Are You a Scribe or a Widow?

by Dr. Graham Standish

Mark 12:28-44

As Jesus 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, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then 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. For 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.’

Connie Frierson, our program director, and I were talking the other day. In the midst of our conversation I blurted out something that kind of shocked me as the words came out of my mouth. I said to her, “You know, I think my problem is that I really like ministry, and I really believe in this church. I’m just not sure that I like religion.” The words surprised me because that’s not the kind of thing that we pastors are supposed to say, but it’s true for me.

I get tired of religion in much the same way I get tired of politics. Over the course of my life I’ve become very tired of the process and partisanship of politics. I’ve grown tired of the anger and self-righteousness that not only our politicians exhibit, but also that our country exhibits. I’m not one to always see politicians as crooks. In fact, I see them as a reflection of us. We’re the ones who put them where they are, and too often we put into place people who are self-interested just like us. But what also tires me about politics is the constant bickering, the constant conflict, the constant bloviating about who’s right and who’s wrong.

In some ways my problem is with democracy. Democracy is messy. Democracy runs on conflict, but conflict that is eventually put aside in order to do what is right. I agree wholeheartedly with what Winston Churchill once said, which is that “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” He also said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The truth is that democracy is messy, democracy is tiring, democracy is irritating, but there is no better system conceived of. Thus, it’s the best and only system. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t grow tired of it.

I have a similar irritation with religion. I grow tired of the constant conflict, anger, and bickering that goes on with the grinding together of different religions and denominations. Everyone in every religion is always right and never wrong, and so we have unending conflict. The real problem is that to be human is to be in conflict. Humans have a hard time getting along because all of us are always right and never wrong. Think of the times that you’ve argued a point about anything—political, religious, about music, sports, or anything else? When have you ever said, “Ya know, I’m pretty much wrong in what I’m saying…”? None of us ever does that, which means that we are always right about whatever we believe.

At the same time, whether we like it or not, religion is still essential to our spiritual growth. Democracy may be irritating, but it is a tremendous form of government that really allows us to grow as a nation to be better than we can possibly believe. The same idea is true of religion. It is irritating, but it also allows people to grow spiritually in ways that they would never grow themselves alone. I suppose the best we can say about religion is to paraphrase the character Flounder from the film Animal House: “Religion! Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.”

I’m not alone in my religion fatigue. Jesus got extremely frustrated with the Jewish religion, and I wonder if he gets equally irritated with Christianity. Why would he get frustrated with Christianity? Because his whole focus was to try to get people to become centered in God rather than rules, and in love rather than law. And despite his teachings that lead us to God and love, so many Christians would rather have their faith be about rules and law. We forget the center of the gospel, which is that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and others as ourselves. This center of the gospel is a focus on God first, and letting God’s love flow out of this through us and into the world. But we forget.

No matter how hard people within religions try to focus on God and love, too often they end up focusing on other things. Sometimes that focus is on big, weighty issues that divide us. For example, as I was folding laundry yesterday I was watching a travel show. I love to watch travel shows, probably because we don’t get to travel much since we have young children, and this one way I can travel with the television for at least 30 minutes. At any rate, I was watching a travel show on Northern Ireland. The host was in Belfast, and showed the Catholic section and the Protestant sections of that city. He was talking with a man about the “troubles” in Northern Ireland—the conflicts over a number of decades between those who want to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and those who want to remain loyal to Britain. I found it interesting that both sections of the city were very similar to each other in the signs that were painted on walls. In the Catholic section there were signs with the Irish Republican flag, praising the IRA, and showing arms holding guns in defiance of the Protestant loyalists. In the Protestant sections there were almost identical signs praising England, with the British flag, and arms holding guns.

These “troubles” in Northern Ireland are often depicted as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. But I would defy anyone to show where it says in either church’s scripture that we should take up arms against each other and kill. This isn’t a conflict between Protestants and Catholics. It’s a conflict between those who would like Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and those who would like to be part of the United Kingdom. The people who take up arms, claiming that they represent their faith have forgotten about God and love.

I see the same sort of forgetfulness when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. The issue of homosexuality is dividing many denominations right now, including ours. We are constantly fighting in the Presbyterian Church (USA) over whether or not to ordain homosexuals. What I think we’ve forgotten in this whole fight is the issue of love, and as a result I wonder how well we maintain our focus on God. We’re awfully focused on arguing about our rules and laws.

