A widow’s gift

Pentecost 23

Mark 12:38-44

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us, Jesus who leads us and the Spirit who inspires us. Amen.

Most of us are familiar with the story of the widow and with Jesus’ implication that her small contribution to the Temple treasury puts to shame that of the Pharisees. The story is often used in the context of stewardship campaigns to challenge us to consider our own commitment. That is certainly one way to interpret the story however, if we hear it in its wider context, we may discover that, for Mark, it has quite a different meaning.

According to Mark, Jesus’ dispute with the authorities has been escalating since his arrival in Jerusalem. In fact, from the beginning of the gospel, Mark has skillfully built up the friction between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees. It begins in the second chapter when, to the horror of the authorities, Jesus claims the authority to forgive – something which is God’s prerogative. The tension builds as Jesus breaks the Sabbath, first to pluck grain and then to heal – and the Pharisees plot to put him to death. Later, Jesus accuses the Pharisees and the scribes of hypocrisy and, in a statement which foreshadows today’s gospel. He accuses them of using their obligations to God to excuse them from their obligations to the people around them.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem the conflict escalates to a point from which there is no retreat. Even when he enters the city, he antagonizes the authorities by inciting the crowds and appearing as the king predicted by Zechariah. As if this is not enough, his first action in the city is to drive out the money changers from the Temple and to overturn the seats of those who sell doves. He then tells the parable of the wicked tenants which implicates the Pharisees and scribes in the murder of the prophets and predicts their part in his own death. He defeats the Pharisees in theological arguments and, to add insult to injury, Jesus directly accuses the scribes of self-seeking behaviour and of the oppression of the poor (represented here by widows).

At first glance, the story of the widow does not seem to fit Mark’s purpose of describing the growing hostility between Jesus and the authorities. However, the positioning of the story indicates its significance. Mark places it between Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and his prediction of the destruction of the Temple – a statement which causes so much offense that it is quoted as testimony in the trial against him. This suggests that the story is not just a story of generosity, but that it belongs to Jesus’ criticism of the Temple cult and those who support it.

A number of unusual features in the story support this view. For example, unlike other characters in the gospel, the widow does not interact with Jesus, she is not in need of healing, nor is she commended for her faith. She is not, and does not become a follower of Jesus and her life is not changed by the event which Mark recounts. In fact the widow appears to be quite independent of, and oblivious to Jesus. Further, Jewish law was quite clear about the protection of and support for the widow and orphan. The Temple should have been supporting the widow, not the widow it.

As Jesus and others saw it, the practice of religion had replaced a relationship with God. Outward form had taken precedence over inner holiness. Religious observance had become an end in itself, replacing faith and obligation to others. One result of this was that those who could least afford it were exploited by the cult which had developed around the Temple. Instead of supporting them, the cult demanded that they support it. Wealthy widows were particularly vulnerable. Having no other protectors they were dependent on the scribes to manage their affairs and were not always able to see when they are being taken advantage of.

So Jesus denounces the scribes whose desire for wealth and status meant that they were using their position to take advantage of those for whom they had a duty of care. Long prayers, he says, are not evidence of their piety but are designed to encourage the unsuspecting to believe in their sincerity. The mention of widows in Jesus’ attack leads into the story of a widow who gives the last of her money to the Temple. The widow is exploited not by the direct action of the scribes, but by a cultic system which insists that her gift is necessary even though she cannot afford it.

A common understanding of the story is that Jesus is commending the widow for her action. Yet, there are no words of commendation – simply a statement of fact. In the light of his critique of the Temple cult, it seems unlikely that Jesus would be praising someone for supporting it. For Jesus the widow represents all that is false and corrupt in the Temple cult – the exploitation of the poor and the use of false piety to avoid responsibility. Rather than commending the woman, Jesus is drawing attention to the way in which the system is abusing her – she will have nothing to live on.

In this story Jesus, for once, is not a participant but an observer. The widow is unaware that she is being watched and Jesus does not engage her in conversation. She may not know who Jesus is, or that he is observing the Temple. Yet it appears that her actions have a profound effect on him. This is demonstrated by the fact that Jesus utters words that elsewhere he reserves for statements about the future: “Truly, I say.”

In her study of the passage, Kinukawa suggests that the action of the widow goes straight to the heart of Jesus’ self definition. The widow is not to be changed by Jesus, but Jesus by her. The widow, who has nothing, gives what little she has and trusts God with her future. Jesus, sitting at a distance, observes her willingness to place her trust God despite the failure of the Temple cult. Her action provokes him to commit his life to God as she has hers. Her experience of exploitation compels him to continue his collision course with the authorities. Injustice must be challenged, oppression confronted and false piety exposed. Whatever the cost to himself, Jesus will continue his mission and place his trust entirely in God no matter what the future may bring.

A woman gives everything she has, and Jesus, watching her, knows that for him, there is no going back.


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