“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.””
Mark 12:41-44 (NRSV)
Mark 12:41-44 and its cousin scripture in Luke 21:1-4, which tells the same story, has often been hailed as a teaching on faith. It is often used as a way to talk about tithing and sacrificial giving. And, often that interpretive decision works as many of us struggle with giving. We give when we think we have it or we can spare it and not out of obedience. We don’t give because we acknowledge and want to honor the fact that all that we have is because of The Lord. We don’t give because we believe that we will be rewarded as God promises in Malachi 3:8-10. We don’t even give because we love God and see it as an act of worship (which it is). No. We give when it is convenient for us and makes logical sense based on the budget we have constructed. With all of that being said, however, in this passage of scripture there is a story with a much more sinister nature hiding beneath the surface.
I once heard my father in ministry say that when you take the text (referring to scripture) out of context, what you are left with is a con. This is an important lesson for all of us, but it is especially important to take into consideration when analyzing this scripture passage.
On the surface this section itself, which focuses on the actions of this woman, Jesus and his disciples, and a bunch of rich people, is cut and dry. But, I would argue that these four verses are the continuation of the teaching that precedes it. In other words, Jesus preaches and teaches and then takes them to the real life example of what he was just talking about. Mark 12:38-40 reads, “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, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (NRSV). These three verses come before verses 41-44. Jesus describes the scribes in many less than desirable ways, but the most damning was when he said, “They devour widows’ houses” (NRSV). Now, let’s fast forward to our focus scripture. “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny”(NRSV).He just finished talking about the scribes, who were the religious authorities of the time, as devourers of widow’s houses and now we see a “poor widow” contributing to the treasury “out of her poverty,” and “everything she had, all she had to live on.”
We are led to believe that this woman’s faith was so great that she contributed the very last of what she had because she was giving to her God. Jesus never mentions anything about faith in these verses. And, look carefully at the words that he actually uses. He says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 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” (NRSV). When he says that she has put in more than all those who were contributing, he means that she has proportionally put in more. Her sacrifice was more. The burden was heaviest on her. Rich people giving out of their abundance is analogous to billionaires like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckererg, and others donating to charity. At the end of the day, a one million dollar contribution from someone who has 100 billion dollars is the equivalent of many of us handing out a dollar or two. We can easily give that to someone or spend it on something. In fact, we spend far more on a morning coffee or lunch. Nevertheless, in that scenario, what the rich folks in Mark 12:41-44 are giving up amounts to spare change that they will not miss or think about any further.
With all of this in mind, what has led to this woman giving her very last and how are the scribes devouring the homes of widows like her?
To begin to explore that, we must understand the religious culture and the operations of synagogue leaders such as the scribes. After all, this was the cultural context and operation that Jesus in Matthew 21 and Luke 19 was fed up with. He turned the tables over in the temple and drove out those buying and selling and the money changers saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:13, NRSV). In that situation, the practice of people needing animals to sacrifice on the altar so that their sins would be forgiven had been turned into a highly profitable business operation. Essentially, your sins can be forgiven for the low price of such and such dollars! Those who could afford a bull (the rich) paid for them. Those who could afford a sheep (let’s call them the middle class) did so. And. Those who were in poverty only had the option of purchasing a dove. You can clearly see how this was wrong on many levels. Not only were they making huge profits, but they were also excluding those who couldn’t regularly afford even a dove to sacrifice. So, in essence, unless you could afford it, your sins were not forgiven, at least publicly recognized as such by the religious authorities.
The poor widow in Mark 12 finds herself exploited in a different but very similar way as what Jesus confronts in the temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21). Before calling them devourers of widows’ houses, he talks about the scribes this way, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets” (Mark 12:38-39)! What the scribes are after is monetary gain and status. They control the treasury and therefore they are becoming wealthy from the offerings that are given by the people. The evidence is in Jesus’ description of the long robes they like to wear, which represent luxury. Luxury is expensive. This elevates their status and puts them in a position to be honored at banquets and well seated in the synagogues. People will know them, identify them, and, ultimately, honor them based on their dress, authority, and status. This widow, who is also representative of one of the most vulnerable populations of people in Biblical times, is having her faithfulness exploited. The beneficiaries of this exploitation are the scribes that Jesus warns his disciples and followers about. This is the system that his ministry and eventual sacrifice and resurrection will put an end to.
We can, of course, look at several examples of jackleg preachers across the country and world who exploit people’s faith for a profit. Whether it be taking up offerings to buy a private jet or peddling a miraculous water and prayer cloth that will heal their bodies, the examples are far too numerous. More often than not, the people falling victim to these exploits are not in the economic weight class of the people exploiting them. But, beyond these religious instances, we have far too many broken societal and cultural systems that devour the most vulnerable (racially, economically, etc.) in the same ways that the poor widows are being devoured in Jesus’ time.
With the coronavirus pandemic in full effect, people are waking up even more to the realities of the broken governmental, social, political, and cultural systems that have been devouring black and brown people, the economically disadvantaged, the educationally disfranchised, the undocumented, and so on and so forth. We should be reflecting on these broken systems and seeking to be a part of an effort to transform our society beyond these broken and corrupt systems. We should reflect on whether or not healthcare should be tied to employment status because that can change at any given moment. We should be reflecting on why testing for a virus that has been classified as a pandemic is not free and was initially not being offered even when requested. We should reflect on why many of the essential workers and service workers who are Black and Brown are getting sick because they can’t afford to stay home and their jobs are still requiring them to work. We should reflect on our top government officials seeking to profit off of or protect their profits and investments instead of warning the public about the severity of a deadly virus and coming up with a plan to combat it. We should reflect on why massive corporations are the focus of a 2.2 trillion dollar relief package, while everyday folks will not make their rent this month. Let us be like Jesus in Mark 12 by offering a critique of the status quo and, as he did, with our lives transform that which is broken. The reality is that people are being devoured. Honestly, some of us may be getting devoured. But, now that it is exposed in a greater way, let us not return to silence, indifference, or inaction. Let us be the change agents in the spirit of the ultimate change agent, our Lord and savior Christ Jesus.