It’s a natural part of being human to find comfort in someone else’s misfortune. When the guy in front of you spins out on the same stretch of highway covered in black ice, while you follow through safely? When moments before you intended to walk underneath the same dangling sign in a windstorm, it comes crashing down on an unsuspecting woman? When in a fiercely fought game of Survivor your buddy gets voted off instead of you even though you were just as vulnerable?
The Germans, as they often do, have a word for it: Schadenfreude – suggesting that you find some satisfaction behind someone else’s misery. And underneath that sentiment lives a legalism of deserving our ‘just deserts’, so to speak.
Whether we say it out loud or in our hearts, it’s the same sentiment worthy of critique:
If someone struggles with cancer, for example, and they had smoked earlier in their life. In trying to make sense of their unique suffering the thought comes to mind, does it not: well, they had it coming?
If someone suffers great loss, even loss of their life in a car accident caused by impaired driving – texting or alcohol – we say: they had it coming.
If a wealthy business person loses everything in an ill-advised investment we say: they deserve it.
If someone makes a bad decision in a relationship and it falls apart we say: they deserve it.
If someone is poor because of some character flaw we conveniently label them and say: they deserve it.
And on and on. Our popular mythologies support this: We speak of ‘making your bed and sleeping in it’. Even biblical images are interpreted that way: ‘You will reap what you sow’ (see Matthew 25:26, Luke 19:21, John 4:38). We seem to have constructed a social and economic world whose basic rule of existence is comeuppance. And then we smugly go on our merry ways. And nothing changes.
Except when someone suffers and dies because they didn’t deserve it. That gets our attention and sparks outrage, disbelief and even in some cases inspires wonder and awe: The millions of soldiers who sacrificed their life in war to preserve our freedoms. But what about the millions of children who die regularly because of hunger and poverty? Or, what about the innocent victims of violence and abuse? What about the misfortune that befalls someone, beyond their control?
The morality of the world drives according to this rule of those who deserve it, and those who don’t. And yet, we know it isn’t right: No one deserves any kind of suffering.
Enter Jesus. In the Gospel today (Mark 12:38-44), Mark records the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. From here all that remains in Mark’s telling is the temple discourse and the passion narrative (Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark, Interpretation Series, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983, p.234).
So, this scene about the widow giving her all is an important glimpse into what Jesus is all about. Because Jesus is on the way to giving “the whole of his life”. But for what?
In this scene, the people coming to the temple lined up to give their offerings to support the temple treasury. Which means the money given here would go to the upkeep of the religious institution. Jesus’ critique of the scribes was basically an indictment against any religious enterprise that exists for its own sake.
The days are numbered for religious institutions that exist merely for their own well-being. True a couple thousand years ago. True today. So, it follows that in the next chapter of Mark (13) Jesus promises that he will destroy the temple, because it has not been a house of prayer for all people but has become a den of robbers (Mark 11:17).Therefore, the temple deserves destruction.
And yet, Jesus holds up this widow who gives her whole life to something that is corrupt and condemned. Why is that? Is there value in the giving, even though the object of that giving is corrupt, condemned and undeserving?
As I said, Jesus is on the way to giving “the whole of his life” on the cross dying … for what? For whom? A corrupted church? Broken individuals? A sinful generation?
Why, yes! For us! For all of humanity! For the whole world! For us who are condemned for our sins. For us who are corrupted by our misguided, broken ways. For us who misinterpret Jesus to justify our dog-eat-dog world of just deserts. This flies in the face of all our conditioning.
So, we have to practice: Should we give anything, will we give only to an institution that deserves our offering? Or, will we give because it is as broken and corrupted as we are?
Should we give of ourselves to those in need, will we give only if those whom we are serving have proven themselves worthy, or demonstrated some ‘perfect’ image of our own deepest longings?
What about ‘giving’ to others only because Christ loves us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8)? What about loving and serving others only because Jesus redeemed us imperfect, corrupted people? What about giving because we have something precious in our lives – two, simple, copper coins?
Notice in the story, those coins just ‘are’. As a character in the scene they fly under the radar even though they are a critical symbol to the meaning of the story. In the Gospel the two copper coins represent a basic possession – something all people have. We already have these gifts, not because we have earned them. Not because we deserved them. They are simple and in plain sight of our lives.
We give of ourselves when we value these simple gifts. And still we offer them to that corrupted world – in our precious time, our imperfect talents and our meager treasures.
We give of ourselves freely because Jesus already paved the way and redeemed all of who are – even the most seemingly irrelevant aspects of our lives.
I think we are challenged in giving of our whole selves not so much by the difficulty of the task, because we already have what it takes. What strikes fear into our hearts is the prospect of vulnerability at unmasking all our pretenses in the “enormity of the moment” (Michael Harvey, Unlocking the Growth, Monarch Books, Grand Rapids 2012, p.89). Let me give you an example from my own life some thirty years ago:
Frankly, I didn’t know what to do about the start of another year of youth group, meeting every Tuesday night at the church. I remember feeling a little anxious, socially. My father, the pastor, quietly indicated to me that youth group might be a good idea.
But, as a teenager, I wasn’t in a space to act on his recommendation alone, although I suspect people presumed it would be the most natural ‘line of communication’.
Everything changed for me after the youth group leader came up to me one Sunday after worship, and asked: “Would you like to come to youth group on Tuesday evening? I think you might enjoy it.” It was an awkward moment for both of us — for him because I could tell he was a bit nervous; for me, because I wasn’t honestly sure whether I wanted to go and what I should say in response.
I felt the enormity of that moment like we were both, in our vulnerability, putting our whole selves on the line.
In the end, I went. Maybe because I knew some of the youth that were going — and I thought they were pretty cool, people to whom I was drawn to spend some time.
Let me just say how grateful I am for that youth leader – his quiet courage, his guts, his boldness despite his nervousness. That simple, yet supremely valuable, gift of invitation made a huge difference in my life.
The gift of invitation, given out of love. Not because I earned it by anything I did; I certainly wasn’t the most popular kid on the block. Not because that particular youth group was perfect. Not because the kids who went were saints – anything but!
Thanks be to Jesus, who though the temple is destroyed, builds it up again! Thanks be to Jesus, who gives his whole life for that which in the eyes of the world is undeserving, worthless, corrupt and pointless. Thanks be to Jesus, the God we worship this day, who makes all things new.