Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. So repeats the refrain from Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books, perhaps because it is so depressingly realistic yet awfully faithful in spite of the apparent temporary nature of everything. Everything ends, the grass withers, the flower fades. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose. The Teacher, the speaker of Ecclesiastes, is disenchanted with this world, as he has had power and seen that all power, all riches, all of this that we see, eventually ends.
That constant refrain, that all is vanity, comes back to me in reading Mark this morning. There is a lot to be said in this small passage. Usually focus is given to the widow, and her meaningful offering, honestly, that would be easy. It’s easy to default to the standard narrative that is attributed to this passage, that Jesus is saying that the giving is what is important, even though it may be meager in comparison.
It’s not a bad message. In fact, I quite like that message. It makes me feel good because most of my life, I’ve not had a lot of money. I’m pretty sure the same goes for most of everyone here. In all probability, I’ll never be crazy rich, but I can still give, and perhaps one day I’ll be able to give more. Nonetheless, what I give is meaningful, and what you give is meaningful, as long as what you give comes out of honesty and authenticity.
The sad fact is, honesty and authenticity is a rare commodity in this world, and that is what Jesus is drawing our attention to this day.
This is not a new phenomenon. If Jesus was talking about it in his day, then it’s obviously something that’s been a part of our nature for a long time. However, I think that as our society has evolved and developed, a lack of authenticity in the pursuit of vanity has become the motivation of a huge swath of the population.
Jesus calls us to view what this desire to keep up appearances can do to us, can do to society, and why we must reject it in favor of something else, something holy, something real, something authentic.
An Observation of Vanity in Action
First, we need to find our roots in this scripture.
This is a relatively famous story, like I said, usually around stewardship campaign season, because it is so often reduced to a commentary on giving. However, there is so much more going on.
Jesus begins by talking to his followers about a certain group of people called scribes. This translation, the CEB, calls them legal experts, which wouldn’t be far off from how we would classify them today, but truthfully there’s more to it. Unlike our society, this was a largely illiterate society, and the ability to read was not widely available. In fact, literacy among the people didn’t really begin to happen until the last 500 years, after the invention of the moveable type printing press. So the scribes were the local writers, the ones who had access to knowledge that many others didn’t.
This fact lent itself prestige in the community. If you needed a contract written up, you needed a scribe. If you needed a letter written to someone in another town, you needed a scribe. If you needed anything involving writing, you needed a scribe, and being a scribe meant that you could charge your services at any rate you could, depending on the demand in your community. That being said, they often became rich. So this wouldn’t be like talking to a lawyer, really. This would be like talking about a county clerk, except with a lot more power and a lot less regulation.
In Jesus day, if you lived in Jerusalem, you knew who you were, and where you were in the pecking order, and these scribes would more than likely be close to the top. Since they set the prices for their services, they often could exploit people who needed them. Not only that, they were central to the goings-on of the temple, as their uses as readers were necessary in interpreting the Torah in legal cases. So everyone knew them, and often, they flaunted their success.
Being so essential, it can be tempting to simply relegate them to the background in many ways. Oh, they’re a necessary part of society, this is how scribes act, and that’s how it’s always been, so why question it.
Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t let anyone sink into the background. For him, everyone is important, from the poor widow to the rich scribes, and because of that, he doesn’t let appearances–or injustice–get in the way.
Jesus says: “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
In doing this, Jesus tramples on one of society’s unwritten rules: don’t question the people in power. They run the show. They’ve always run the show. They can undo you if it’s in their best interests, and given half a chance, they will.
Nonetheless, he makes this pronouncement of condemnation upon these prominent people in society. These were the powerful. The rich. Often how they got rich was through dishonesty, inauthenticity, and blatant self-interest. On top of all of it, they flaunted their riches, as they were the celebrities of the day. And here is Jesus saying that because of their dishonest gains, they will be judged most harshly.
Then, he goes on to observe the scene in front of the temple. He notices two things: One, the richer folks, the scribes, will often give lots of money to the temple, and those without much money will give much less. The caveat though? The poor will give a much greater proportion of their money than the rich will, and often the rich will only give a portion of their excess, as opposed to the poor who give more than what they can afford.
Jesus then makes public his observation: that the giving of the poor widow is worth more than that which the rich scribes gave. That on its own is a powerful observation. But taken in tandem with the previous observation of the damaging excesses and vanity of the rich scribes, who often will take the money that the poor willingly give them out of earnest and use it against these very same people? That’s a devastating critique on society. Not on the poor, who give out of honest and good faith, but on the rich, who callously waste and flaunt their resources, out of a sense of vanity and self-satisfaction.
