Less Than

There is a great deal of history tied up in the book of Mark*. Turn back the pages of your Bible , to 2 Kings and you can read what and why there was such a thing as a temple treasury, and why it came to be and what the Old Testament prophets had to say – in detail about how it was used. The Ethics around giving.

Open your history book to the chapter on women in the early Judeao-Christian world. Most women in society at that time were vulnerable. A widowed woman was especially so. Unless she had a son to offer protection, she lost security upon the death of her husband.

Her material resources were her only assurance, so if she were poor, as the woman in Mark’s gospel…she was viewed as less than, valued as less than, less than human in the eyes of many.

The temple was to be a place of protection for the widowed woman. The temple treasury, ironically enough, was meant to provide the means for her support.
Yet…. the system was corrupt.

To better capture the punch of this gospel story, remember what comes before the widows gift.
Jesus is hanging out with the disciples, back in Jerusalem….He is in a crowd, with church leaders/teachers and Jesus has been doing what he does so well…. telling stories.

She with less than….is in contrast to….

The scribes

The temple officials….and

The temple’s servants

Jesus declares, “beware of”….”watch out for” these scribes. Be on guard against these religious leaders,
who are highly regarded and honored in the house of worship. Through his speech he is emphasizing. …
that …Whatever gift a priest might offer to this corrupt system will not harm him because he has more than enough.

Jesus exposes their greed.

Yet, notice……the warning “to beware of” …them is not aimed just at the scribes. Jesus addresses the crowd, the masses. He addressed the disciples who have been there with him all along.

A few chapters prior to this text it was the disciples, the FAITH FULL followers who wanted a place of prominence with God

Like my children – did any of yours do this? In the morning rush, headed out to THREE different schools, their focus was not on the fact that they were loved by my husband and I and being given a  future of hope. No, not at all all. All they cared about was begin the first one to get their voice heard about all the others and shout, “I call the front seat”!

“Jesus, Jesus  listen to me”, said the dusciples.  “I call the the front seat!” I want to bethe  first one at the hand of God!”

Jesus addresses all of the crowd including the disciples who are so close.

Notice, He does not attack their faith practice,
He does not attact their commitment to religious discipline.

He assaults instead, their egos…their intentions…their motives.

And then…there is a short between verses – an about face in the text.

  • She,… who does not practice her faith out of piety or duty,
  • She, the poor widow who came and placed her offering into the temple treasury.
  • She …whose copper coins equate to the smallest unit of money in that time and place,

She gave it all.
She, who has less than….less than enough, gave out of her poverty all she had to live on.

The paradox goes a little deeper though.

  • She has no name,
  • She has no title,
  • She has no role …
  • She has not value in the eyes of society. Without a husband
  • She has no identity.
  • She is nothing.
  • She is less than…    Yet it is here… in this gospel story …that
  • She earns her identity.  
  • She is the gospel story – THE message. Her story is the story of sacrifice.
  • She models, reflects, mirrors Jesus’ self-less-ness.

As the gospel story unfolds it creates it forms for us an image, a voice.
Mark’s description in this text paints the picture of the place, time and setting.
Jesus gives us an interpretation (v43-44).

But with that, I raise a note of caution for as we attempt to infer meaning.

Does our widow, with less than enough…..become “locked” into a simple “example-like”…
stereotypical image? To answer my own question I asked why…Why, just why… did she with less than give all she had to live on?

Did she have a choice in her giving? What could have prompted such a choice by someone with so little?

Was she acting out of observance with the system, as just someone performing their civic duty,
or is more at work here?

Listen with me to a story of another woman from 1904. This is the story of Mary McLeod Bethune

John Williams took out his handkerchief andmopped the sweat from the back of his neck.
It might be September 1904, but there was not break in the heat.He thought to himself that he was crazy to meet anyone out in then middle of the day. But…the prospect of renting one of his run-down houses
that had stood empty for an entire year, made him forget the soaring temperature.

He watched as an African American woman walked down the road toward him.Her face broke into a smile as she called out, “Hello there. You must be Mr. Williams, the real estate agent.” She extended her hand. “Hello, I am Mary McLeod Bethune. Thank you for agreeing to show this property to me on such short notice”

John Williams opened to door. “Well, as you can see, Mrs. Bethune, the place is not much to look at”. She looked over the uneven floorboards and peeling paint w/one glance.

He thought, “Perhaps a little salesmanship was in order”. So he said, “I was told you have limited funds to work with, and the rent on this place is only eleven dollars a month.”

Mary McLeod Bethune looked the place over carefully.“It will smell a lot better in here when I’ve had the chance to scrub it. Sir, it will do nicely” she smiled.

The woman’s smile was contagious. John Williams found himself smiling in response. “Great, he said, “When are you and your husband going to move in?

“My husband teaches at a school in Georgia. My little boy and I came down here to Florida alone. We do not see Mr. Bethune very often. We are staying with Suzie Warren. I am not interested in using this house as a dwelling, Sir. I am going to open a school. A School for Negro girls. And I must hurry if I am going to have classes this term. I plan to open in one week.”

John Williams snorted. “You won’t be able to open a school here in one week. It will take months of backbreaking work to get this place fixed up”

“One week is all the time I have,” she said.

“Well, what you do with the place is your business, lady, so long as the rent gets paid.”

