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Pentecost 25B Sermon
Mark 12: 38-44
November
11, 2018

 

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Mark 12:38-44

As he 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 honour 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.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

One of the big things in entertainment and media is the prequel – if a sequel tells us how the story of certain characters continues, prequels tell how those characters got to where they are. The Star Wars franchise did it with mixed reviews; even Breaking Bad did it with the spin-off series Better Call Saul. It’s the story behind the story. I would like you to imagine this sermon as a prequel to the story in our Gospel, which is often given the title, “The Widow’s Mite.” Often we don’t know the story behind the story for the people we observe and judge. This is an attempt to provide a story behind the story of many of the people that Jesus and his disciples are observing from a distance in Mark 12. For the purpose of this narrative, let’s call the widow woman Ruth, and her (soon to be late) husband Jacob.

It was a fairly normal morning when Ruth stoked the fire in the courtyard. Jacob was just getting up and stretching. Their children, Micah, Esther and Mary, were still sleeping. They had stayed up late the night before to play with their cousins. It was the festival of Succoth, and there was family in Jerusalem for the celebrations. Ruth’s sister and her family woke up early to travel home – it was a long walk to Bethel and they wanted to get back well before the sun set again that evening.

It was time for Jacob to return to the olive tree grove. Jacob was part owner of the grove along with one of his long-time school friends, Levi. Levi had been born to a rather poor family, and Jacob took to him. Thanks to Jacob, Levi worked hard through school and was accepted by a well-known rabbi to continue to learn with him. Levi was destined to a religious vocation. Jacob’s gifts lay with business, and so he started working with the owner of an olive grove as a laborer while only 15 years old. Over the last 15 years he had worked hard, and now at age 30, he owned one-third of the trees and the land they were on. Part of the reason he was able to achieve this, besides his own hard word, was that his friend Levi had gained favor in the site of the High Priest, and received a very prestigious appointment. He was to be given the job of Scribe: one of the Jerusalem elite which afforded him a position among the higher classes of Jews. He was able to purchase the entire olive grove outright as an investment. Jacob would manage it and slowly buy it from him totally, little by little. Jacob now owned one-third, and used the proceeds from those trees to live on; he used what he made from the rest to pay James. He was hoping that in only a few more years he would own the grove outright. He, Ruth and the kids were fashioning a comfortable living from his hard work.
Ruth had already been to the well, so Jacob took a basin of water and washed his face. He would follow his regular routine, grabbing half of a loaf of bread on his way out the door to walk the quarter mile up the mount to his little patch of olive trees. Harvest was fast approaching, and he wanted to make sure all was ready when the time came to remove the fruit. Usually his only son, Micah, would accompany him to the orchard to help. Even though he was not yet 10 years old, Jacob was hoping that Micah would put in the same work and passion that he had when he was younger, and that one day he would inherit the modest piece of land which produced such wonderful olives and oils. Besides, Micah was like a little monkey – he could climb high up into the trees to do some important pruning before the harvest came. But since the children were up so late, Jacob decided to let Micah sleep in a while.

Jacob walked through the trees, examining the oblong purple fruit that clung to the branches. It would be a very good harvest, he thought to himself. He would imagine paying a large portion of what he owed Levi off this year. They were still friends, but their relationship had definitely changed since they entered into this arrangement. Money seems to have changed Levi somewhat … or maybe it was all of the fancy banquets that he attended … or the fancy clothes and the bows with which people greeted him.

Back at home the kids were just beginning to stir – they would do their chores and Ruth would teach them some lessons. She knew how to read, and even though the children did not attend a school, she had hoped to teach them the basics herself. In about an hour she would have to go to her own job, cleaning the home of her husband’s friend, the scribe named Levi. He didn’t pay her much, but every little bit helped. Just as she sat down with her children a man ran into their small home. “Ruth, come quickly – it’s Jacob!” Hoping for the best, Ruth told Micah to look after his sisters, and she put on her sandals. She ran behind the man, following him to the olive grove. There on the rocky ground lay her husband alongside, three men attending to him. A broken ladder hung from one of the lower branches of the tree. He was motionless, his head bleeding next to a large rock protruding from the earth. She could tell that her husband was not alive.
The same man that came for Ruth spoke up, “I was walking down the path when I heard a cry out. I looked up just in time to see the step on the ladder snap in half. Jacob tried to grab at branches to break his fall, but it was too late. He fell backward, head-first to the ground. I think he died immediately.

The following weeks flew by for Ruth and the kids. As is their custom, Jacob was buried the next day. He would have done the biggest part of the harvest work himself with Micah and two others to help, but in order to get it all done, Ruth had to hire a few more men. She ended up paying much more for their labor than she would have if she were a man. Levi was not very understanding either – he reminded her of the amount that was due after the harvest was sold. She also didn’t get as much for the olives as her husband would have in the open market – another symptom of a male-dominated society. She paid her laborers and there was not enough to make the payment on Levi’s portion of the orchard. Levi said, “I’ll tell you what – you won’t be able to keep up that olive grove. Give me half of what you have left over and I will just take the grove off of your hands.” Ruth’s heart sunk. It was true that she could never take care of the piece of land, but their plan was that Micah would be able to tend it within three or four years by himself. She begged Levi to help her, to have mercy on her. She called upon his friendship with Jacob. But Levi was unwavering in his demands. After she paid Levi the money, Ruth went to the market and purchased a jug of oil, five measures of wheat and some cloth to sew new clothes for each of the children. She had taken everything home when she looked into her change purse – there were two small copper coins – lepta, they were called: the smallest coin used in those days. Each lepta today was worth about one-sixteenth of a penny.

One day she was cleaning up after her meal with her children. They would have enough to eat until she could clean some more houses, she thought. As long as her children were healthy and well, she didn’t mind having only the two coins to her name. She decided right then and there that she would keep these coins forever as a sign of the olive grove that was so important to her husband and her. As time went on Ruth would look around at all that she did have – her home was not fancy, but it was comfortable. Her children were smart and would grow into good Jews. One day she looked at the two coins in her hand and told the children that she would be right back.

As Ruth entered the courtyard beside the temple treasury she could sense more excitement than usual. The man who a few days before had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey with shouts of Hosannah! in the air was sitting with his friends right across from the large offering receptacles. Levi pushed his way past her, along with 5 other scribes, and looked at her while he emptied an entire change purse of silver shekels into the drum. He smiled and walked away proudly, knowing that he had a huge stake in the running of this temple. While he was still standing there Ruth walked up, dug the two lepta out of her purse and dropped them into the drum. James just laughed and smirked – but Ruth walked away with a strong sense of belonging. Even though it wasn’t much, her gift was an outward sign of the love that she had for God – an appreciation for all that she has been blessed with. The last thing she heard as she walked away was the voice of Jesus: “…she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” And in that moment she knew that her life would continue to be a blessing. Amen.