Above All Else: the Heart


Mark 12:38-44

We come now to the final episode of the Lord’s public ministry as that ministry is narrated in the Gospel of Mark. What remains before his arrest and crucifixion are conversations that he had with his disciples only. Here the Lord sets over against one another two pictures of religious devotion, one pretense, the other simple and sincere.

Text Comment

v.38

No doubt the Lord observed these very people as he taught the people in the temple. The flowing robes were full length prayer shawls called tallits. They marked the scribes to be men of spiritual eminence.

v.39

The most important seats were those on the dais facing the congregation where those sat who had authority in the synagogue or who would address the congregation.

The people were expected to honor such men, even rise when they passed by on the street, and such a position creates the temptation to want to make an impression and to feel that one deserves the honor being bestowed. It is important to note, however, that there is nothing wrong with a prayer shawl and nothing wrong with a seat on the dais. If we think there is we completely miss the Lord’s point. John Calvin, who like the other ministers of his day wore a simple black robe – the dress of the minister in Geneva – even when in the street was once accosted by a woman who sought to prove from our text that ministers should not wear long robes. Calvin says that, after trying to reason with her, he left her, in despair of overcoming such ignorance. [Maxwell, Concerning Worship, 150] The problem is not the robe or the seat, but the attitude of the heart toward such things. They are flattering themselves. [France, 491]

v.40

The scribes, unlike the Sadducees were not ordinarily wealthy men. They depended upon the financial support of worshippers and benefactors for their living. The temptation to exert pressure on potential donors was very real. Josephus tells us of a Jewish scoundrel who, affecting the dress and ways of a scribe or theologian, persuaded a wealthy Roman woman named Fulvia to make substantial gifts to the temple in Jerusalem. The money was embezzled and the Roman citizenry were outraged by the scam. That happened perhaps not long before the Gospel of Mark was written and would have been a memory fresh in the mind of Mark’s readers. [Edwards, 378-379] In any case, the mention of a widow prepares for the contrast of the scribes with the simple devotion of a poor widow in vv. 41-44.

To pray so as to impress is the temptation of every public Christian and ministers in particular. Spurgeon tartly describes men who pray for half an hour and then ask the Lord to forgive their shortcomings! But to practice piety to gain attention is a particularly egregious form of hypocrisy and deeply offensive to God whose name is thus being misused.

v.42

She put in two lepta, the smallest Jewish coins in circulation. Mark interestingly converts the Jewish coins into the Roman equivalent for the sake of his Gentile readers. The two lepta were the equivalent of half a quadrans, the smallest of Roman coins. In any currency it was a little offering and it sounded like a very little offering! Once again, the Lord’s attack is not against the rich per se, still less against money, but against the ostentatious display of wealth or the use of money that demonstrates that the real interest of the heart is not in honoring the Lord or giving thanks to him but one’s own name and reputation. You notice that somehow it was obvious that others were making larger gifts!

This widow is a fitting conclusion to the Lord’s public ministry and his call to discipleship. She is the true disciple because she lost her life for his sake, as he said in 8:35 his true disciples would do. That which made no difference to the temple books – the gift was negligible – is immortalized in the book of life. [Edwards, 381]

When I was a boy I used to day-dream a great deal about being someone else, mainly one of the heroes of the westerns that dominated television programming in those days, Wyatt Earp and so on. I imagined myself one of those heroic figures, performing brave deeds and getting the girl in the end. As one grows up, at least it is hoped, one’s heroes change. I discovered that Wyatt Earp was an unattractive fellow, probably a crook, and I no longer wanted to be like him. But this power to imagine oneself as someone else is something we take altogether too much for granted. The power of imagination, the ability to see oneself in a different situation, acting differently, performing heroic deeds is an ability of very great importance and, when you stop to think carefully about it, an astonishing ability. Imagination is a gift of God and one he expects us to exploit for the purposes of faith and godliness. That is why the Bible is so often provoking our imagination and inviting us to see ourselves in other circumstances doing other things.

