Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 7, 2021
Mark 12:38-44 Commentary
Our two sections are directly connected by the mention of widows. In the first section, the widows are made destitute at the hands of the scribes, and in the second, a poor widow gives the last of her financial goods as a contribution to the faith community. Jesus clearly condemns the scribes in the first section, but how are we to understand his comments about the poor widow’s offering? Is he praising her willingness to give so sacrificially, setting her up as an example for others? Or, is he continuing his negative critique of the scribes (and the temple system)? Is this a fundraising sermon or a judgement text?
Lately, I’ve noticed that the scholars I read have shifted towards this second view (reflected already the last time we were commenting on this text). In fact, given the way they are presented in the text, it’s hard to discount the connection.
Jesus warns about a number of practices that the scribes have adopted—including devouring widows’ houses. How did they “devour” widows’ resources? Historical evidence suggests a number of ways scribes interacted with (and could take financial advantage of) widows:
- though it was forbidden, many took payment from widows for providing legal assistance;
- while serving as lawyers, some cheated on the wills or mismanaged the widows’ estates;
- some scribes were known to take advantage of, and freeload upon, the hospitality offered to them by widows;
- certain scribes were in the habit of taking payment and promising to make intercessory prayer for widows (i.e., making it a business transaction);
- and if a widow could not pay, there were known cases where scribes literally took the widow’s home as payment for services rendered.
Now consider that the offering for the Treasury was used to pay the costs associated with running the Temple (supplies for offerings and the salaries of staff who prepared the offerings)—a shared responsibility of every member of the Jewish community since they all shared in its benefits. Everyone could contribute to this “general fund” because the offering collection was set up in the Court of Women, where both Jewish men and women could be present. As Jesus watches, lots of rich people put in quantitatively large sums of money, but when compared to the overall amount of money they have, Jesus implies that it’s nothing compared to the abundance and security they have waiting for them at home. The “poor” widow—the addition of the adjective “poor” is significant in drawing the contrast—on the other hand, gave out of her poverty. It was everything she had. Her two coins were the equivalent of enough money to buy a handful of flour. In other words, all she had left was enough money to make a biscuit for lunch and instead of feeding herself, she put it in the church offering plate.
Considering that Jesus just spoke about the showy scribes swindling widows, it isn’t a far leap to see the connection. It is very likely that she is one of the widows that has been systematically taken advantage of and made to suffer by the hands of people meant to support and provide for her. Remember that God commanded the care of widows and orphans, even saying that portions of the tithes could be used to support them financially, if necessary. (Deuteronomy 14.29) If the woman is on her last two coins, doesn’t she need that sort of support? Instead, it seems that the scribes have impoverished her, and there are lots of people who could help her, but they’ll get more attention and praise if they drop their money into the Treasury offering instead.
And perhaps the poor widow feels a responsibility and a sense of duty to continue to participate and support the faith community as well. Whether she does so out of obligation and duty to the expectations of the community, or out of her deep trust for God, is not shared with us— at best, we can only guess at what motivates her. It’s also important to remember that Jesus isn’t talking to this woman, but to his disciples. He isn’t addressing her about her actions, but using what he sees in her to address something much bigger.
Jesus sat down in the court and watched as the established process “did its thing.” He’s literally taken a step back and watched the Treasury system at work. Jesus says nothing about the widows except that she is poor and has “put in more” than anyone because the cost and consequences have been highest on her. The words in themselves do not make clear a positive or negative meaning… Someone with unhealthy boundaries, for instance, might overextend themselves and contribute more than others and develop a martyr complex, while someone else might make an offering so large that they feel the impact of their sacrifices but were motivated by a sense of calling from God to do so. We don’t actually know what was the case for this particular widow, and her internal state isn’t the point of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to the disciples—even though he is using her as a contrast to the rich people and the scribes. Just because he doesn’t want us to be like the scribes and the rich people showing off their offerings doesn’t mean he wants us to be like the poor widow either.
