Tuppence a Bag

(A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost–November 11, 2012–Mark 12:38-13:2)

I was four years old the first time I went to the movies. We arrived late, to the vivid image of a horde of women in long black coats being blown down a cobbled street, some clinging desperately to the wrought iron fences. The same wind blowing them away brings Mary Poppins to the front door of the Banks family on Cherry Tree Lane. It’s a story about conflicting values, and even as a very little girl, I understood which side was the “good” and which was the “bad.”

Mr. Banks is appropriately enough a banker. As he watches Mary Poppins take hold of his household, he grows concerned. Using reverse psychology, she convinces him that a visit to the bank might win the children to his view of how the world should be. I was too young to see the crisis about to come when young Michael Banks gathered his tuppence – two pennies — to take with him. Terrifying, dark-suited men would try to take the little boy’s money. But Michael has another plan.

Mr. Dawes, Sr.

Michael: I want it to feed the birds.

Mr. Dawes Sr.: Fiddlesticks, boy! Feed the birds and what have you got? Fat birds! But…
[sings]
Mr. Dawes Sr.: If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank, safe and sound, soon that tuppence, safely invested in the bank, will compound! And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest, as your affluence expands! In the hands of the directors, who invest as propriety demands!

The bankers go on to explain in song:

You see, Michael, you’ll be part of
Railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile
Fleets of ocean greyhounds
Majestic, self-amortizing canals

Michael does not want to give his money to the grasping old men to invest in majestic, self-amortizing canals. Michael wants to feed the birds, so he wrestles the elderly bank president for his tuppence, and the children run away.

What difference would tuppence have made to the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank? And what difference did two pennies make to the Temple Treasury?

Absolutely none.

Why, then, did it matter so much to old Mr. Dawes that the boy’s tuppence be invested? And what would possess the rich and powerful scribes to allow a widow to put her last bit of money in the Temple Treasury?

Widows in the time and place of the gospel were in a challenging position. They were not allowed to hold property for themselves. A widow who did not have a son or a brother to protect her was vulnerable economically. And while not all widows were poor, a poor widow had no choice but to throw herself on the mercy of the religious authorities for practical support. And although the letter of the Law instructed the authorities to care for widows and others in need, Jesus raises a question about whether they faithfully carry out their duty.

She may have been afraid to be caught keeping anything for herself. No wonder she gave her all.

Jesus is preparing to give his all, too. In Mark Chapter 12, he has come to Jerusalem with the disciples. He has the attention of those same religious authorities; surely arrest is coming soon. Really, he’s not trying to hide.

Let’s hear the words of scripture again:

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (Mark 12:38-44, NRSV)

By sitting opposite the Treasury, Jesus places himself in opposition to the forces of religious authority. They are the people who would take the last coins a widow has, “devouring widow’s houses,” as he said earlier in the passage. He is pointing out that the widow has given up the illusion that she has control over her life and has placed herself in God’s hands. But the people who represent themselves as God’s hands, the priests and the scribes, are more concerned with appearances and wealth than they are with the needs of the destitute.

Mr. Banks wants Michael’s money to be invested in the bank not because tuppence will become a fortune overnight, but because he wants to guarantee the future of his way of life. A banker’s son must trust the bank, or where will the economy be?

But we know little Michael has another idea in mind for his tuppence. Mary Poppins had planted the seeds of both social responsibility and revolution the night before, singing a lullaby about the Old Bird Woman who sits outside the cathedral selling bags full of crumbs.

Come feed the little birds,
show them you care,
and you’ll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
their nests are so bare;
all it takes is tuppence from you

She means more than the pigeons. She is painting a picture of care for others, and the children respond to it. Michael wants to be one of those people, someone who uses his resources to feed the little ones.

The choice to rebel against banker’s values and run away leads to a scary trip through London. The children are rescued by Bert, the chimney sweep, a wise man who helps the children gain sympathy for a person living in the grown-up world.

Bert: You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.
Jane: Father? In a cage?
Bert: They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of ’em, carpets and all.

The system keeps the system going; the people who run it are stuck in it, too.

Just as old Mr. Dawes really thought the bank was the best place for Michael’s tuppence, I suspect the scribes thought they were doing things the right way, being faithful to God as they understood faithfulness.

In the song about the Old Bird Woman, Mary Poppins sings:

All around the cathedral
the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

When I went to the movies for the first time, I was a tiny child, littler than Jane and Michael. The huge bank and the frightening old man with the long beard scared me, but I wanted to spend tuppence to feed the birds. I wanted to be like Michael. The sermon preached in Mary Poppins agreed with the stories I heard in Sunday School. Michael cared about feeding the birds, about preserving life.

The bankers and the Pharisees cared about preserving *their* way of life.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2, NRSV)

In part, Jesus prophesies the Temple’s literal fate. Forty years later, the Temple would lie in ruins, destroyed by the Romans. But Jesus prophesies more than a physical destruction. The proud and controlling forces of the Temple will be thrown down, too. This is more than a political prediction. He’s telling us that earthly power doesn’t matter to God. Jesus turns the priorities of our human systems upside down. He speaks for the widows, heals the lepers, feeds the hungry and embraces the little ones.

Jesus calls us to a faith that outlives the stones of any Temples we can build and outlasts every majestic self-amortizing canal. The real coin of our commitment to God is to care for the little ones in Jesus’ name. All it takes is tuppence a bag.

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