Where this really struck home to me was an experience I had about fifteen years ago. My wife, Diane, works as a social worker for the Hemophilia Center of Southwestern Pennsylvania. She was originally hired to help the HIV positive hemophiliac patients, all of whom had contracted the AIDS virus through injections of blood products that allow their blood to clot. Hemophilia is a bleeding disorder in which the blood cannot clot, resulting in massive bleedings in even the smallest cuts. As a result of her job, Diane worked on the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force for a number of years.

As part of her work for this organization, she had been involved for many years with something called the “Healing Weekend,” which is a retreat for people who are HIV positive and their families. They bring in speakers, entertainment, educators, health care workers, and more to help these people live with this terrible disease. Every year, as part of the retreat, they have a healing worship service. One year the Episcopal priest who normally does the healing service couldn’t make it because he was sick. He asked me if I would be willing to step in and help, which I did.

As part of the service I asked those with the HIV virus to come to the front and to stand in a circle. I went from person to person, mostly men, and offered prayers of healing for each one, and afterwards anointed each one with oil.

As I passed from man to man, most had tears in his eyes. Afterwards, one of the men came up to me and said, “Do you know why all of those men were crying?” I said, “I suppose it’s because they were touched by the service.” He said, “Sort of, but the real reason is that you are the first straight pastor to pray for us. We are used to gay priests and ministers praying for us because they are one of us. But to have a straight Christian pastor do that is something that none of us ever experiences. We’re used to being hated and judged by Christians.” We’re used to being hated and judged by Christians. What does this say about us? I think it tells us that too often our focus is on rules and laws, not God and love.

Despite the divisions that come through these bigger issues, more often the issues that divide us in religion are much smaller issues. We get divided by things such as worship styles and hymn choices. And the divisions are growing substantially each year. I’m not necessarily talking about divisions in our particular church, but in many churches. What’s happening all over the place is that churches are fighting over music in church, and these fights are splitting churches, or causing people to leave their churches and to start new ones that cater to generations unhappy with the worship styles of other generations. We have churches that are committed to traditional worship, churches that are committed to contemporary worship, and churches that are committed to Emergent worship (churches like the Hot Metal Community Church that led a worship service here a number of years ago). What we are seeing increasingly in so many communities are churches divided by generations. In traditional churches we see few younger people. In contemporary churches we see fewer of the oldest and the youngest generations. In Emergent churches we see few of the older generations. We’re becoming more and more divided as the focus becomes on rules and laws about worship and music, and less on God and love.

It’s not just we religious people who are like this but even those who reject religion are like this. They complain about us Christians being hypocritical for not being about love, but then they are just like us. For example, do you know who Christopher Hitchens is? He wrote a book a couple of years ago titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His thesis is that religion causes many of the problems in the world, including wars. He says that Religion causes more wars than are caused by any other reason. My question back is twofold: First, since when did we give human nature a pass? Since when have humans been so peaceful by nature, and if humans are so peaceful, what is it about religion that causes them to be so violent? Second, where does it say in anyone’s scripture that we should start wars against each other? The truth is that humans manipulate religion to start wars because part of human nature is to be in conflict. There has never been a started by a religion that wasn’t started first by a human. It’s not the religions that cause wars. It’s humans manipulating religion who cause wars. These are the same people who ignore God and love by creating false rules and laws that justify war.

All of this gets back to our passage. What is the difference between the scribe and the widow? The difference is that the scribe loves everything religious. The widow loves God. The scribe is a person responsible for knowing scripture by heart, and for telling people how to apply it to their lives. The widow is simply trying to love and serve God. The scribe wants to be seen as religious. The widow wants to give to others to love them and love God. True religion, as irritating as it can get, leads us to focus on God and love. The religious who love religion are often those who lead us to focus on rules and laws.

I think that Jesus was trying to overcome division by pointing out that it was the widow, not the scribe, who is the great one. She gave sacrificially to God. The scribe just wanted to be seen as serving God.

In this vein, what I’m proudest of in this church is that we have managed, for the most part, to overcome the divisions of our culture in order to focus on God and love. If you look around at our church, we are not a church divided by ideology or theology. We have people who are very conservative, people who are very liberal, and everything in-between. We’ve managed to hold onto a balance that’s missing in so many churches that teach to be a Christian means believing and behaving as they do. We’ve managed to let our religion focus us on God and love, not rules and laws.

Our passage for this morning is a reminder to us that we can get so focused on religion that we forget God. So here’s my question for you: When you reflect on your life, which one are you? Are you like the scribe, or are you like the widow?