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Odor of Sanctity

November 9, 2003

Mark 12:38-44

2867 Words


I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Mark, chapter 12, and follow along as I read verses 38-44.  Hear what the Spirit say to us.


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."

41  He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.

42  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

43  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.

44  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."

Amen.  The Word of God.  Thanks be to God.




Odor Judge

Duck walkers, doll doctors, and dinosaur bone dusters—these are just some of the weird jobs around today.  We have a niche economy with many unique jobs, such as coin polishers, Barbie Doll dress designers, open manhole watchers (at $8 an hour), golf ball divers.  Jeffrey Bleim is a golf ball SCUBA diver.  He pulls on a wet suit, 25 pounds of scuba gear and dives for gold in the form of abandoned golf balls.  On a typical day at Falcon’s Fire Golf Course in Kissimmee, Florida, he retrieves 5,000 golf balls.  The golf balls are shipped off to a refurbishing company, which pays Bleim about 10 cents apiece—which comes out to $500 per day, which is not bad wages. [see Buck Wolf, “Really odd jobs: odor sniffers, worm ranchers, porta-potty technicians and more,”]  Then there are the earthworm farmers, the foot models, the symphonic page turners, and the odor judges.

Betty Lyon is an odor judge.  Betty has been sticking her nose where most of us never would.  She has been sniffing other people’s armpits for 35 years, helping to concoct the perfect deodorant.  As an odor judge for Hilltop Labs in Cincinnati, she also sniffs dirty diapers, used cat litter, and other consumer goods.  Lyon says it takes an acute sense of smell to do her job. When it comes to body odor, she says, you are what you eat.  If you eat fried chicken, garlic, or pickles, that is what comes out under your arms, or anywhere you sweat.  If you drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, that is what you smell like.

What we are made of, according to the odor judge, cannot be hidden. We can cover it up, try to hide it, try to mask it, but the essential odor of who we are and what we have been eating, consuming, and thinking about, inevitably seeps out.  So the question is not whether we will have an odor, but what kind of odor.  Christians should have an “odor of sanctity.”  That is a medieval phrase.  In medieval times, it was believed that a saint of God had a certain odor, a certain atmosphere around them that was produced by their godly way of living.

The sense of smell is powerful.  .  If someone smells distinctly, say of garlic, or onions, that smell is the first thing that you pick up about the person when you meet him.  Smell is like the aura around the person.  It reaches out and grabs you!  So if we feel the "odor" then we are experiencing the predominant characteristic of that person, the thing that really presents itself to us. And if holiness is the predominant characteristic of that person, then it is holiness we experience in them.  Perhaps you have met someone like this.  You can almost see the light flowing out of their eyes.  You can feel the love of God in them.  This may or may not be much related to the words they speak.  It is rather about how they live—which brings us to Mark chapter 12..


Two Episodes

In Mark 12:38-44, we encounter two episodes that show us two different ways of living.  In the first episode (12:38-40), Jesus condemns the vanity and greed of the scribes, in the second (12:41-44) he points to the meager offering of a poor widow as a praiseworthy example of personal sacrifice and generosity.

Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes in verses 38-40 is only one of a number of instances in the gospels where we see the hostility between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership.  In 11:15-18, we are told that the “chief priests and the scribes” sought to kill Jesus after he drove the money changers out of the temple merchants, but their plan was frustrated by Jesus’ popularity with the people.  At another time the “chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” questioned Jesus about the source of his authority, but Jesus thwarted their attempt to interrogate him by refusing to answer their questions until they responded to his question about the source of John the Baptist’s authority (11:27-33).  

So who are these “scribes” that Jesus condemns? They were important members of the Jewish religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, and as such they are often associated with chief priests and elders, both of whom were members of the upper echelon of the Jerusalem religious and political establishment.  The scribes were what we would call lawyers and bureaucrats.  Those are two career fields that are not much admired today.  In ancient Judaea, people thought pretty much the same about the scribes.

