One thing I’ll often hear as a minister is that religion is bad. It’s a negative thing. The cause of countless wars, intolerance, bigotry and close-mindedness. Maybe you’ve heard the same thing. Maybe you think the same thing, too.
When ever I hear it, though, I’m reminded of a very simple thing the great African-American scholar James Cone once said. “You see,” he said. “You see… there’s good religion. And there’s bad religion.” Some religion leads to bad stuff. Some religion leads to good stuff. Like anything else human beings engage in—politics, sex, economics—religion can lead to flourishing and make people better. Or it can lead to destruction, and make people worse.
And James Cone isn’t the only one who draws this distinction. In today’s scripture passage, Jesus himself draws some pretty clear lines. He gives us two examples. He does it by showing what bad religion looks like in practice. And what good religion looks like in practice. What kind of people they produce.
The first example begins with a warning. “Beware,” Jesus tells a crowd. “Beware of the scribes.” Beware the scribes. In the New Testament scribes are unique for a couple reasons. First, they can read and write, and that’s what they do for a living. And second, they’re interpreters of Jewish law. Their lives are dedicated to preserving and sharing the wisdom of their faith tradition. In the New Testament, they’re usually—though not always—pictured as the bad guys.
But the issue isn’t just that they’re Jesus’ adversaries. Jesus warns the crowd against them because of their behavior. Their appearances are deceiving.
“Beware the scribes,” he says. “Beware the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. The ones who love to have the best seats in the synagogue, and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” They like the finest well-tailored clothes. They love it when somebody notices them at the store and flatters them about their line of work. They’ve got their own reserved pew with their name on it, and they make sure to always get a complimentary ticket to the gala dinner. They use their position of authority to manipulate seniors out of their pensions. And to top it all off when they pray, they make sure to pray extra-long and poetically so people will be sure to note their high-ranking holiness. Jesus warns against the scribes because their spirituality is all about appearances. For them, faith is all about about gaining comforts. Leveraging privilege and gaining advantage, all the while maintaining an image of saintliness. Jesus sees right through the surface. And straight to the heart of things.
This kind of religion bothers Jesus so much that he actually says that one day at the end of time, when everybody stands before God. Practitioners of this kind of religion are going to be exposed for who they are. They’ll be judged. And they’ll receive what Jesus calls “the greater condemnation.”
Hypocrisy. Self-interest. Judgmentalism. These scribes are Jesus’ definition of bad religion. A tool of self-interest. An instrument for power, material comfort, and financial gain. One that masks spiritual shallowness. And hypocrisy. And one that ultimately leads us to spiritual destruction. Bad religion bears in its followers bad spiritual fruit.
Bad religion bears bad spiritual fruit. This is probably obvious to us.
In the next scene we have Jesus hunkering down across from the temple treasury. The temple, of course, is the beating heart of the religious life for Jesus’ people. This is the place where prayers are offered, sacrifices made, and where pilgrims gather during the high holy seasons. It’s where money is collected, and distributed for the priests. And for the poor. It says that Jesus is sitting opposite of the treasury. And there’s a gaggle of wealthy people gathered. You can imagine designer clothes. Slaves and servants following closely by. And these wealthy people are just tossing stacks of bills into the treasury, one after another.
But one person comes by unnoticed. Unnoticed by everyone but Jesus. “A poor widow,” it says. “A poor widow came and tossed in two tiny little coins. Ones that only really add up to a penny.” And Jesus points her out to his disciples: “Truly, I tell you,” 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 contributed out of their abundance. But she, out of poverty has put everything she had. All she had to live on.”
In the midst of all this wealth being thrown around, the one person who catches Jesus’ eye is this poor widow whose offering probably barely registers on the temple spreadsheet. Not even enough for a tax receipt! But Jesus doesn’t quantify in dollar amounts. Not even in percentage of income. But he counts the cost to the person. The wealthy may have put in plenty of money. But for them, it’s no biggie. For the widow, it’s a sacrifice. In fact, Jesus says, she’s actually giving more than all of them combined. And it’s not even just about money. In the original Greek, it’s not just all of her money she gives. She gives it her all. The coins are real coins but they’re also symbols. She gives it everything she’s got.
