When did homeownership become a religious issue in the New Testament? The moment Jesus brought it up. No washed it the blood of the lamb here. No dying for one’s sins. Jesus is talking economics, housing, and the exploitation of the poor. Before we go any further, it’s important to acknowledge, these practices were as real to Jesus as they are to ourselves. This is why we take what Jesus says seriously. We don’t ignore these passages for the overly spiritualized sections that focus on personal salvation and ignore how we interact with the rest of humanity.
It’s also vital to recognize who Jesus is describing, both in his world and our own. Who benefits from the practices he’s condemning, who does what Jesus condemns and who are the impoverished widows (both now and then)? If we read closely, we’ll realize we know exactly whom Jesus is describing. This is one of those passages where Mark’s famous subtlety is exchanged for a 2×4 upside the head. Once you read this, there should be no doubt in your mind, who Jesus is and whose side he’s on, when it comes to the religious establishment, the religious elites, the financial oligarchs who are in bed with the religious power brokers, and the poorest of the poor.
Jesus is in the Temple. He’s teaching. They must have caught his eye. Surely you’ve had something similar happen to you. You’re talking and someone in an outrageous outfit or colorful clothing distracts you from the point you’re trying to make. As a result, you say something new, maybe even slightly tangential. “Watch out for the scribes” or “Watch out for the legal experts”, says Jesus. Is this a onetime thing? What do I mean by that? He’s giving them an imperative command. Does he mean, “You’ve got your driver’s license and now that you’re on the road you’ll have to watch out for this one and only railroad crossing you’ll ever go over.” Or might he mean, “Watch out for this one and realize there will be others for which you’ll have to be equally careful.” It’s the second one. He wants them to be aware on a continual basis. This is important, imperative, and ongoing. Like a dangerous railroad crossing, there are certain things you need to look out for when approaching something so dangerous.
Here, specifically, are the things Jesus says to look out for. Jesus doesn’t want to make sweeping generalizations. These are the people who want to be greeted with honor in public places. They want the best seats in church and at parties. And now, here’s where the homeownership comes into the picture. “They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes and to show off they say long prayers.” What has Jesus just said? Watch out for people who foreclose on the homes of the poor then hide behind the veil of elaborate religiosity. So the high up religious people of the day were also entangled with the banking industry in 1st century Palestine. It should come as no surprise that religious power found its way into the financial services industry. Under the crippling weight of Roman and local taxes, these pious people forced widows and orphans into homelessness. This is the observation Jesus is making. Jesus talked about this a great deal. It bothered him greatly. The Hebrew Bible is full of prescriptions against harming the poor and taking advantage of the most vulnerable people in society. However, the people with the most political power and with the greatest investment in maintaining the religious status quo didn’t seem to care about these core aspects of Jewish teaching. The scribes were into the showy, niche laws, the “what can make me look good” aspects of being a believer. Jesus went from town to town, city to city, pointing out the disparity between what the Hebrew Bible says and what the powers at be thought mattered. When we find him teaching in the temple, he’s making the contrast between his vision of the kingdom and the religious reality that currently exists. His mere presence is a reminder of the stark reality between what God envisions for humanity and what we create for humanity in the name of failed religious idealism.
Jesus is doing three important things in the temple. Jesus is sitting across from the collection box. Jesus is observing the situation. Jesus is calling his disciples to see the contrast between how the poor exist and the rich live. Jesus’ physical presence provides a living, breathing contrast to the dominant reality existing in the Temple. His proximity to the place where the money is collected lets the corrupt know that He knows. His presence puts those in the corrupt system on notice. He makes them aware that he and his disciples are not afraid of their intimidation, tactics, or practices. Jesus knows what they are doing. By being in the temple, even without saying a word, he’s telling them they’re wrong and their practices have a diminishing shelf life. What does this teach us? Our presence, our witness as members of the body of Christ, says so much sometimes, even without saying a word. We provide a contrast to a violent world, a world that takes advantage of those whom everyone else would kick to the curb. Our presence is a witness.
The last step of Jesus’ temple witness in Mark 12 is Jesus’ “calling”. “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I assure you that this poor widow has put more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury.’” Jesus wants to call the contrast into focus. He wants to leave no doubt in the minds of his disciples and those who are listening to him, who ultimately a more faithful witness. There should be no shades of ambiguity, guesswork, or deflection. The more faithful witness isn’t the person who prays long, repetitious, formulaic, but seemingly eloquent prayers. The person right with God probably doesn’t wear the finest clothes or even tell the finest testimony. Nowadays, I believe we’ve turned our testimonies into our “spiritual clothing”. The fancier the testimony the more acclaim you’re given; the further you’ve come from sin, the holier you must be now. I believe this to be one modern equivalent of Jesus’ critique of “long robes”. People who witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ don’t support, engage in, or turn a blind eye to exploitative economic practices. That’s straight from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus never spoke about homosexuality or gay marriage. He did speak about religious people’s complicity in making poor people homeless. You would think we’d focus more on things Jesus actually said.
Find a place to be a witness, stand as a contrast, and call the world into question. That’s about the most Christ-like thing you can do.