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The Trickle Down Theory of Church

Australian Country Landscape and a pushbike

Week of Sunday November 11 - Pentecost 24
Gospel: Mark 12:38-44

38 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, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.’ 

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At  the end of our first year at theological college we went back to Alice Springs to sit in for the minister, who was on Long Leave. It was a wonderful time, two months or so, despite all our stresses and confusions. I preached two different services a week, including one where a drunk member of the congregation asked, in despair, how it could be that God loved us. It was all so hard, he said.  He and I sat before the congregation on the front step of the sanctuary, and sort of dialogued the rest of the sermon together.

We made the long trip back to Adelaide and arrived a little late, entering the first chapel service for the year during the singing of the opening hymn. Someone turned around and smiled at me, “Howdy Andrew,” and then turned back to the front. I was chilled. No one was paying me attention. I was only an ordinary person, which is how it should be.

Jesus condemns the scribes. They deserve it. But it may begin while we are “serving the Lord well” and it can become utterly destructive. Bill Loader  says

People acting out of their inadequacy seek power, seek to impress, and it is little surprise that the abuse becomes concrete. The gospel is in part about finding a new adequacy given by the gift of love, which saves us and so saves others from such mechanisms.

I thought sourly of some folk at Synods,  who seem always to have a point to make for every proposal put before the meeting. But the same inadequacy is in me. In Alice Springs it had corrupted me without me even noticing. I began to love the attention! I keep having to relearn the lesson. And I only  stay mostly seated at Synod because standing at the mike is so frightening.

- - -

There are two ways (at least) to interpret the reading. Brian Stoffregen outlines these in his weekly commentary.

Both play on the location of the story. Jesus is in the temple. In the next verses he will foretell its destruction. The condemnation of the scribes is a foretaste of the condemnation of the whole edifice of his religion.

Both interpretative routes end up, I think,  in the same location, and both should chill us, for they are not really  about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. They use that cataclysmic event in early Judaism as a warning for what may happen to us, and to our “temples.”

In the first understanding the Scribes are condemned for their hypocrisy. They are in their fine robes. They are embezzling what little money widows have. Rich and comfortable, they put in money out of their abundance.

The widow is poor; the Greek word used for poor tells us she is more a beggar than someone who has a low income. Less than a pensioner.  She is honest and true. She gives out of her poverty; I can’t help thinking there is some word trick happening here beyond the obvious contrast between “out of her poverty,” and “out of their abundance.” Her poverty is actually spiritual abundance, and their abundance is a  poverty.

I notice she gave all she had; they “contributed.” She put in all she had to live on; she is a contrast to the rich young man, and an embodiment of “losing our life to save it.” Brian notes that she had two coins. She could have kept one of these, and her generosity and her devotion would still have been admirable, and better than what I can manage. She put them both in.

In this reading we have a crucial focus on the individual. Individual scribes would be entrusted to manage the legal affairs of widows, and  were known to take a cut; to embezzle. The scribes are being used as an object lesson; like the maligned used car salesmen of our time, they are being used as a type. Don’t be like this. Be like the widow. She is genuine. If you are not genuine, but doing church for show, you are condemned, says Mark. Condemned as utterly as the Temple.

In the economy of God; what Aslan called the ancient magic; and down at the quantum level, what shapes and moves the particles of the world is not what is visible, and it is not the quantity of things. What moves, and matters, is intent and integrity. We are “well warned” of the dangers of spiritual bankruptcy.

- - -

The second interpretation is corporate. The corruption of the scribes, and the damage they do, is inevitable, and terrible.

Not all scribes were corrupt. The Scribe with whom Jesus was speaking last week was “not far from the Kingdom of God,” which is far from corrupt. (12:34) Not all car salesmen are corrupt; the stereotype is  dangerous and unfair. I knew a car salesman. He was agonising over his future—  back when we were both young enough to be at youth camp together. “I am supposed to sell new cars,” he told me. “How can I keep doing this? It is economic madness! I would never buy a new car. I buy an old car, keep it till it gives trouble, and then sell it. The amount of money I don’t spend and lose for the sake of something ‘new’ is staggering.”

Here was an honest man in a flawed system. There are dishonest people in the system, too, but the real problem is the system!

What are we doing as a church, if beggar widows increase their ruination by giving to the church, and we accept their gift?

I quote at length from Brian Stoffregen’s reflection. (He quotes Ched Myers,  who quotes others. This is the trickle down theory of academe. Trickle down does not work for the poor, but it works well for the propagation of corruption.)

Myers (Binding the Strong Man) ... [quotes] ... Wright:

The last episode in the temple is a story of a widow being impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus (12:41-44). Long mishandled as a quaint vignette about the superior piety of the poor, Wright has shown that Jesus' words should be seen "as a downright disapproval and not as an approbation"

The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section (as is the customary view); rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion. Jesus' saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament. . . . Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it [p. 262]. [p. 321]

Myers concludes this section by stating: "The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. As if in disgust, Jesus "exits" the temple -- for the final time (13:1a)." [p. 322]

Note that immediately after this story Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. Could that be a reference to the ending of exploitation of the poor and vulnerable?

And Brian concludes

With many of our congregations involved in stewardship campaigns at this time of the year, what should we tell our poorer members? What should we ask of them?

The woman’s devotion is undoubted. But we have taught her, in part, to increase her poverty in the name of God. “They kill the widow and the stranger...” (Ps 94:6) Families are destroyed by husbands at too many meetings and working bees, or wives working too long in the church office. Except it is not the husband or the wife, it is the church. Young women are destroyed by the structures; it has been happening all my life and I am only finally seeing.

The ethos, even if not official, when I began,  persuaded theological students to sell their house to fund their training. I say, if you candidate, don’t even tell them you have a house, because somewhere a  parish will hang you out to dry and leave you with nothing. Been there. (And God bless Judith, Margaret and Marelle, who saved us.)

And the system corrupts Truth and says the victim has lost their faith. As I struggled to survive a near fatal rejection, and while my faith was being mended and strengthened, the word was spreading across the church that I had lost my faith and become an atheist.

In this picture of a more fundamental corruption, those “inadequate people seeking power” (Loader) are often tolerated, and even encouraged,  by other inadequate people seeking an inadequate God. Great is their rage and destructiveness when they see they have idolised God and gotten only a poor minister.

And in the middle of it all those who are true become the “collateral damage” of the church; the ones we deny we have destroyed.

I once saw a man stand firm under fire and give everything he had. What an appalling thing if the widow was doing this, too, with her two coins, and it turned out we had built a temple which turned her love into a lie!

It would deserve its destruction. 

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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