Jesus advises those in the crowd in the temple to be wary of the arrogance of the scribes.  He provides several illustrations of their desire to be held in high esteem. Jesus says that the scribes want “to walk around in robes.”  They liked to dress up and be looked at.  Jesus further says that scribes like to be greeted in public places and to be seated in prominent places in synagogues and at banquets (12:39).  However, Jesus goes beyond charges of mere arrogance on the part of the scribes.  He says that scribes “devour widows’ houses” and “for the sake of appearance say long prayers,” offenses that Jesus charges will result in a “greater condemnation” (12:40).  

The reference to widows provides a link with the second episode in 12:40-44, in which Jesus comments on the modest offering of a widow as compared to the much more substantial donations by the wealthy.  Jesus observes a procession of “Many rich people put[ting] in large sums” into the “treasury” (12:41).  Their way of taking up an offering, as you can see was much different from ours.  Instead of having ushers pass the plate, they had everyone walk by and put their offering in a container.

So Jesus saw all these rich people putting in their offerings, and then he saw a “poor widow” who put in two lepta (12:42).  A lepton was made of bronze and was the lowest value Greek coin in circulation at the time.  Mark informs us that the value of the two Greek lepta was equivalent to one Roman quadrans.  A Roman quadrans was worth 1/64 of a denarius.  Since the denarius was the normal wage for a day’s work by a menial laborer, we can calculate how small an amount the widow contributed by converting it to a modern-day value. If we estimate the average American laborer’s daily wages to be about $70, then the widow’s two lepta (one quadrans) would equal $1.09.  

Incidentally, I saw on the Internet that you can buy an actual lepton.  These coins were widely circulated in Jesus’s time, so there were a lot of them.  Today you can buy one for about $40.  But they were not worth $40 in Jesus day.  You could not even by a fish sandwich with the two of them.

Next to the hefty contributions given by the rich folks, such a pittance might seem laughable, but what struck Jesus was the percentage of the widow’s total savings represented by the two small coins. While the rich donors offered generous gifts from their “abundance,” the widow from her “poverty” gave everything she had.  Thus, although the amount was small, in Jesus’ eyes her gift exceeded that of the rich patrons.

Taken together these two episodes in MR12 provide a study in contrasts. On the one hand are the scribes, respected members of the religious community, whom Jesus condemns for their arrogance and exploitation, while on the other is a marginalized member of the community whom Jesus praises as an example of faithfulness and generosity.  Jesus does this kind of thing all the time.  He inverts our expectations of what is to be valued and esteemed.  He depreciates the values associated with prestige and upward mobility and holds in honor humility and selflessness.


The odor of Self-Righteousness

To return to our odor judge, we might say that we catch the scent of several odors in these two episodes. There is, for starters, the very definite odor of self-righteousness.  Jesus sees these outwardly religious types in the public square flaunting their faith.  He sees their hypocrisy, and despises it.. Here and elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus has harsh words for those who wear the garments of religion over the soul of a pig.  Though their bodies are slathered with ointment, their souls stink like the rotting flesh of dead bodies.  They make a pretence of religion so that others will think well of them, but Jesus knows them for what they are.  Jesus knows exactly who these people are.  They have a certain smell.  They stink up the place. They are people who believe that righteousness is a matter of appearances; Jesus knows that righteousness is who you are in your heart.


The Odor of Injustice and Oppression

There is also about these scribes an odor of injustice and oppression. These people have enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. “They devour widows’ houses,” Jesus says (12:40).  In that society, in first century Palestine, most people were poor, most people had very little, but widows and orphans were the poorest of the poor.  Not that this is news to us — we know that many in our population face wrenching poverty today. Many are homeless, or hungry, or cold. Most poor persons are chronically underemployed, underpaid, undereducated and under-skilled. In short, despite all the quirky job opportunities I mentioned earlier, many remain persistently broke.

Folks living on the bottom of our economy are always trying to make ends meet. Many times they work two or even three jobs. They’re always putting off one bill to pay another, or having their lights shut off, or teetering on eviction, or choosing between medicine and food, and are often barely a half footstep ahead of creditors.

Jesus says that things are bad enough for these folks without the rich people exploiting them and making things worse.  This leads us to ask: How would Jesus live if he were among us today?  He would live simply and generously.  What would Jesus do?  He probably would not what you and I do—because he is Jesus and we are not.