The clear judgement statement that Jesus does make comes in verse 40, where he condemns the scribes for their “See me!” attitude. They wore long robes so that they could imitate the priests, and they wore them everywhere so that they would be noticed. They did it so that people would have to greet and acknowledge them in public, and they came to expect the seats of honour at worship. Those seats of worship, by the way, were placed between the sanctuary and the rest of the people, and they faced the worshippers—a total power move to communicate their own sense of importance. This attitude carried over to parties where they expected to be the guest of honour. These scribes did whatever they could to be noticed and to stay in the spotlight. And when you feel important, you think you’re untouchable, and you do more and more shady things, like devour widows and their homes…
Like the Scribes screaming “See me!” with their long robes and special public attention, Jesus saw how the Treasury temple offering system was designed to give attention to people who put in the most money. The container was shaped like a trumpet’s bell, so as the coins hit the metal, they clinked and clanked and drew attention. Plus, the larger the offering, the more time it would take for the coins to filter down through the narrowing opening to the chest below… all of this happening in public. The poor widow’s coins were probably silent in comparison to the offerings of the “rich and famous.”
And when we consider not only the larger arc of the gospel of Mark in regards to offerings and religious duties, but also the commands that fill both the Old and New Testament about caring for those in financial need (especially widows and orphans) we can’t help but consider Jesus’ point about the widow’s offering. All that we know about how Christ summarizes the spirit of the all the laws as loving God and loving our neighbours comes into sharp focus here in the Court of Women. Technically, by making their contribution, these rich people have done nothing wrong according to the letter of the law. But why, then, is this widow poor and in such need? Could it be because the scribes and the rich people in community have plenty of love for themselves (i.e., wanting to be noticed and have their status recognized in the community), but not enough love for others, like the poor widow?
And how are we perpetuating these same systems in our churches today? I sometimes wonder if our “times, talents, and treasures” speeches when it is pledge time can be just as blind to those in difficult seasons as the Treasury system became… It is easy to slip into the expectation that everyone must contribute to the faith community rather than everyone can contribute to the well-being of the whole—and can do so in different ways. The truth of the matter is that sometimes, someone does the most good for the community and for themselves when they acknowledge their real need and allow others to care and provide for them for a while. For a season, their honest vulnerability is their contribution. Further, I’m not sure that there’s any church out there whose members don’t struggle with the image game—it’s the same game that keeps us from admitting when we need help.
And as he looks at it all play out, it’s as though Jesus is saying, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” In fact, next week, we will see that Jesus adds a layer of condemnation to the whole system when he predicts that the Temple will be destroyed.
To further contrast the state of the rich people and the poor widow, Jesus uses a present participle to describe their “abundance;” it implies a continuing state of having way more than enough. But the widow gave “everything she had,” which is in the past imperfect tense, describing an ongoing condition in which all she had was this very little amount, and now she has nothing to live on.
Perhaps a modern version of the preachers who like to walk around in “long robes” is captured by the Instagram account preachersnsneakers. The account shows the monetary cost of the items of clothing highly influential pastors are wearing, from shoes to accessories. In an article on the Instagram account, historian Tim Gloege points out that, “Dress often reflects who people currently admire, and how you generate authority in society.” Ben Kirby, who runs Preachers n Sneakers, says he is motivated by the possibility of getting the American church to re-evaluate “what we value”—just as Jesus was doing as he watched the poor widow give her last two cents. Quotes are from this article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/03/22/preachers-sneakers-instagram-wealth/
In the 2020 movie “I Care a Lot” the main character, Maria, has worked out a way to use the legal and medical system to her advantage. She creates a business out of becoming elderly people’s court-mandated legal guardians. She tricks and forces her elderly wards into nursing homes, sells all of their belongings and recoups their financial resources for herself. In every way she devours their houses (and so much more), even referring to herself as a “lioness.” The movie highlights how it isn’t just her actions that are to blame, but that systems (court, medical, for-profit care facilities) make her conniving possible.
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