Thursday, 5 November 2015

Illusions of scribes & widows

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight O Lord
our strength and or redeemer.

I wonder what it is that you have already decided about the story we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning.  Jesus is at the temple and he criticizes the behaviour of the scribes then goes on to observe people putting money in the treasury, highlighting the actions of a poor widow.

Most of us have a gut reaction to a story, an initial response.  It has been my experience as a person who has chaired many meetings to notice how rarely a person will shift from their initial position.  So the question is for me as a preacher and for you as listeners and any of us move beyond our initial reactions and even if we can will we make a rationale decision.

In his book “Predictably Irrational” the behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely explores the illusionary nature of our decision making.  He begins by explaining how our minds deal with optical illusions like this one with the two tables.

The table on the left appears to be much longer in its length than the width of the table on the right but when we actual measure the distance what we find is that our eyes are deceiving us.  And, even when we know this, our minds still tell us something different.

Ariely’s point is that if our minds are doing this when we use something as functional as our sight what occurs when we are dealing with more complex issues and ideas.  How are our minds creating illusions for us?

The question for us then as we deal with stories from the Bible is what illusions are we creating and what assumptions are we making that might be keeping the truth from us.

As a preacher it is my hope and prayer that in the course of my speaking about the illusions and metaphors that I have understood and that in your listening and interpreting what I say through your own illusions and assumptions the Holy Spirit might be at work acting to reveal the truth that lies beyond our illusions.

With all this in mind and given that it is exam time at the Universities I thought we might get into the spirit of things by having a little multiple choice quiz this morning to both expose some of our illusions and hopefully open the door to other possibilities that might transform us.

I have formulated 4 sets of questions for your consideration as you reflect on the story of Jesus at the temple and what that mean for you and me.

The first is this. 

In this passage Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us) that:
  1. People with religious authority tend to be corrupt and exploit others
  2. People who wear robes or other signs of their office are not to be trusted
  3. People who wish to be greeted with respect in the marketplace are egotistical
  4. People who say long prayers are insincere show offs 
  5.  All of the above
  6. None of the above
If we go back to where I started I wonder which of these you feel an affinity.  In my time as a minister I have attitudes from people within the church that reflect each of these options.  I wonder where you sit!  What is your answer?

The second question relates to Jesus observation as he sat opposite the treasury.

In this passage Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us) that:
  1. People should give as generously as the poor widow to the temple/church
  2.  People who are poor should not be exploited by organised religion
  3. People who are poor are better than people who are rich
  4. People who are poor should be cared for by the temple/church
  5.  All of the above
  6. None of the above
In the 20 years since I began preaching I can tell you that I have preached more than one of these options. And I have a pretty strong opinion about which of these you should choose.  Which way are you leaning?  Is there an option that is not there that you might prefer?

The third and fourth question drive us a little deep because number 3 drives us to think about what this means to us, it is the “what’s in it for me?” kind of question.  Number four is about the bigger picture: what is the good news really about.

So, question three: What is this story asking of me?
  1.  I should give more money to the church
  2. I should give less money to the church
  3. I should not say long prayers or wear long robes or symbols of authority
  4. I should not trust people in authority
  5. I should not try to gain fame so people respect me
  6. I should try to see situations differently like Jesus does
  7.  others...
The list is not meant to be exhaustive but once again highlights what scholars and everyday Christians might take away from the passage.  I wonder what it is that you began with as your idea, is there a new possibility nudging in your mind.

And so to the last of the multiple choice questions, a key question.  When we look at this story in the context of the whole story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection what is the good news?
  1. Jesus loved the scribes and forgave them
  2. Jesus loved the poor widow and released her from her burdens
  3. Jesus loves us whether we are like the scribe, the widow, or even his closest followers, the disciples
  4. Jesus wants to help us to see the truth of people’s lives and to respond with generosity
  5. all of the above
To go back to where I began with Dan Ariely and his Behavioural Economics, his research shows us that we are inclined to make irrational decisions often choosing the easiest or more convenient option, even if it is irrational.

Yet, as we gather in the power of the Holy Spirit it is my prayer that our eyes might be open and our ears hear afresh this story to move beyond our illusions and biases and to be transformed by a life changing message of hope.

Take time to reflect on the quiz questions – what is the good news and what is God calling you to do in response to this message of God’s love.

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