Think of John Bunyan and his sanctified imagination. He took a single scene from the biblical history – that of Abraham making his way as a pilgrim to the Promised Land – and a single remark – that in Hebrews 11 about Abraham being a stranger in this world, a pilgrim who was journeying to a better country – and turned them, by the power of his magnificent imagination, into an immortal account of every Christian’s life. And the vast multitude of followers of Jesus Christ who have read Pilgrim’s Progress have never stopped imagining their lives as a pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. They have, ever since they first read that great book, encountered each day of their own lives the characters and locations of Bunyan’s masterpiece: the Slough of Despond, the Hill Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation, Vanity Fair, the Delectable Mountains, and, at last the river, and, along the way such people as Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Evangelist, Faithful, Talkative, and all the rest.

Well, such is our task this morning and throughout our Christian lives: to see this poor widow making her offering – so small a sum of money yet so large a gift – and, in turn, see ourselves doing the same. We are being summoned to imagine ourselves doing what she did, responding to God as she did and for the same reasons. And, on the contrary, we are to see ourselves as these grasping scribes, eager for admiration, hungry as they were for the plaudits of others and to hate the very idea that we might in any way be like them.

And the widow is a perfect hero for all of us and a perfect object for our imagination because her circumstances were so much like ours. It is easy to see ourselves in her. Hers was a small life, as are our lives by and large. She isn’t even named. To be honest, there aren’t very many people in the world, relatively speaking a tiny number of people, who know our names. Count them up. How many do you think there are? She was a widow and in that day and age to be a widow was to be vulnerable and insignificant. There was no social security in those days, no life insurance. A woman usually lost her income when she lost her husband and very often she lost her home. She depended on other members of her family or on the charity of others. This woman had very little – and you and I don’t have that much either to give God or man – so little that nothing changed because of her gift. The temple didn’t decide to embark on a new building project or to hire new employees because she put her two lepta in the treasury. Her coins were what they call in Washington nowadays “budget dust.” I remember once as a young man traveling in Europe giving as a tip to a tour guide some coins that were so small in value that he gave them back to me. That was embarrassing; but that is, humanly speaking what this woman gave because that is what she had to give.

But for that very reason it is easy to imagine ourselves living and acting like this woman because it is so obvious why she did what she did with what she had. There was devotion in her heart to the Lord. She wanted to give. The Bible says that we are above all things to guard the heart because it is the wellspring of life. Abraham Kuyper explained that statement by calling the heart the “mystic root of our existence, that point of consciousness in which life is still undivided.” [H. van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 38-39] That is, the thoughts, words, attitudes and deeds that make up our daily living inside and out are first and foremost, before they arise and before they come to be, they are all compact in our heart. They are principle and love and loyalty in our heart. It produces them. It is there, in the center of our interior life that we are what we really are and it is that, the heart, which produces our behavior. In the scribes’ case, their proud and ostentatious and self-regarding behavior was what it was because their hearts were full of themselves. In the widow’s case, her gift was so large, so much a sacrifice because in her heart reigned a love for God and gratitude and joy in his salvation. The heart is the seat of our affections, of our loves and our hatreds. And in this woman’s heart was the love of God.

In this immortal scene which our Savior drew our attention in this arresting way we have in tear‑stained but brilliant color a picture of our Christian faith as first and last a matter of the heart, of the affections, and of the deepest loyalty. This is the Lord’s own great point, the lesson he drew from what he saw the widow do. He wanted us to see this woman as one of his disciples par excellence precisely because she did not hold back, she did not want to hold back. She wanted to give the Lord everything. It was her pleasure and her satisfaction to do that. I do not mean of course that our faith is not a matter of the mind and of the knowledge of the truth. It is, of course. The Scripture says unmistakably that true faith in God is very much a matter of right belief. But mixed together with right thinking must be the affections of the heart. Otherwise the right thinking will not produce right living.

The affections of the heart loom so large in the Bible’s presentation of the Christian life because the whole principle and reason and explanation and power of salvation is that of God’s love for us. And when that love comes to be known – as obviously it had come to be known by this woman – when it is poured out into our hearts, as Paul puts it, it cannot but produce in us an answering love for God. We love him because he first loved us. That was exactly why the scribes’ behaved as they did and why so many of the people around you every day behave as they do. This is a fundamental explanation of the world in which you and I live every day. They hadn’t any real love for God. They had neither any real understanding of divine love nor experience of it. They thought of salvation as a calculation, an arrangement in which they were to meet certain obligations God had laid down in exchange for which they would receive certain blessings from him and salvation in particular. The idea that it was a great gift, made against impossible odds, for the sake of a titanic and unconquerable love, did not enter their mind. They had no reason to place their last little bit of money in the temple treasury because they had never been moved by the God Almighty’s great stoop down to love and save sinners. But that is what moved this woman. The scribes had never come to see themselves as so deeply undeserving as this woman had to whom had been given an immeasurably wonderful gift.

