And Jesus said unto them, “People-watch with me.”  | 8 November 2015

Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-13:2

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy people-watching.  People are interesting.  People are different.  People-watching is a way appreciating humanity from afar, from the safety of one’s own corner seat, or perch, or however you like to position yourself to people-watch.

Tomorrow I’ll be flying from Columbus to Newark to Tel Aviv, meaning I’ll be passing through one of the prime locations for people watching: airports.  People watching and day dreaming are closely related cousins as we see people greeting each other, people walking briskly from one place to another, wearing whatever kind of expression on their face, and our mind can’t help but wonder where it is they are coming from and where they are going.  What are they in such a hurry to get to?  Who are they anxious to see?

If you want to take it to another level, what’s really interesting is watching people watch people – it’s like a dream within a dream.    Your eyes can shift back and forth between the watcher and who they are watching, and you try and notice what is it is they are noticing.  This works as long as someone doesn’t have the same idea and start watching you watch them.

About a month ago Radio Lab had a rather fascinating episode about how reality TV has changed not only how we view TV but also how we view reality itself.  People act differently when they know they’re being watched, or even if they imagine themselves being watched.  Add in ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and the fact that just about everyone has a quality video recorder in their pocket, ready to be put to use at any time, and people watching isn’t what it used to be.

I also wonder if people watching in its pure form might be in decline, as spare minutes are filled by looking down at one’s phone rather than looking out and around.

We are back to the lectionary today and in our gospel passage, we catch Jesus doing some people watching of his own.  He is in the temple in Jerusalem, and that day had been engaged in lively exchanges with the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees over key topics of the day like: should we or should we not pay taxes to Caesar; how does something like resurrection actually work given its seeming contradictions; which commandment is the first of all?  And by what authority is he doing and saying all these things.

In his own way Jesus had addressed all these, and, as Mark tells us, “he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”  This is the week of the Passover celebration and people from all over the ancient world would have been pouring into Jerusalem all week, so there is a whole multi-cultural influx of people to see.  After the intense confrontations of the day, Jesus finds a seat and unwinds through some old school people watching.  And now we are watching Jesus watch people.

So what does he see?

Out of all the things to notice, Jesus notices economic status.  First observation: “Many rich people put in large sums.”  Next observation: “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”  These two observations are enough for Jesus to call his disciples and give some commentary on the situation.  He says, “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.”

Widows were not only bereaved from having lost a partner, but were also economically vulnerable.  They are a part of the trio of vulnerable persons mentioned throughout the Torah – the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, or migrant.  In a patriarchal culture where men held the land and the means of income, those without husbands, or fathers, or citizenship needed special protections for their social security, which the Torah provided.

Stories like the prophet Elijah’s visit to the widow of Zarepheth during the time of a drought, show just how marginal and vulnerable widows were.  When Elijah meets her at the entrance of the town, she is collecting sticks for a fire to bake bread with the small amount of flour and oil she has left in the house.  In her mind, this is the last supper for her and her son, after which they will die from starvation.  Elijah’s promise that her hospitality to him will mean that her “jar of flour will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth,” is a miraculous act of God which embodies the kind of justice the Torah commanded as a normal way of life.  Everyone has what they need.

We know very little about the widow Jesus sees in the temple, except that her jar of flour has run out.  In Jesus’ own words, she has given the temple treasury all she has to live on  She has nothing left.  Her gift of two pennies is an accurate translation in that the copper coin she gives was the smallest coin in circulation at the time, called the quadrans.  But it wasn’t quite as worthless as a US penny is these days.  The quadrans was worth 1/64 of a day’s wage, and she gives two of them.  If you want to do the math, and figure that $100 is a decent day’s wage, take 2/64ths of that, or 1/32, and you get $3 and change.  Quite a bit more than a couple pennies, but not much if that’s all you have to your name.  Which is a moot point anyway if you give it all away.

There’s something beautiful and very Christ-like about someone giving away all they have, and this is what most interpretations of this passage have focused on.  Jesus had previously encountered a rich young man who wanted to follow him, and Jesus had told him that he must first sell all he has and give to the poor, then he can come follow him.  This man had gone away grieving, as Mark says, the demands of discipleship too high.  But this woman actually does give away everything she has.

A 2014 report in Forbes magazine noted that Americans earning over $200,000 have decreased their charitable giving by 5% since the Great Recession (2006-2012).  Those who earn less than $100,000 have given away 5% more.  Those who earn under $25,000 increased their giving by almost 17%. (See another essay regarding giving habits of the super rich HERE.) 

