The Broken Religious System
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The Broken Religious System
Matthew 23 is a display of Jesus letting out some of his greatest frustration. His frustration is with the religious leaders of the time. The problem was that they were very religious but they were not spiritual. They thought that everything had to be just so in order to please God. As a result, they put a great burden on the people that was not necessary nor were they commands of God. God gave the people a set of commands and a law to follow that he said would not be only good for them to follow but easy for them to follow. However, the religious leaders added some of their own rules to God’s already perfect law therefore making the law impossible and burdensome to follow. Therefore, at this moment Jesus is frustrated and just lets loose on the Pharisees and Sadducees and describes them in perfect detail of all that they have been doing to harm and take advantage of the people but did not hold themselves to the same standard.
Luke 21:1-4 is the tail of the story we all know as the widow’s mite. This story is used a lot in sermons about giving. Most Bible commentators will tell you that this story is all about giving. So therefore, it would be safe to assume that when a preacher chooses Luke 21:1-4 as their sermon scripture then they are going to giving a sermon message about giving. Up until about a month ago I also believed that this passage was all about giving. However, I am led to believe now that the lesson and message behind this passage has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of giving.
Let’s review what the scripture says, “As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” There are several different thoughts about this passage that commentators will share. First many will say that it is not about the amount that you give so much as it is about how much it costs you. Some will then say that God wants us to give up all that we have and just trust in him as this poor widow has done. Others will say that it is about the percentage that you have left over after you give that is important to God. Some will even say that the lesson is that this woman had more faith than the others who were rich because she gave all that she had. The problem with all of these interpretations is that Jesus does not appear to say any of these things. All that he says is that this woman gave more than the rest and that is the end of his comments. He never says, that this woman was better than the rest, he doesn’t say that she had more faith than the rest. He doesn’t even say that he is pleased with what she has done. In fact, it is more likely that Jesus is actually angry about what he is observing. It stands to reason that he is actually upset that this poor widow is putting he last two coins into the treasury.
You may ask how one could say such a thing. For years we have been taught and led to believe that this widow was the hero of this story. The only problem is that Jesus never says that she is a hero. Jesus never says she is good or bad. Jesus never says that the rich people were good or bad. Jesus only says that the rich gave out of their wealth while the poor widow gave out of her poverty. The disciples understand exactly what Jesus is talking about and they do not have to ask any questions about what Jesus means or about what the lesson is. They already know and understand the lesson. However, for us to understand what the lesson really is here we have to go back to the last few verses in Luke chapter 20 starting in verse 45. While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. The devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayer. These men will be punished most severely.” Jesus points out that they devour widow’s houses. At this time period if you were a widow then you had nothing. You had no way to make a living for yourself and if you have no children or know sons to care for you then you would be poor and destitute. This was certainly the case for this poor widow in our story. She has just now made herself completely destitute and will probably go home, if she even has a home, to die. All of this thanks to the teachers of the law.
At this time, the religious elite led the people to believe that in order to receive blessings from God or to have entrance into his kingdom they had to put money in the temple treasury. By requiring this the people who suffered the most were the poor and especially the widows. They would often give all that they could in the hopes of receiving some kind of blessing from God to bring them out of their poverty when in all reality they were just making themselves poorer. This appears to be exactly what Jesus is observing at this moment and he is calling out this broken religious system that is taking advantage of the poor and destitute. This would not be happening if they were really following the commands of the law of God given to them by Moses. Deuteronomy 15:1-11, commands that all debts for fellow Israelites to be cancelled every 7 years. God says that there should be no need to give out any loans to a fellow Israelite as the land will be richly blessed. In Verse 7 God says, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need… There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” This poverty was not supposed to be happening for those who had abundance were commanded to help those who were in need. But instead, the poor was being neglected and taken advantage of.
The way they were giving into the treasury was also wrong. During Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus says in chapter 6, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” The reason they set up these public treasury boxes was in order to collect more out of people. You could publicly see who was and was not giving and who was giving more than the others as is clearly seen from our passage from Luke today. No one wanted to be embarrassed for not being the one to give or not being able to give enough. Plus, they were led to believe that this public giving was the only way for them to receive blessing, forgiveness of sins, and entrance into the Kingdom of God. However, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus preached about giving. The most common poor folk to give what they had was widows hoping to receive financial blessing in return or a way out of their poverty.
This practice of public giving and exploiting the poor has evolved and continues even today. We saw it in the Catholic church through the selling of indulgences. They led the people to believe that if they just paid for this piece of paper then they would be granted forgiveness of their sins and entrance to the Kingdom of God. The poor were exploited the most during this time and as a result the protestant reformation began as Martin Luther decided to expose this hypocrisy and this false doctrine in the church. Today this has evolved into what we call today as the prosperity gospel which states that by giving a certain amount to the church then you are planting a seed of faith that will multiply itself back to you. Among those who are giving the most to these organizations is single women seeking that God give them a husband or a better career to have a better life for themselves. I heard a story about a man who stole $400,000 from a hotel that he worked for. They had finally tracked him down and found him in a dump of a motel and when asked what he did with the money he said that he gave it all to a television preacher in the hopes that he would receive a multiplied blessing back from the Lord.
I don’t think that God wants you to give all of your money away so that you will have nothing to live on. That is not the message of the story today. It would be irresponsible to do something like that. Does that mean that I am telling you that you do not have to pay your tithes? No, it does not for Jesus does tell us to give but also instructs us how we are to give. However, I am not asking you to give your last cent to the church for the Lord’s work. And I am not promising you great blessing or that you will receive your money back multiplied unto you. I am asking you to be responsible with your money and to give as you feel led to give. Jesus was pointing out an example of the broken religious system that he just yelled at the teachers of the law about. Unfortunately for so many years we seem to have missed the message of the injustice that Jesus was trying to expose and instead have used this passage to continue on with a broken religious system. My hope and prayer today is that we can stop and repair this broken system and begin to give as God intended and care for those in need as God intended. Are you willing to fix this broken religious system?