Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Jesus Confronts Religious Leaders Who Take Advantage

The story of the widow's 2 mites is one of the saddest stories in Scripture. But the problem started centuries before. For all the great things he did, Nehemiah made one big mistake that grew and worsened over time. He forgot the widows. While he served as governor over Judah, he re-established the tithe to provide food for the priests during their times of service and for the upkeep of the temple. Tithing was good, but it was never for the upkeep of the temple, which was meant to be provided through freewill offerings. True, the tithe was to provide food for priests during their annual weeks of service in Jerusalem, but it was mainly to provide food for widows, fatherless children and foreigners living among them. In an effort to correct what he had perceived as a sin, Ezra the priest caused many men to commit an even worse sin by divorcing their foreign wives and orphaning their children. Both men turned their backs on groups of foreigners who had chosen to live among them and worship the one true God. They made no mention of providing for widows, orphans or sojourners and even ruined the lives of some of these people. They missed the whole point of tithing.

Over the centuries, the priesthood became corrupted, especially those living in Jerusalem. Many religious leaders of Jesus' day lived lavish lifestyles, clothed with expensive garments, eating scrumptious feasts and being treated like high society celebrities. Herod had monetized religion and created a system of earning great profit from the temple. In addition to collecting tithes and inflating the price of sacrifices, people were required to pay temple taxes. Most of us are familiar with Jesus driving all those conducting commerce out of the temple and turning the tables on the whole system. On another occasion he openly called out the religious leaders for their corruption, showing who they were hurting:

While all the people were listening, he said to his disciples, Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, who love respectful greetings in the market places, the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widow's houses and say long prayers just for show.  These will receive harsher judgement. He looked up and saw the rich dropping their offerings into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow dropping in two tiny coins (mites). Truly I tell you, he said: This poor widow has put in more than all of them. For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on. As some were talking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said: These things that you see--the day will come when not one stone will be left on another that will not be thrown down. (Luke 20:45-21:6)

The Title was created FOR widows, not FROM widows. It was established for the purpose of providing food for widows, but this woman's money was being used to make the temple more extravagant and to fund lifestyles of the rich and famous religious leaders. Her actions were honorable and full of faith. But these men were taking money from the very people they were supposed to be using their resources to minister to and provide for. James 1:27 tells us:

Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The words look after, or visit in some translations, means to look out for. It means to seek out people in need of help, to keep a watchful eye to notice people in need. We shouldn't just sit back and wait for them to come to us asking for help. We should go to them. We should always be on the lookout for anyone who is struggling so that we can offer assistance. This verse calls for an eagerness to help and serve. 

Jesus' disciples learned from the lesson He taught in the temple that day. In Acts 6, we learn that the very first ministers ever appointed included Stephen and six others, faithful men whose purpose and function was to make sure that the widows were served fairly and faithfully in the daily distributions of food. These men were called Diakonos, the word we get our word deacon or minister from, which describes the service of waiting tables. In our day of super-wealthy celebrity Christian figures, we need to be cautious and Biblical in who we choose to follow. 1 Corinthians 9:14 tells us that The Lord has prescribed that those who preach the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel. It is proper to support our Pastors and take very good care of them. But Jesus said that those who take advantage will be harshly judged. Real leaders serve others, not themselves.

So, How Can We Help?
I am grateful for faithful churches that serve their communities through food banks, counseling, pregnancy programs, clothing closets and support. We can all help through our giving and support of these programs. But free babysitting and fixing problems around the house for a widow or single mother can be just as important. I know many wonderful Christian people who have adopted--that is true and undefiled religion right there. Jesus led into this teaching by talking about loving our neighbor as ourselves. One way we show our love of God is by showing how we love others with our time, talents, money and through meaningful, supportive, caring relationships. 

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