Perhaps there were poets among the scribes; perhaps even quite accomplished poets. But none of them could or would ever have written the hymn “Amazing Grace” because they didn’t feel any particular amazement over God’s grace. But this widow would have understood exactly what John Newton meant with his words and could have sung his hymn with all her heart.

Now the Bible is always making a point of saying this and illustrating the fact that true faith, as Paul says, works by love – love which is experienced as a power in the heart – and that real love will crave to demonstrate itself, often in extravagant ways, indeed the more extravagant the better. It also shows us again and again that all others will be unmasked by nothing so much as this: they do not really love Christ and God. Love – love that always and only comes from the heart – it is so much the identifying mark, so much the explanation of who Christians are and what they are that Paul can say at the end of 1 Corinthians that a curse rests on all who do not love the Lord Jesus Christ.

The great figures of the Bible were all men and women whose hearts were full of love and strong affections for God. Moses, David, Jeremiah, Hannah, Paul, these were all people whose feelings, whose affections, whose love for God and Christ was a mighty power in their lives.

And it has been so through the history of the church. The great men and women of our faith – those who are well known to us from the church’s past – were men and women who loved Christ and loved God and whose lives were lived in the strength and power of that love. Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and on and on; all these representative Christians were people who were, as Samuel Rutherford would have put it, “head over ears in love with Christ.” Their faith was a matter of knowledge and belief, of course, and their lives were noteworthy for their obedience and their dedicated service. But Christianity for them all was profoundly a matter of deep inner experience, of tender feeling, of powerful emotion, deep loyalty and, above all, of an indefectible love for the Lord Christ. In this – in the fact that their hearts were the Lord’s – they were all very much like this widow and were not at all like the scribes. Oh, they would be the first to tell you that they struggled against the same temptations to pride and self-glory that animated the scribes, but they struggled against them, they hated those things when they saw them in themselves precisely because their hearts demanded that they do so.

Whenever Christianity has been revived or renewed in a time and place by the greater working of the Holy Spirit, it has always been this emotional element, this powerful love, these stirred affections which appear and flourish among Christian people. The truer, the more pure and powerful anyone’s faith and Christian experience is, the more emotion, the more feeling, the more love for God there will be and, accordingly, the more of this widow’s loving sacrifice. The Puritans used to write about what they called ‘experimental Christianity’ using the word experimental with a meaning that it no longer has in the English language. They were using the term in a sense now long forgotten. They were not speaking about “trying out” Christianity or treating it as an experiment. They were speaking of Christianity as a matter of inner experience and deep feeling and true emotion. That is what experimental meant in the 17th century: “experiential,” having to do with the inner experience or emotions of life: love, sorrow, shame, peace, joy, and hope. They taught, as the Bible does and all true Christianity always has, that true Christianity, true faith, true discipleship, true following Christ must first and foremost be a living power in the heart, in the deep convictions, the emotions, the loyalty, the innermost self of a man or woman, boy or girl.

John Owen, the prince of the Puritan writers, put it this way (and see if he had not perfectly described the difference between the scribes and the widow):

“They know nothing of the life and power of the gospel, nothing of the reality of the grace of God, nor do they believe aright one article of the Christian faith, whose hearts are not sensible of the love of Christ therein. Nor is he sensible of the love of Christ, whose affections are not therein drawn out unto him. I say, they make a pageant of religion…whose hearts are not really affected with the love of Christ…. Men…have no real acquaintance with Christianity, who imagine that [our] loving him with all our hearts because of his love…are but fanc[y] and imagination.”

Everyone’s experience will not be the same, everyone will not experience every emotion to the same degree, or at the same time – the Spirit will bear witness with our spirits in the measure that he determines – and the nature of the sacrifices we make for love’s sake will differ, but every true Christian should be able to see himself or herself in this widow putting her immense gift into the temple treasury. And every true Christian should shudder at the thought that he or she might in any way, at any time, to any degree be like those scribes.