Jesus is calling out the vanity of the scribes and compares it with the honesty and earnest desire to care for others found in the poor widow. And what a mirror he puts up against us today.
The Evolution of Callous Vanity
Today, we in the west live in a culture defined very much by vanity. Call it fame culture, celebrity culture, whatever, it all amounts to vanity performed in such a way that demeans, degrades, and destroys other people.
I want to make a clear distinction at first though: I am talking about vanity here, not self-esteem. I think there needs to be a distinction made because, to be frank, vanity and self-esteem are often at odds with each other. Self-esteem is when you are proud of being yourself. It comes from an honest place. It comes from understanding that you have a bit of the image of God in you, and you ought to honor it, because when you love yourself, you are loving that part of yourself that belongs to God. We ought to take pride in being made and loved by God–that’s not at stake. Self-esteem is a positive pride.
Vanity, on the other hand, is pride based on comparison to others, and degradation of others. Vanity is selfish pride, pride that comes from believing that you are better than other people. It’s an exclusive pride, and often comes out of a desire to tear others down. Vanity comes not out of self-love, but rather, self-loathing. Deep down, those who are vain are fearful, because they don’t believe they are good enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, powerful enough, etc. and therefore because they don’t believe in themselves enough they feel a need to degrade others. This is not an individual problem, but something comes out of a culture long in the making, one that existed in Jesus’s day with the scribes, and has spiraled with the advent of communication technology and modern media.
Let’s take a look at some sad facts, shall we?
In a survey conducted in 2014, more than 1,300 parents of children aged between five and 10 years old were told to ask their offspring the question: ”What would you like to be when you grow up?” They were not asked to show their children a list of answers, but rather to wait and see what the children said. They then matched their child’s answer with a list provided or were told to select the option ”other” and then specify what they were told. The results? 22% say they just want to be rich. That was the number 1 answer. Number 2? Being famous, at 19%. Only after that, did children respond with other more conventional answers, like being a police officer, or a zookeeper, or a doctor. Parents were also told to ask their children whether they thought money could buy happiness. Three-quarters (75%) of the youngsters said ”yes”.
It doesn’t get any better when we’re older, either. In 2006, Orville Gilbert Brim published a book based on data that he collected called “The Fame Motive.” Surveys in Chinese and German cities have found that about 30 percent of adults report regularly daydreaming about being famous, and more than 40 percent expect to enjoy some passing dose of fame. The rates are roughly equivalent to those found in American adults. For teenagers, the rates are higher.
People will go to extraordinary lengths to become famous, too. Some will do it simply by seeking a career in acting or music–relatively harmless. However, some will seek their fortune by going into the financial sector, and in doing that run the risk of achieving success by unethical, immoral means, be it by cheating people out of money, gaming the stock market, or any other means. Even worse are those who will often put others in harm’s way to simply have their moment in the sun, be it by pulling a media stunt to get a reality show, or worse, seeking infamy by committing acts of violence.
Fame, fortune, all of it results from some form of vanity, pride that demeans others in order to prop up someone who feels so hateful of one’s self that the only way they feel good is if others like them, even if it puts others at risk in the process.
And yet… this need not be the way it is for us all. All of us have it in our power to reject vanity, and embrace authenticity. The culture of the church can be just as prey to impulses of vanity as anyone else. One of the biggest complaints that non-Christians give about the church is a lack of authenticity, that for many it’s all a big act, a show, done in order put on a mask of glitter and glory in order seem as spotless as can be.
We, as Christians, can change that script. We can reject that narrative, and remember who we are. We are all made in the image of God, and because we are made in the image of God, with that comes a certain measure of self-worth, and pride in our own beauty, our own creation, our own grace. That measure belongs to all people in this world, and by helping people understand that it is by God’s grace you are made, saved, and made holy, that is something to take pride in, not because you earned it but because it is a gift. One is not required to flaunt or demean in order to have that glory; it is freely given.
That widow knew who she was, and to whom she belonged, and she gave not because she had an excess, or because she could afford it, but because in doing so she was honoring that image of God within her, and glorifying the God who loves her. To her, that money wasn’t going to a corrupt organization. It went to the glory of God, and nothing less.
God sees that. God sees who we truly are, and if we fail to recognize that God is in us, then we succumb to a destructive pride and vanity that is the ruin of all others. When we understand that we are loved, that we are worthy, that we are beautiful and glorious in our own right without material possessions or earthly fame, then we begin to understand that glory comes from God. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.