Sunday’s sermon: Keeping Up Appearances

widow pennies

Texts used – Mark 12:38-44; Acts 20:32-35

  • I want to let you all in on a little secret this morning. Some of the best shows that can be found on television … come from Great Britain.
    • Doesn’t really matter what type of show you’re into – those coming from the BBC are generally among the best
      • Historical drama – e.g.s: Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife
      • Awkward humor – e.g.s.: The IT Crowd and The Office (actually originated with British television before the American version became wildly popular)
      • Classy reality TV (yes … I just said “classy reality TV”) – e.g.: The Great British Baking Show
    • One particular show – sitcom: Keeping Up Appearances
      • Initially aired in the early to mid-1990s
      • Follows the life of Hyacinth Bucket (which she insists on pronouncing “bouquet”) and her beleaguered and often-exasperated husband, Richard
      • Hyacinth’s greatest goal in life is to climb the social ladder → episodes packed full of all the ridiculous lengths Hyacinth will go to in terms of her garden, her home, her looks, her vacations, her hostessing/entertaining, her car, and even her breakfast cereal to keep up the appearances in the eyes of her neighbors, her sisters, and – most importantly of all – herself
        • E.g. – exchange between she and Richard over breakfast one morning[1]: Richard is looking for regular cornflakes but Hyacinth presents new “exclusive European high fiber breakfast cereal” – it’s merits: it was “highly recommended” by the Dutch Royal Family and (even better) it has a royal-looking crest on the packaging à All Richard wants his is regular cereal, but in her attempts to appear more affluent, more “high society,” and more important than she really is, Hyacinth insists that even their breakfast must be grander. Breakfast cereal, y’all … Breakfast. Cereal.
  • Gospel reading this morning tells a similar tale of characters around Jesus trying showcase their wealth and status
    • Text: Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[2] → Before we go any further than that, let’s talk about the layout of the temple a little bit so we can get a better picture as to what this scene might have looked like.[3]
      • Temple was elevated → approach up some grand steps that ran all the way around the perimeter of the structure
      • Many different gates to enter the temple structure itself – one of the most common = East Gate which led into giant courtyard (roughly the size of 2 football fields) surrounded by columns → “Women’s Courtyard” because this was as far as women were allowed to go in the temple structure
        • “Women’s Courtyard” = where Jesus did much of his teaching because more people were allowed to be there
      • From the Women’s Courtyard, you go through another huge, elaborate gate into the inner temple which included things like the altar, the places for sacrifice, and the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant
      • Temple treasury and vessels for money collection were located in the Women’s Courtyard : 13 giant, trumpet-shaped receptacles that ringed the courtyard → gave people plenty of opportunity to toss their money in in plain view of everyone else milling about in the courtyard
    • And this is exactly where we find Jesus and the disciples in our Scripture reading. Jesus has been teaching in the courtyard of the temple for quite a while.
      • Scope of the gospel – today’s text comes after Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey (“Palm Sunday reading”) in that intermittent time between entering the city and Jesus being arrested → Jesus did a lot of teaching in the temple during that last week of his life, and today’s passage is part of that teaching.
      • So Jesus and the disciples are hanging out in the Women’s Courtyard of the temple teaching and preaching and basically people watching when Jesus comes out with this warning – text: As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged harshly.”[4] → Jesus is basically talking about the Pharisees here. That’s who the “legal experts” are.
        • Interesting because this passage comes on the heels of what we read last week – exchange between Jesus and one of the scribes in which Jesus and the scribe agree that the greatest commandment is to love God with your whole heart, would, mind, and strength and also to love your neighbor as yourself → Last week, we talked about how, even though most of Jesus’ encounters with the scribes and Pharisees were antagonistic encounters, this one was actually cordial and agreeable. The scribe recognizes that Jesus’ answer is correct, and Jesus affirms the scribe by saying, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”[5] But then, after the scribe turns around and leaves, Jesus gives his disciples this warning – a warning that, when you get down to the heart of it – is about authenticity and righteousness and motivation.
          • Why do the legal experts parade around in long robes and say their long prayers? To be known, to be acknowledged, to be recognized → They desire greetings of honor and places of honor in the synagogues. They are supposed to be leaders of faith – helping people to understand God through the observance and practice of the laws, and yet Jesus says their desires fall more on the side of worldly recognition. It’s an ostentatious sort of way of going about their days that reeks of exaggeration, self-aggrandizement, and self-righteousness. They are living their faith not for the sake of faith itself but for the benefits it will bring them.
