Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
The year was 2003 and it was early June. Less than three weeks ago I had graduated college. Less than a week ago I had gotten married. For a honeymoon Abigail and I spent a few days in the Smokey Mountains outside of Gatlinburg. The trouble started as we began to head home. I did not know a lot about cars, and I still do not know a lot about cars, but I knew the noise the car was making was really, really not right and I knew engines were not supposed to rev that high. This was in the era before smart phones so it was not like we could just look up where the closest mechanic was. In Maryville, TN we happen to spot a mechanics garage and we pulled in. Now at the time I was twenty-two and so painfully inexperienced at life. I did not really know any better then, but looking back I now know just how absolutely remarkable the series of events that took place were. We showed up in the middle of a day with a busted car at a busy mechanics shop, and after explaining our situation they immediately looked at the car. The transmission was shot and for the car to make the journey back to Indiana it would have to be replaced. Even though we were not on the schedule for the day this shop made us a priority. They called local junkyards, found a transmission, and sent someone to get it. From the time they left to get the part to the time they were done was just over three hours. They truly made our car the priority to get done. The single most amazing part of the whole thing though is how much they charged us. They replaced our car’s entire transmission for $700. At the time that seemed like so much money, but in hindsight I now know they charged us for the part at cost and that is it. We were 22, newly married, over 300 miles from home, the only directions we had was a printed piece of paper from MapQuest, and we were in a car that had something deeply wrong with it. It is fair to say we were in trouble. We happened upon a mechanic who took a lot of mercy on and showed a lot of grace to a couple of newlywed kids. Not all heroes wear capes.
The phrase “not all heroes wear capes” has become an internet shorthand to celebrate people. Sometimes the phrase is applied sentimentally other times it is applied with a dose of humor, but it is always to recognize an anonymous or little known person who took an action that somehow made the world a little better. The phrase works because it plays against what we already know, that is heroes normally wear capes. Comic books, especially iconic super heroes like Superman and Batman, have reinforced that heroes wear capes to the point that we do not question it. Comic book super heroes wear capes because they look cool. When drawn on the page they can make for dramatic poses. It is more than an artistic design decision though. In the contexts of the stories, the superheroes that wear capes do so because they want to stand out, they want to know be known and remembered. Capes have a lot of flair, they call a lot of attention, and they make a grand impression. The heroes that wear capes do so because they want to make an impression and be memorable. In that regard I think that means Batman has more in common with the teachers of the law than with Jesus. The teachers of the law tried to be the kind of heroes that wore capes, but Jesus challenges them and in this morning’s scripture Jesus reminds us that in the kingdom of God, heroes do not wear capes.
The NIV renders the Greek word “teachers of the law” but if you are using a different translation such as the KJV or the NRSV then verse 38 will read “watch out for the scribes.” The scribes fulfilled an important role in Jewish culture of the era. They were able to write and they had the responsibility of copying and transcribing the Jewish scriptures. Estimates of literacy in ancient Israel range from 3% of the population to 20%, but in ancient times it was more common to be able to read but not write. The scribes were one’s who had mastered writing, and as the copyists of the Old Testament law, they were understood to be well versed in the scripture. In society they were respected and well regarded. In this scripture Jesus mentions the perks of 1st century high society: flowing robes, being greeted with respect, having the most important seats, and being given places of honor at a banquet. Now the scribes did fulfill an important function. The reality is that we would probably not have the Old Testament, which we consider to be the inspired word of God, if it were not for the work of the scribes. The scribes of Jesus day surely saw their work as heroic, but they were types of heroes that wear capes. They wanted to be recognized and rewarded for what they did. They were fine with doing good work as long as it bought them a ticket to the good life. Perhaps this why Jesus issued his warning.
You see the scribes had a dark side. In the first century, it was not like there were Torah publishing houses. For all intents and purposes the scribes were artists. They worked on commission or tried to find buyers for their work. Scribes were not day laborers, they did not get a daily wage. Their work was time consuming and could take weeks or months to finish, this meant a long time between paydays. This was problematic if the scribes wanted to eat, much less live the aristocratic lifestyle they wanted. The solution for the scribes was patronage. This is a system where artists are essentially sponsored by other people who support their work. With a healthy base of patrons, an artist or a scribe in this case does not have to worry about day to day expenses.
We get the impression from what Jesus said that widows, were popular targets of scribes. Widows had almost no means of taking care of themselves. If a widow did not have a son to support her, then the widow only had what she had. Whatever she had left from her late husband’s estate would have been all she had and it would have needed to last her the rest of her life. All funds that a widow gave to support a scribe was coming out of a limited fund. The widow was literally impoverishing herself to support the scribe. The scribes were doing important work but they were intentionally depriving some of the most vulnerable members of their society of resources so they could live posh and extravagant lifestyles.