Ruben Herrera is the director of the small non-profit Central Ohio Workers Center and advocates for immigrants’ rights in the work place.  Ruben offers his services without charge but he says that a common phrase from people is “cuanto te debo?”  “How much do I owe you?”  He has come to see this as a gracious expression of those who have very little, but are still willing to offer what they have for a service they value.

Like this widow in the temple, there is a beauty in the open-handed generosity of these economically vulnerable persons.

But what if there’s more going on here than Jesus praising the generosity and piety of a poor person?  What if, for Jesus, people-watching included not only seeing what was going on right in front of him, but also asking questions about why these things were going on as they were.

A poor widow just gave the last of her money to a religious institution charged with protecting her.  So why is this woman so poor?  Maybe Jesus is actually lamenting the situation, maybe he’s upset, maybe he’s fuming mad about what’s going on in front of him.  He certainly wasn’t particularly sentimental  two days before when he had marched onto the temple grounds, overturned some tables, and called the whole set up a den of robbers.

We included today’s reading in the bulletin and I wanted to make sure to include the headings from the NRSV as an example of how these headings can sometimes do us a disservice.  The first heading is “Jesus denounces the scribes,” followed by the section we’ve focused on so far, “The widow’s offering,” followed by “the destruction of the temple foretold,” which has the added division of being a brand new chapter.  None of these headings or chapters and verses are original to the text and there’s a continuity going on here in the narrative that these divisions can hide.

In the section just before the one we’ve been focusing on, Jesus essentially answers his own question of why the widow is poor.  Among his other criticisms of the scribes, he accuses them of “devouring widows houses.”  It’s a vague enough statement that scholars can’t be certain what he’s referring to.  One scholar has suggested the scribes were put in charge of widow’s estates after their husbands had died, and that they paid themselves outlandish fees from the estates for their services, eventually bankrupting the widows.  Others have focused more on the temple system and the financial obligations it had come to expect from the faithful.  In this case this woman was caught in a lose-lose situation.  If she fulfills her religious duties, she goes broke.  If she keeps enough to live on, she is somehow failing God and her people.

In an unrelated conversation, Ryan Schellenberg recently passed along a rabbinic teaching from the Talmud that would have been a creative way of addressing this very problem.  The Talmud was compiled in the centuries after the temple had been destroyed and contains legal interpretations on how faithful Jews can fulfill the Torah in specific situations.  In a section having to do with agricultural practices and protections for the poor, there’s a teaching that says this:

“If two poor people leased a field for sharecropping, this one gives to the other his due of the poor man’s tithe, while this one gives the other his due of the poor man’s tithe. (m. Pe’ah 5.5, text and commentary of this part of the Talmud HERE)

In other words, we recognize that if you’re poor, it’s hard to tithe, but there’s also value in practicing generosity and fulfilling one’s religious obligations.  So, hey, let’s make a rule that poor people can give their tithes to each other.  This is creative lawyering at its best.

Ryan was tithing his knowledge and I just get to redistribute it.

There’s one more insight in this passage about what’s going on in the mind of Jesus the people-watcher.  As Jesus and the disciples come out of the temple, his disciples reveal something about what they had been focused on: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  The temple was indeed a remarkable structure.  But Jesus has his mind elsewhere.  “Do you see these great buildings?” he says.  “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jesus was probably not the easiest guy to hang out with.  Come on Jesus, the temple is amazing.  It looks like 50 years to remodel.  Come on Jesus, the woman put in like three bucks.  That’s nothing.  We who call ourselves Jesus’ disciples have a thing or two to learn from him about people-watching.  Where others saw awe-inspiring architectural beauty, Jesus saw the backs of the poor that these structures had been built on, gazing deep enough to see that the system already contained the seeds of its own destruction.  Where others saw the shame of poverty, or the worthlessness of a small offering, Jesus saw the beauty and wonder of another human being, gazing deep enough to recognize the immeasurable wealth that this person has to offer the world.

The invitation to people-watch in the manner of Jesus feels like the perfect opportunity for everyday discipleship.  Because we do this all the time.  So whether you are headed to another country, headed to work, or headed out for a walk, Jesus invites us to people-watch with him.  To look with the soft eyes of compassion, the stern eyes of justice, and above all, to look with the fierce eyes of love, and to imagine that we also are being watched with the loving gaze of Christ.