Now, the Lord is pressing this question upon our consciences: do we have such a love as this poor widow did? I am not asking if, at every moment of your life, you feel as strongly as she did or stand as ready to make such extravagant sacrifices as she made. I hope you have had any number of experiences of such love sweeping over you and overwhelming you as it controlled her as she walked into the temple that day. What I am asking is whether, with a true and searching honesty, you can say that you see yourself in her, and that you don’t see yourself in the scribes, not your true self?

There is a magnificent passage in John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners – obviously an moment in his life because he repeats his account of it almost word for word in Pilgrim’s Progress – in which Bunyan as much as enters into and gives expression to the heart of this widow. He could do that because his heart was very much like hers.

“Yet I saw my sin most barbarous and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God; wherefore I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and [my affections] to yearn towards him; for I saw he was still my friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire of revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as then I thought, had I had a thousand gallons of blood within my veins; I could freely ‘then’ have spilt it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Savior.”

Do you recognize your inner feelings, the position of your own heart in that statement as in the gift of that widow? Is it one of the great regrets of your life that your feelings are not more commonly that powerful in just that way? True Christians always have and always will answer those questions “Yes! a thousand times YES!”

Let me tell you about Helen Roseveare. She was born in 1925 in Scotland. I believe she is still living. She grew up there a very dedicated, determined, hardworking and disciplined young woman. She says that even when a girl she ordered her life by the question: “Is it worth it?” She would decide whether to take a class at school by asking herself: “Is it worth it?” Whether to accept the offer of a date: “Is it worth it?” She set out to become a doctor at a time – the 1920s and 30s – when women doctors were still a rarity. And then during her university years she came to Christ. Still a single woman, she answered the Lord’s summons and became a missionary doctor in one of the distant reaches of what was then the Belgian Congo. With the same discipline which was hers by nature and upbringing and with the commitment of her Christian faith to the gospel of Christ she established a hospital among the Simba people. There too she made her decisions and established her priorities according to her old, simple formula: “Is it worth it?”

During the course of her years in the Congo she also worked as time allowed on a chronicle of her life and work, an autobiography which she hoped would be the great testament of her life. It is wonderfully inspiring to hear her tell this story.

But then, in the dangerous and unsettled period of the 1950s in Africa came the Simba uprising. And finally one day the forces of the revolution came to Helen Roseveare’s hospital. She and her assistants were beaten – three of her teeth were knocked out with one blow of a rubber truncheon – she was taken away and raped, and then, before her eyes, the only copy of her journal, the story of her life into which she had poured uncounted hours, was burned. She tells us that in those terrible and terrifying moments, when death could be expected at any moment, and when a fate as bad as death had already befallen her, with crystal clarity the Lord altered her life’s motto.

She had always asked herself: “Is it worth it?” And, now, all the more, that question might well have pressed itself upon her mind and heart? Was it worth it to go through this; to build all of this and see it destroyed in a few moments; to practice purity all one’s life and then to have it stolen from you? But, instead of that question – “Is it worth it?” – came another: the Lord himself asking her: “Am I worth it?” Helen Roseveare found herself able to say – as this widow in the temple who had lost her husband and faced a very uncertain life and was reduced to poverty – “Yes, Lord, I love you enough to say not only that you are worth all of this, but that the day will come when I will be thankful for nothing so much as that you gave me the opportunity to show my love and prove my love in such an extravagant way.”

There is a great deal of difficulty in this world. I know that. I know that many of you face very heavy trials. There are more than a few reasons for such trials, but there is one supreme reason for them. Those trials give you the opportunity in one way or another to do what this widow did. To give out of your poverty, to trust the Lord in your time of sorrow or loss or pain, to give him glory at a time when it matters most because he does not seem to be blessing you, and to offer sacrifices to him that really cost you something. Had this woman not been a poor widow, we would never have heard of her or her gift – small as it was in the sight of men – and her gift would never have been counted for so much in heaven.

Augustine said long ago, “We do not come to God upon our feet, but upon our affections.” May God give you and me grace never to want to come to him and never to try to come to him on our feet, but always with upon our hearts and our affections. God himself, through Paul, says: “Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.”