            • Not so different from Hyacinth who attempts to live the life she wishes she had, not because it’s practical or because it’s a true reflection of her life, but because it “looks good”
    • Contrast = the widow with her coins
      • NOT grand
      • NOT self-righteous
      • NOT seeking any recognition for her contribution → contribution that is the very definition of meager in comparison to the amounts being tossed in by all the other, wealthier people around her – just 2 small, copper coins totaling a single penny together
      • Scholar: [The widow’s] actions and her commitment to pursuing them reveal something basic about her: that she is in need. … Whatever else is driving the widow, it is not hypocrisy.[6] → This cuts to the heart of the matter. Very often, this Scripture reading is preached in terms of holding up the widow giving out of her lack as opposed to the rich people giving out of their abundance. How many times have you heard this preached as a stewardship sermon? “You can give even out of nothing. Be like the widow!” But in truth, Jesus has no words of judgment for the wealthy people who are contributing as well. Jesus doesn’t disparage them for their offerings. He simple holds the widow up – not because of the size of her contribution but because she gives and lives authentically.
        • Text: Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”[7] → “She from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” It doesn’t get much realer than that, does it?
          • Interesting note: I mentioned that this encounter is part of the week leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, and that knowledge plays into this interaction, too. The widow gave all she had, even what she needed to live on. And Jesus himself will give all he has, even his life, to demonstrate God’s utmost love and grace for all people. – scholar: in anticipation of his act of self-sacrifice, [Jesus] teaches his disciples not to limit their commitment by keeping the law’s demands, but to give their whole being to God.[8]
  • Other NT reading this morning from Acts gets at this idea of giving and living wholeheartedly and authentically as well
    • Context
      • “I” in this passage = Paul speaking → speech as he’s getting ready to leave the city of Ephesus after establishing the Ephesian church
      • Part of a larger warning against those who will come in after Paul has gone and attempt to distort the teachings of the church → So this is Paul’s way of reminding them, “This is who I am. This is how I’ve conducted myself while I was among you. This is how I have lived my life and my faith together as one.” – text: I haven’t craved anyone’s silver, gold or clothing. You yourselves know that I have provided for my own needs and for those of my companions with my own hands. In everything I have shown you that, by working hard, we must help the weak. In this way, we remember the Lord Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[9]
        • No ostentatiousness or self-righteousness like the legal experts
        • No disingenuousness or hypocrisy
        • Just a man living and working and doing what he could for the gospel – giving of himself and his time not because of how it would benefit him but because of how it would benefit God’s Kingdom – text: In this way we remember the Lord Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”[10]
  • Friends, the whole notion of keeping up appearances doesn’t matter. It makes for a great sitcom basis, but in the real world, that’s not what counts! No matter what society tries to tell you.
    • Poignant ill. of this – phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”
      • Disputed origins[11]
        • Story 1: came from a comic strip of the same name by American cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in the early 20th
        • Story 2: inspired by ridiculously opulent mansion called Wyndcliffe Castle built for Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones as her summer home in Rhinebeck, NY in 1853
          • 24 rooms
          • Gothic style
          • Entirely brick exterior
          • Originally sat on 80 acres of wooded property overlooking the Hudson River
          • Inspired other well-to-do New Yorkers to build even bigger, fancier homes so they could “keep up with the Joneses”
          • But today? Today, that beautiful, massive, extravagant American castle is abandoned and crumbling. It’s been abandoned for almost 70 years. What was quite literally a monument to wealth and status and privilege is now deteriorating – completely beyond rescue and repair. Because in the end, it’s not about the flashiness of life. It’s not about the flourishes and the flaunting. It’s about faith. Pure and simple. It’s about how we live our faith. Are we more like the legal experts? In it for the look and the return – what it might bring back to me? Or are we wholehearted and authentic like the widow with her coins? Committed and purposeful and all-in? Amen.

[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0619133/quotes.

[2] Mk 12:41-42.

[3] https://www.thinglink.com/scene/641642807773102081 and https://www.ritmeyer.com/2015/05/15/the-treasury-of-the-temple-in-jerusalem/.

[4] Mk 12:38-40.

[5] Mk 12:34 (NRSV).

[6] Mark Douglas. “Mark 12:41-44 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 396.

[7] Mk 12:43-44.

[8] James W. Thompson. “Mark 12:41-44 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 397.

[9] Acts 20:33-35.

[10] Acts 20:35b.

[11] https://www.sloww.co/keeping-up-with-the-joneses/ and https://www.littlethings.com/keeping-up-with-wyndclyffe.