moral Mondays. We stand up, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as sisters and brothers who speak up for people who are hurting. Like the widow in the Temple, the poorest 20% pitch in by far the largest share of their livelihood into the state treasury. They pay 13.2% of their income while most of us (the middle 60%) pay 10.9% and the top 1% pay just 4.6% of income. According to a 50 state report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (2015), Illinois is the 5th most regressive tax state in America and one of just seven states with a flat income tax. That ain’t right. We are not broke in Illinois. In fact, throughout its history, America has never been wealthier than it is today. We can afford the things we need for seniors, for school kids, for the mentally ill, for infrastructure, for our police and firemen.
We have a crisis in Illinois. Five months into the fiscal year we have no state budget. Soon entire agencies will go out of business. Many State colleges cannot afford to have a spring semester. Chicago teachers are preparing to go on strike.
Where people are hurting, Christians respond. This is not controversial among us –I know it. We respond with a listening ear, a hot meal, clothing, resources, skills, letters, phone calls, advocacy and also when necessary to confront injustice—with direct political non-partisan action. That’s why Bishop Miller, many Lutheran clergy, seminarians at LSTC, friends of other faith communities, and myself have chosen to participate in civil disobedience. That’s why on Monday I blocked a door to the Chicago Board of Trade to highlight the urgency of the crisis to implore our politicians to consider a range of options to stop undermining the livelihood of the poor and start demanding the wealthiest among us to pay their fare share.
On Monday my job was guarding a young first year seminarian from LSTC named Samantha Nichols. She would go limp, have to be carried, and go to jail. I stood in front of her, helped block the door and most likely, would only get a ticket. (As it turned out, we both went to jail.) She was the brave one that day. She was there not as a Republican, or a Democrat, but as a follower of Christ and the way of his cross.
Samantha wrote, “The Christ I follow used his body. He put his body among the people. His body felt the gruesome pain of crucifixion. We are, as a church, the global body of Christ. Our bodies—and the collective body we are a part of—are powerful. I can use my body to block a door. I can let my body go limp when placed under arrest. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” While I blocked the door, hundreds upon hundreds of other bodies filled the streets and surrounded the Chicago Board of Trade. My roommate along with other marshals used their bodies to direct the march and keep people safe. So many bodies, filling a variety of roles, contributed to shutting down the Chicago Board of Trade and sending a message that we are not afraid to unite and organize when faced with injustice.”
Last Monday was a day for many of us both to cheer and to weep. That day, last Monday, I wonder if Jesus did too.