Intro: This chapter in Mark has two big themes – about money and about belonging. Chapter 12 begins with Jesus telling a story that really sets off the religious leaders, and the rest of the chapter Jesus spends deflecting some tough questions.
As a reminder, a parable is another way to say story. Most of the stories that Jesus told were about ordinary people doing ordinary things. Here we have workers tending vines, employed by the man who owned the vineyard. At the end of the growing season, the owner naturally wanted his percentage of the crop. But instead of being good tenants and giving their share over to the slave, they beat him up and sent him back! Others they also attacked, insulted, and they even killed his son, which is a foreshadowing of what is to come. This angers the religious leaders, who were listening in. So they spend the rest of the chapter trying to figure out how to trick Jesus. First, the asked him about TAXES.
Now, really, who WANTS to pay taxes, right? At the time of Jesus, Israel was a nation under the thumb of the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, and their tax percentage seems astronomical compared to ours. In order to get Jesus into trouble with Romans, two religious groups who hated one another joined forces in trying to trap Jesus. If Jesus says yes, pay taxes like a good occupied person, then he would be validating the Roman oppression, and the people would be very displeased. But if he said NOT to pay taxes, then he might get into trouble with the powerful Romans. But fortunately Jesus was on to them. He had them bring in a coin, which has the emperor’s face imprinted on it, much like our coins have the pictures of presidents.
Just today I heard on NPR the BBC program “The history of the world in 100 objects.” Today was about a gold coin from India dating back 1500 years. During that program, the host commented that this coin does what coins have done for thousands of years – tell all who handle them that their ruler enjoys the special favor of heaven, or even that he himself was a god. The emperor of Rome was no different. His face and his name were seen and revered daily in the mundane task of buying and selling.
So we know what is stamped with the emperor’s name and image. But what is stamped with the name and image of God? Hmmmm… well, take a look around. When you were born, you were created in God’s image. And when you were baptized, you were named and claimed “child of God.” God doesn’t just want part of you. God wants everything that you are and everything that God has created you to be. That revelation alone should have awed his opponents into silence.
Then there is yet another attempt for the religions leaders to play “Stump the Savior.” They ask him a question about the resurrection they know is silly, but Jesus again amazes the crowd with his wise answers.
Then, one scribe who was impressed by Jesus asked a serious question, “Which commandment is first, or most important?” Jesus, however, responded with two equal and related commandments – love God and love your neighbor. Jesus is revealing to his listeners that God is not a God of following the law to the letter. Instead, God is about love. The scribe is impressed, and seems to “get it” more than Jesus’ own disciples did.
Now it is Jesus’ turn to ask some hard questions, taking the scribes and Pharisees down a peg and revealing their lack of love for their poor and widowed neighbors. And seeming to prove his point, he parks himself in front of the offering box in the temple and watches as people put in their offering in. Some rich people walked by and made a show of writing big checks. And then a poor widow came by, and in goes the entire amount of her social security check. Jesus noticed, and pointed out to his disciples that, out of her lack, she had given more than the richest member of the congregation. They had all given what they could afford. She had given though she couldn’t afford it.
In those days, a widow was at the mercy of others to survive. She was a burden on her family. She had no disposable income; she was utterly dependent. We don’t know who cared for this widow, if it was her children or extended family, or even if she begged on the street. But we do know that she gave what she had, and her offering impressed Jesus more than all the vast sums the rich had contributed.
Though she was invisible to society at large, and had no legal power or religious clout, she gave what little she did have. She knew that the God in whose image she was created and to whom she belonged would not forsake her. She knew that whether she lived or died, she belonged to God. Amen.