With no hint of embarrassment, Mary McLeod Bethune said, “I do not have the money now. If you give me permission to use the building, I will have the money when the school opens in a week”

John Williams started at her…. “Well, it has been sitting empty this whole past year, so I guess I could settle for half of it now”

“I do not have $5.50 now. I will give you the entire eleven dollars when the school opens,” she responded.

John Williams shook his head. “There aren’t any schools here for black children…. anywhere around here. John Williams asked her “Who sent for you”?

“God did, Sir,” was her reply.

He replied, “Well, most families who live around here are not going to be able to pay you any money to educate their children, They are too poor to be able pay tuition. How are you going to raise eleven dollars?”

Mary McLeod Bethune responded confidently, “Mrs. Susie Warren has given me a bushel of sweet potatoes.

“A bushel of sweet potatoes!” Lady, you’re no going to be able to open a school with a bushel of sweet potatoes! Than won’t be enough!” he sputtered.

The calmness of her response silenced him. “It will have to be enough, Sir.

It is all I have.

John Williams agreed to wait a week for the rent to be paid, and Mary McLeod Bethune set to work.
She rolled up her sleeves and chopped wood. She spent many hours each day laboring over a wood-burning stove. The bushel of sweet potatoes was transformed into delicious sweet potato pies. The men working nearby, to build the Florida East Coast Railroad proved to be eager customers. Nickel by Nickel the needed amount was accumulated.

On October 3, 1904, the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls began classes.Screenshot 2016-03-22 13.49.15

Five little girls proudly entered the clean and tidy building to sit at desks made of boxes that Mary McLeod Bethune had scrounged from the town dump.

Mary worked hard to give the children the best education possible. She knew it was the only chance they had to better themselves.

John Williams had been right about opposition to the school from the (white) community. (the Ku Klux Klan) But Mary never wavered.

In two years, the enrollment of her school had grown to over 250 students. A new location was badly needed. Once more Mary McLeod Bethune enlisted the aid of John Williams. Although she sometimes began the day with no idea how she would feed the students their
evening meal, she told Mr. Williams she wanted to buy a piece of property.

By this time, he knew not to argue with her faith. He drove her around (in a buggy) the area looking for land. Toward the end of the day, they drove by the town dump.

“Stop!” called out the teacher. She examined every aspect of the land on which the dump was located.
Then she said, “This is it!”

“Are you sure?” questioned Mr. Williams.

“Quite sure,” answered Mrs. Bethune. “Make them an offer of thirty dollars for it.”

“Thirty dollars? I don’t think that will be enough to satisfy the owners.”

“It will have to be enough,” replied Mary. “It’s all I have”

On that site in 1923 the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls merged with a school for boys to become Bethune-Cookman College, with Mary as its first president.

Mary would go on to become one of the most respected and beloved women in America. She would serve in both the Department of Education and the Bureau of Negro Affairs.

When Franklin Roosevelt died in office, his funeral was a magnificent affair of state. Beside his grave were four reserved chairs. The fourth chair was reserved for a representative of all the American people. In that chair sat …Mary McLeod Bethune*

Called by God…

  • She, with less then enough, gave all so others could live.Pause…

As Director of Family Ministries in 2007, I made arrangements for our church to host a group of Moms, and their children from the AIM programs – “Women and Children Succeeding” also known as WACS (pronounced WAX). They joined us for a few Wednesday night suppers and took classes.

Materially and culturally, they….like the poor widow, and like Mary McLeod Bethune…had less than, less than…what most of us (the majority of us in that church) had been given. Women, many young mothers, with a diminished sense of value in terms of the way the world measures worth.

I must confess….as I prepared to meet them the first night, I thought – I would be meeting women whom had every right to be frustrated, bitter, mentally beaten down , and carrying so much of life’s burden
as to wonder about their fate. I thought I would witness heads hanging a bit low and body language reflecting discouragment.

But…what I met were Moms, soms Dads and children; little girls and boys eager to be with us. They were full of smiles, enthusiasm, thankfulness and courage. Their hearts and minds open to all they had instead blaming God or society for what they did not have. They were ready to roll up their sleeves, and with the support of WACS, finish their educations, make sure their children had good child care and focus on creating apostive life for themsleves and their famlies.

They, like the widow, had participated in God’s grace, perhaps  through the WACS program, from a friend, grandparent,teacher or friend. They were transformed and then choose to give “all they had”. In that choice came their  new voice, a new identity a new value.

  • “Why, why does the widow give all she has to a Temple system that is corrupt?
  • “Why, why does a poor mother give all she as to an unfair society and open a school for young girls?
  • “How do the young mothers living below the US and SC poverty level give all they have, all they have in a society that often ignores their pleas?

These women are not alone. There are some just like them sitting with us here this morning.
There are men who have done much the same. Many of you have been touched by someone
who had little or not much themselves, but gave you time, encouragement, connected us with other people, supported us prayed in order to make a difference in someone elses life.

These women, with less than enough, are not waiting for the a corrupt system to “correct” itself. They are not crying “no fair”

Instead ……They are giving all they have, without reservation.

The story of the widow’s gift is one of the last records in the book of Mark about the public ministry of Christ. Its placement in the gospel narrative, at just this place, is no accident. Mark paints an picture of authentic discipleship.

She with less than, giving all she had to live on, an unnamed widow; her gift, for others to live, foreshadows the one Jesus is about to make.
*Mark 12:38-44

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces,39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything– all she had to live on.”

2 Kings 12: 4-16