Written for Third Presbyterian Church February 2022. This was one of those sermons were I sorta/kinda didn’t stick to this script, so those who were there will remember it a little differently.
Click on the link in the caption under the picture to learn more about the movie reference. I did watch the film again as sermon prep. It seems like everything is available on streaming if you just look hard enough.
Mark 12:35-40 NRSV
The Question about David’s Son
35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
Jesus Denounces the Scribes
38 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 marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Jesus is poking at the way things are and the way things are supposed to be in the reign of God. It is believed by the scribes and presumably by Jesus that the Messiah will be descendent of David. David refers to the Messiah as Lord, but in a patriarchal society, fathers do not call sons, Lord. That would be absurd. It’s the opposite of how respect and titles work. The reign of God will not uphold the patriarchal structure.
Jesus not only denounces the patriarchal structure as it relates to royalty, but also to church leaders. Certain scribes enjoy status because of their relationship with those who are wealthy and powerful. And when religious leaders align with powerful and wealthy people the poor and oppressed are the ones that suffer even more. Jesus says that the scribes are devouring widows, the people they are supposed to protect and care for. Widows and others who are experiencing poverty and oppression are suffering further because the church leaders have chosen to align with power and status.
In the next scene, Jesus is watching a widow put all that she has into the temple offering. Pastor Kyle is going to preach on that section next week, but I wonder if it follows this section of Jesus’ teachings for a reason. Is she an example of someone whom the church leaders have conned into paying for their lavish lifestyle? Are they devouring her for their own gain? Or perhaps she is exemplifying something I preached on a few weeks ago (which was only a few verses ago in Mark’s gospel) about getting rid of the idol coins by paying the temple tax which goes back to the emperor. Is she simply giving to Cesar what belongs to Cesar and giving to God what belongs to God? Or is she an example of the kind of generous giving that is to be commended and emulated as an act of deep faith? She is after all putting everything she has into her offering.
Maybe all those things can be true.
It reminds me of the 1992 movie, Leap of Faith, that chronicled the misadventure of a traveling revival group lead by Jonas Nightingale, played by a very young and very blond Steve Martin. Jonas travels from town to town putting on a revival show with two busses of his associates and a black gospel choir and two big rig trucks that hold the tent and other equipment. It’s clear from the beginning that Jonas is a con man and everyone with him is in on the con. They get pulled over for speeding and Jonas gets out of the bus to talk to the police officer. His entourage takes bets on if he is going to get them out of this ticket or not. Of course, he gets out of the ticket by reading physical and emotional cues from the arresting officer and praying on the man’s vulnerabilities. The group continues along for what could be hours or days later and one of the big rig trucks starts smoking. They pull over on the next exit for the fictional town of Rustwater Kansas the corn relish capitol of the world. It will take 4 days to get the part that they need to fix the truck so Jonas decides they will do the show in Rustwater so they can make some money while they wait.
The movie audience gets to see a behind the curtain view of everything that goes into making this show possible. We see the crew setting up the show as well as the surveillance equipment. They unload the tent, sound equipment, wheelchairs, and garbage bins full of crutches. We see them talking to town’s people and taking notes. And we see Jonas meet with the local sheriff to get permits for the event. The sheriff is on to them, he sets up visits from the fire marshal and other officials to inspect the tent and the sight hoping to slow things down or find a reason to shut it all down. When there isn’t a legal or safety reason to stop the show, he directly asks Jonas to leave because the people in Rustwater can’t afford to give him the last $10 they have. Jobs are gone, draught is threatening to kill the corn crop, and people are losing everything they have. Jonas says he’s never denied this is a show for entertainment and to give people a little hope. Isn’t hope worth $10?
The other person that sees Jonas for the scam artist he is the waitress at the local diner. Her brother was injured in the car accident that killed their parents and he can not walk without crutches. She tells Jonas that the last faith healer coming through town told him his legs were not healed because he didn’t have enough faith. She wants Jonas to stay away from them, so her brother doesn’t get hurt again. Through the course of the movie, we learn that the boy has deep faith that God will heal him at the right time, he really believes that’s how he will be made well. He talks to Jonas and Jonas encourages him to seek medical advice, do his physical therapy, anything but having Jonas lay his hands on him.
In reality, the only people Jonas lays hands on during the show are people whose physical ailment is exaggerated for the audience. For example, an older lady with bone issues is sat up front in the wheelchair because its more comfortable than a folding chair. She walked into the tent but when Jonas asks her to walk on stage, it looks like a miracle. We also know Jonas has a cross shaped sponge on his hand that leaves a mark that can only be seen when the lighting guy shines a black light over the people Jonas has “anointed”. And with the help of his crew, Jonas knocks people over with the power of three men though it appears to be the power of the spirit to the crowd. Nothing is real.
That is until the boy with the crutches makes his way forward. Jonas sees him and tires to end the show, but the crowd is chanting one more, one more, one more. Having no way to avoid it, Jonas comes back out on stage. He says he felt the healing power leave him and that he can’t do another tonight, he talks about the doubt he feels in the audience, he points to the sheriff and says that the sheriff doesn’t believe. Even one doubter in the crowd can prevent healing. The movie audience realizes that Jonas is placing blame everywhere but on the boy with crutches. He doesn’t want to hurt him when this doesn’t work. But then the boy drops his crutches and walks. It is a real miracle. Jonas ends the show and is visibly shaken. The crew is thrilled, they think this is part of the show and that Jonas had this all worked out. Is the boy coming with us to the next town? This was the best ending of the show season surely, they can re-enact it again and again and again. Even the boy wants to join Jonas’ crew, after all he believed everything he saw was true, and didn’t realize that none of the other miracles were real. On one side of Jonas the boy believes it’s all real, on the other side the crew believes its all fake and only Jonas and the movie audience know the truth.
This was the last night in Rustwater and they plan to leave with the boy the next morning.
Then we see Jonas packing a small bag. He leaves the hotel in the cover of darkness, bums a ride with a truck driver that is passing through on this way to Pensacola Florida. Jonas gets in the truck and says he’s never been there, sounds like a great idea. And just then the other miracle happens, it begins to pour down rain on the town of Rustwater saving their corn crop. Jonas stands up and leans out of the truck window and joyfully shouts into the night. And the movie ends.
We are left with so many questions. Will he stop taking advantage of vulnerable people now that he has seen real miracles? Has Jonas made a leap of faith? Can God break through our religious show to bring true worship? Can God show up in the midst of doubt and inspire faith? We are left without specific answers. And maybe that’s the beauty of this movie, that our faith fills in what we believe will happen next, and we see a bit of our true selves. What is it that we want to believe?
We can ask ourselves that same question about Jesus, the scribes, and the widow. What is it that we want to believe? Is Jesus pointing out the real faith of the widow that the scribes have been taking advantage of? Is Jesus showing us that even though the church leaders were not working for the reign of God that the reign of God will break in anyway? Is the widow giving her last coin because she is being taken advantage of or is she inspiring faith in those who would pray upon her generosity?
I don’t know.
But what I do know is that God knows and perhaps that’s enough.