Jesus finds this right out unacceptable and he plainly states “these men will be punished most severely.” It is no wonder that Jesus warns to watch out for the scribes. They liked to position themselves as teachers of the law and as experts on the Old Testament but they clearly missed the point. They copied the scripture over and over but they clearly did not read with their hearts. It is found throughout the law and it is unmistakable in the prophets, but there is a clear biblical mandate to protect the vulnerable, to provide for the poor, and to value people over position. The sin of the scribes is they claimed to be teachers of the law yet they openly defiled it. The scribes liked to view themselves as heroes wearing capes. However, a quick look at comic book heroes reveals that super villains are just as likely as the heroes to don a cape. Jesus warned against the scribes because it is the heart of a person not the exterior they present to the world that truly makes a hero.
From a literary standpoint, Mark did a great job in organizing his gospel as this morning’s scripture shows. Right after giving a negative example of the scribes. The very next thing offered up is a positive example worth following. The widow, offers just a few cents, and is lifted up as a hero. Remember, the widows had very little means of income. Everything they gave up was a true sacrifice. The rich people who were giving more money before the widow, were giving of their excess. Yes, it was more but they would not feel it or miss it. As Jesus says, they were giving out of their wealth. They were giving their excess, what they have left over after they could ensure they had more than enough to live the high life. The widow, as Jesus says, gave out of her poverty. In other words, she would personally feel it. Her offering was truly a sacrifice. She did not have to give that much. The whole concept of a tithe, which comes from the bible, and is still used today is proportional. It is not a flat amount, it is a percentage. The woman made a sacrificial offering above and beyond because she wanted to, she did it because the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. She gave as an expression of her love. She did not do it to gain recognition or prestige. She did it because her heart was focused on God, and she proved not all heroes wear capes.
This morning’s scripture challenges us to ask are we like the scribes or the widow? What motivates us to worship God and serve other people? Do we do it because we want to wear a cape? Do we do it because we want the rewards? The rewards people mistakenly seek in faith are varied. There are people who do good deeds because they want to be recognized and patted on the back, and then there are others who do it because they have a faulty logic that the more good they do the better their chances are of getting into heaven. The question that this scripture really challenges us with is do we seek to follow Jesus because of what we can get out of it or do we follow Jesus because Jesus is a savior worth following?
If we follow Jesus because we love Jesus, then we are like the widow. We seek to faithfully live in a way that sacrificially expresses our love for God. One of the ways we can do that is to love God by loving others. Instead of taking advantage of the most vulnerable like the scribes we provide extravagant care for them. Instead of demonizing the outsider we invite them in and show radical hospitality and instead of judging the unloved we embrace them with unfailing love. We do these things regularly, and we do not seek recognition for our good deeds. We do it because it is the right thing to do, it is what Jesus would do and it is what Jesus calls us to do because not all heroes wear capes.
Earlier this year United Methodist Communications sought to show what it looks to be this kind of hero who follows Jesus. Through social media they asked for people to nominate #AmazingUMCheroes, and over the summer they profiled ten United Methodists. D None of these people are household names, but they are all making the world a better and more loving place. Perhaps my favorite profile shared on umc.org was that of Kay Oursler, known as Bibi Kay in Tanzania. Even though she lives there now, she retains her membership and connection with Christ of the Hills United Methodist Church in Arkansas. At the age of 65, Kay sought to better follow Jesus by joining the Peace Corp. There she was placed in a small village in Tanzania. After her year was up, she stayed and she has continued to stay for thirteen years. Now at the age of 79, she runs an orphanage. Through the orphanage she has raised and educated twenty one children. She has helped the village make important connections to build a library and a health clinic. In the article one of her friends from Tanzania described her as such: “Kay is living out her faith in the work she does. She has a giving heart, and, in my opinion, Kay’s most admirable quality is that she respects everyone and loves people.”
Not all heroes wear capes. Some are grandmothers living in a foreign country giving of themselves to help others. At her age Kay Oursler could be living a comfortable retirement, but instead she is loving the least of these in the world. Her example is worth following because she is following the example of Jesus. This morning’s scripture challenges us to consider the motivations of our faith. May we do that, and may we find that we are here today because we love Jesus and we want to be more like him. Out of that love may we be willing to follow Jesus and have compassion for the same kind of people that Jesus expressed compassion. May we give ourselves sacrificially, and perhaps in doing so find that we are someone’s hero.