She gives her whole self. She doesn’t hold anything back. Earlier in Mark’s gospel Jesus says this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It’s that paradox at the heart of Christian faith. Eternal life, fullness of life, true joy can only be found by giving our lives away for God’s good purposes. Jesus says this widow’s the prime example of discipleship in action. She trusts God so deeply she can give everything she has away without fear for the future. She gives like God gives. And in doing so, she actually points ahead to Jesus’ own self- sacrifice and self-giving on the cross.
Like James Cone said. There’s good religion. And there’s bad religion. Bad religion is scribal religion. It leads to selfishness, shallowness, and egotistical self-centredness. It leads leads to self-destruction and abuse of neighbor. But good religion is widow religion. It’s creates deep generosity, humility, and self-sacrifice. And it leads to fullness of life. True joy. It’s all in.
Truth be told, for us, bad religion is more or less easy to avoid. I think we certainly carry our own selfishness, self-serving and the like. In fact, many of us find ourselves in this church because we’ve been burned by self-serving bad religion. And we try to be honest about our own limitations.
Good religion, on the other hand. That’s actually hard. Our inclination is to compare ourselves to other people, especially the worst examples. We set the bar only as high as “at least I’m not as bad as the scribes.” But according to Jesus, good religion isn’t just avoiding the bad. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, Christianity is less about cautiously avoiding sin than it is actively and courageously doing God’s will. This is the widow. She’s got nothing and gives her all. And really this is the hard part for us. Because we live in North America and we’ve got everything we could possibly need. It’s easier for us to avoid the bad than it is to do the good.
But that falls short of what God wants for us, and what we’re capable of. Because for Jesus, the question isn’t just about keeping clear of bad religion. It’s about becoming more like him. It’s about learning, like the widow, to give everything we’ve got. Not just money, but our whole selves. Every moment of every day, every interaction. Our jobs, our friendships. Our time, our talent, our treasure. Like the widow… all in. All in the self-giving service of our neighbors and even our enemies, in the service of the Love beyond all other Loves. For Jesus, the question is, in the words of the old African-American spiritual—have you got good religion? Because good religion won’t just keep you out of trouble. It’ll change you for good. By the grace of God.
So, have you got good religion? If you don’t, no need to despair. It’s hard, like Jesus says, it’s the way of the cross. But good religion is less like checking off a checklist of good deeds than is a re-orientation. It’s more like starting off in the right direction. It’s not instant, it’s a long journey. All the widow had to give was a few coins. So start with what you have. Lent is the perfect time. If you’ve got money, if you’ve got time, if you’ve got a skill that other people need. If you’re giving of yourself out of your abundance. Start with a small sacrifice. Put aside a week of that Starbucks money to make a difference in someone else’s life instead. Log off Facebook, and spend an afternoon or evening of that free time face-to-face with somebody who is lonely or down and out. If you’ve got a skill, or a talent that helps you make a living. Put it to the service of Christ. Because getting good religion, a life’s journey with Jesus, it starts with a single step. In the right direction.
There’s good religion. And there’s bad religion. Bad religion leads to selfish-ness, it leads to arrogance, hypocrisy, and squeezing our neighbors for all they’ve got. But good religion… good religion transforms us. It’s about giving everything we’ve got back in gratitude to the God who gives everything away so we can live. It’s hard, yes. But it’s the way of Jesus Christ, and it’s Christ who carries us on the way. And it’s the only way we’ll experience fullness of life, joy eternal.
May we, may you, learn to trust so deeply in the Giver of Good Gifts that you’re able to give everything you’ve got in the service of Christ and His kingdom. Beginning with what you’ve already got.