The good seats.
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Mark 12:38-40 (NIV)
Jesus warned his followers about the hypocritical teachers of the law. They were selfish and self-important; they cared about their dress and their image; they didn’t care about others and they didn’t care about God. They wore long, fancy robes. They always sat in the best seats. When they walked into the temple, people sprang to their feet, rushing to offer them the best seats. They made gestures, indicating that they were perfectly content to sit in the back; they came to praise God and not to be seen. “No, really, it’s ok,” they would say. But it wasn’t ok. They came to be seen. They knew their mild protest wouldn’t work. They loved the best seats. Everything they did was calculated. They perfected the look of genuine concern; they expertly trained their tone of voice to ooze with compassion. You could actually hear the oozing. They wanted you to hear it, so that it would drown out the sounds of their audible machinations (which, at least in my mind, sound like a cash register). They were pretentious windbags, the kind of people who pray because they love the sound of their own voice, and think that everyone else does too.
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. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” Mark 12:41-44 (NIV)
Immediately after He saw the teachers of the law, Jesus saw the widow, and saw that she was poor. As a widow, she had nothing and no one. All she had was one penny, and another to keep it company, and that’s it. But she gave them both. What she gave was almost nothing. It was between nothing and half of something. Probably closer to nothing. It wasn’t a modest donation, it was shameful. Most people would be ashamed to give close to nothing; pride would keep them from giving at all if all they have to give is nothing. But the widow gave anyway. Nothing was all she had and she gave it, and what she gave made God happy. The widow’s nothing made God more happy than all the money the rich people gave. That is because God looked at it differently. If we look at it differently, if we tilt our head to the side or squint, we see that what the widow gave wasn’t nothing. It was everything.
Last week a girl came in to the hospital because she needed an operation on her hand. She had her hand covered up with a piece of cloth, but brought it out for us to see. It looked like a nerve had been pinched or something, and it was curled up so tight that it couldn’t be used. She had her consultation, and they told her that they could do the surgery, but that she would have to pay for it, since she is an adult. She looked like she was in her early 20’s. They told her the cost. I don’t know what it was, but it was substantial. It was a fair price for a surgery, but for her it might as well have been a million dollars. She didn’t have it.
She asked if we could do the surgery for 20 thousand CFA, around $40. After some negotiating, the hospital agreed. “Bring in 20 thousand,” she was told, “and we will program you for your operation.” She was very happy. She came back a few days later, and brought her money with her. When she went to pay, she didn’t pull out a checkbook or a wallet. She took out a handful of coins and a fistful of bills. Small bills, all one or two thousand. She laid all the money out on the counter and counted it carefully. She counted the way someone counts when they are counting all the money they have in the world. Clearly, she had gone around asking for help from anyone she thought would (or could) help her: friends, family, strangers. Probably all of the above. She brought everything she had, and more. She brought what she didn’t have, what she borrowed, begged or scrounged for. She was happy to pay it, and excited about her upcoming surgery.
Obviously, the money she paid does not cover the whole cost of the operation. It doesn’t even come close. But she gave everything she had. It is like she paid the whole amount. We ask the patients to pay what they can, to participate in their own healing, because it helps them take ownership. Even if it is a tiny amount, it matters. They are actively taking part in the process. God does the same thing with us. God doesn’t need our money, but he wants our hearts. Even if we are rich, what we have to offer God is nothing, unless we are willing to give everything. Same with prayer. God would prefer a one-word prayer that is sincere to a 15-minute onslaught of overwrought theo-jargon. We pray to communicate with God, not to show how awesome we are. We are impressed by things like money, cars, clothes, etc. We are kind of like crows; we like shiny things. But God is different. God is not impressed unless He sees sacrifice and sincerity, and those are things you can’t fake, no matter how fancy your robe is.