As part of our ongoing occasional series on The Great Divorce, I have invited Doug Jackson to share a devotional reflection on this classic C.S. Lewis book. It takes the form of a homily, a sermon on the idea of heaven based on the text Mark 12:38-44.
This is a sermon I had the privilege of preaching for the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Fall Retreat at Camp Allen, Texas, in 2012. The message follows a triptych pattern. In ikonography, the triptych’s three panels often work as follows: The central panel portrays a biblical moment, often in the life of Christ, that holds universal significance. The flanking panels locate this universal truth in our own world. One will often contain images of great saints, some from vastly different eras than the historical scene. The other might very well portray the ikonographer herself wearing clothing of her own time. I have modified this structure to present the text, an insight from C. S. Lewis, whom I consider a great saint, and a point of entry for the preacher and congregation.
Eternal God, You sent Your Son to sit patiently as we stand between cross and apocalypse and choose. Grant us wisdom now to act in things small and great with an eye to the greatness, not of our own deeds, but of the One who sees them, that we may “See a world in a grain of sand /And heaven in a wild flower /Hold infinity in the palm of our hand /And eternity in an hour.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Central Panel: Christ at the Treasury
Our text for today finds Jesus curiously passive. He sat down opposite the treasury and began observing. Sitting and looking: And this story falls between Our Lord’s ritual destruction of the Temple the day before (Mk 11.15-18) and his sermon predicting its destruction later in the afternoon (13.1ff). Now he parks himself in a pew and watches them pass the offering plates!
Yet Jesus is not so passive as it may seem. The verb used here denotes careful attention – the way a general watches when he inspects his troops. And the verb-tense indicates repetitive action: Jesus kept this up for a while.
The story is a simple one: many rich people were putting in large sums: Again, the verb hints at repeated activity – there were lot of them and they had a lot to give so it took a while. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins: The word for “poor” here denotes the greatest extreme of poverty, the ninety-ninth percent of the ninety-nine percent. The term for “coins” comes from the verb meaning “to peal”: She put in the thin skin of a shaved currency. Her total gift amounted to one thirty-second of a day’s wage for an undocumented day laborer. The verb now denotes point-action because, let’s face it, it doesn’t take long to toss two pennies into the plate!
And here’s the real irony: I said “offering plates” before but it wasn’t really like that. These were thirteen trumpet-shaped bronze chests set up in a courtyard. Each one had a label so you could designate how your gift was used. According to the law, an offering so small could only go to one thing: the Temple building fund! So she threw her money away – literally – on a building Jesus had already condemned and would condemn again on his way home, a building that the Romans would trash a mere three decades later!
So Jesus, who so far has only sat and watched, now declares: This poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury. She out-gave everybody, not because of how much she gave, or because of where she gave it, but because of the fact that she gave it sacrificially out of her love for God.
Consider for a moment a scene from C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Lewis-the-Narrator has just asked his celestial cicerone, George MacDonald, the age-old theological puzzler about free will and predestination. MacDonald replies,
“Do not fash yourself with such questions. Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till you are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself: and that ye can watch them making.” (emphasis added)
And page after page, we watch them; like Our Lord at the Temple treasury, we watch them decide where to invest their souls. And like the widow, they tend to choose what they will do with very small things: an addiction to pornography, blue-collar pride, professional reputation, marital spats. As MacDonald explains, quoting Milton, “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, ‘Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.” They don’t have to give much – indeed, they don’t have much to give – but whatever it is, they have to give it all. Two copper coins’ worth of self amount to less than a sliver peeled from the skin of an eternal soul yet they suffice to weigh one down to Hell.
And we watch; and Lewis watches; and MacDonald watches; and the Shining Ones watch; and all Heaven watches – and they stand between Hell below and Heaven ahead, and choose.
Right Panel: The Preacher & the Congregation
In weeping for the superficiality of our modern materialistic culture, poet Malcolm Guite laments that, “We choose, not between eternal destinies but between life-style options.” Ironically, we have believed one-half of Jesus’ warning: All the temples of this terrestrial world are temporary. But we have lost faith in the other half: An eternal world, the Kingdom of Heaven, breaks in on this world at every moment, making every decision an eternal one, and every moment an everlasting one.
And the question comes: What will you choose? In the instant where you can rejoice in the good fortune of a friend, or envy it; it the split-second of secondless forever when you can make a small sacrifice toward a temporary relief of a moment’s need and you either give or withhold; on the tiny Calvary of putting another’s need before your own will, when you can open your palms to receive the nail, or grasp a hammer to impale the flesh of a friend; what will you choose? In the instant when, perhaps riding on top of a bus up Headington Hill, you can buckle down the lobster-like armor the guards the self or shed it like an uncomfortable corset that closes up the entrance of Christ’s saving blood: What will you choose?
As he so often does, C. S. Lewis expresses the choice for us in his beautiful little poem, “Nearly They Stood”:
Nearly they stood who fall.
Themselves, when they look back
See always in the track
One torturing spot where all
By a possible quick swerve
Of will yet unenslaved –
By the infinitesimal twitching of a nerve –
Might have been saved.
Nearly they fell who stand.
These with cold after-fear
Look back and note how near
They grazed the Siren’s land
Wondering to think that fate
By threads so spider-fine
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.
Therefore I sometimes fear
Lest oldest fears prove true
Lest, when no bugle blew
My mort, when skies looked clear
I may have stepped one hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth bourn
Which, being once crossed forever unawares
Jesus is watching. And while he will at a word empower, he will not for all the world interfere, for love must be free: Choose well.
Doug Jackson’s love of C. S. Lewis came in two stages. At Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, Arizona, he discovered Lewis’ non-fiction. After he graduated in 1985 from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, and married his wife Becky he began reading the Chronicles of Narnia to his son and discovered Lewis’ fiction. Lewis’ writing sustained and informed his preaching in various Baptist churches in Arizona and Texas. Since 2006, Doug has taught spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for Logsdon Seminary at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi, where Lewis makes regular appearances in his lectures.