But Jesus has told us how to live, and if Jesus is our lord, then we need to take seriously what he says.   If we are God’s people, then we ought to look like God’s people and we ought to act like God’s people.  The love of God in our hearts ought to be reflected in our everyday lives.  If Christ is our savior, then we seek to live Christ in every way—which means that there will be that odor of sanctity about us.


The Odor of Humility and Generosity

This is an odor of humility and generosity.  On that day in the temple, not everybody gave bags of silver coins to the treasury. Folks gave what they could afford. And one widow gave what she clearly could not afford. Have you noticed that often it is those who are poor who are the most generous?

The poor widow (which in Jesus’ day was a redundant expression) gave the least of coins but gave the most relative to her income. Her two coppers came out of her poverty, not her wealth; out of her want, not out of her affluence.  Perhaps she gave so much because she knew what it’s like not to have enough — not enough food, or warm clothes, or shoes, or shelter, or medicines. Maybe it’s because she was grateful to God for the little she had.

Where did she get the money?  Have you ever wondered about that?  In ancient times there were not many jobs for women outside the home.  But there were some thinks she could do.  Perhaps she baked some bread and sold it.  But actually we do not know where this widow got her little bit of money.  But we do know this.  We know that she gave it, and for that, she received the approval of Jesus.  We do not know her name, but then we do not need to know her name, for her generosity and humility tell us all we need to know about this woman, as it should tell others all they need to know about us.

This widow’s faith was expressed not by her pride, but by her purse, not by how much she gave, but by how little she held back, not by the richness of the garments she wore, but by the humility of her heart.

We should contrast the widow with the giving of the average American Christian.  According to Gallup, in the average church 17 percent of the people say they tithe, but church records show that only 3 percent actually tithe.  Forty percent of all the people who attend church give nothing at all to the church.  Even those who do give have been giving less.  in 2000, the average church donor contributed $649 to church, this is down from $806 in 1999 [George Barna Research (]. 

What has happened here?  It almost seems as if church members have changed from stewards to consumers.  Church is seen as a convenience not a necessity.  It is one of many options.  Americans today will come to church if there is a program they are interested in, or they will bring their kids to church because they think kids ought to be in church, but many church members are not themselves personally committed to their church.  Maybe they need to rethink what it means to be a Christian.

I read a little story about Mother Teresa.  She visited Australia. A new recruit to the Franciscan order in Australia was assigned to be her guide and “gofer” during her stay.  Thrilled and excited at the prospect of being so close to this woman, he dreamed of how much he would learn from her and what they would talk about.  But during her visit, he became frustrated.  Although he was constantly near her, the friar never had the opportunity to say one word to Mother Teresa. There were always other people for her to meet.  Finally, her tour was over, and she was due to fly to New Guinea.  In desperation, the friar spoke to Mother Teresa. “If I pay my own fare to New Guinea, can I sit next to you on the plane so I can talk to you and learn from you?”

Mother Teresa looked at him. “You have enough money to pay airfare to New Guinea?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” he replied eagerly.

“Then give that money to the poor,” she said. “You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.” [Source unknown] 

Mother Teresa hit on something in that anecdote that the widow in the gospel of Mark also knew—that sometimes we learn essential lessons by giving that cannot be learned any other way.

Mother Teresa also said, “If you give what you do not need, it isn’t giving.”  That is exactly what Jesus meant in our lesson today.  The scribes gave out of their abundance what they did not need.  The widow gave out of her poverty, so she was the only one who actually gave at all.

Now this scripture offers us a couple of obvious choices.  Are we the scribes?  Or, are we the widow?  We know of course which we ought to be.  Jesus does not leave us in any doubt about that.  We ought to be the widow.  We ought to be a generous and humble people about whom there is an odor of sanctity.  But are we?  Are we the widow?  Do our lives show forth our faith?  That is the question we need to answer.  Amen.



Schiff, Nancy Rica. Odd Jobs: Portraits of Unusual Occupations.

Wolf, Buck. “Really odd jobs: odor sniffers, worm ranchers, porta-potty technicians and more.”



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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