by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the market-places, seats of honour in synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour the houses of widows, and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers…” Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents…Jesus said to his disciples: “This poor woman…from her poverty has contributed all she had. Mark 12, 38-44
Today’s gospel reading opens with Jesus condemning the scribes for their public pretension and grandstanding, which, he says, is their way of camouflaging their greed and their exploitation of defenceless widows. Then, sitting down opposite the temple treasury, he watched the crowd lining up to make donations for the support of the religious leaders and the upkeep of the temple. He commented that the rich gave plenty because they had plenty. But his attention was caught by a poor widow, who “from her poverty contributed all she had, her whole livelihood”.
I want to suggest that we need to tread warily in interpreting this story, because what is not said is every bit as important as what is said. Jesus does not praise the widow. He does not say that her action is worthy of imitation or that she is not far from the kingdom. And Mark does not say that Jesus looked on her and loved her. But the fact that Jesus said that she contributed her whole livelihood surely suggests that she is a victim of the scribes he had just condemned for devouring “the houses of widows”. This woman did not have a house. Two coins worth two cents were her whole livelihood.
Could we ever imagine that Jesus would approve of anyone giving his or her entire livelihood to religion? We know from our reading of all the Gospels that Jesus consistently pointed out that God’s law was given for the benefit of people. The Law was not for its own sake. According to Jesus, the best religious values are human values. That’s why he repeatedly healed on the Sabbath the crippled, the lame and those suffering from psychological disabilities. Jesus’ actions demonstrated that human need precedes strict religious observance. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that very point. That story told how religious officials ignored the man who had been beaten and robbed rather than risk contamination by going to his aid and actually touching him.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 7, 10-13), we hear Jesus criticizing the Pharisees and scribes for twisting the Law to suit their own purposes: “And he said to them: ‘How ingeniously you get around the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition! For Moses said: Honour your father and your mother and Anyone who curses father or mother must be put to death. But you say: ‘If a man says to his father or mother: Anything that I might have used to help you is Korban (that is, dedicated to God), then he is forbidden from that moment to do anything for his father or mother. In this way you make God’s word ineffective for the sake of your tradition which you have handed down. And you do many other things like this.’”
The widow of today’s gospel had been conditioned by her religious leaders to believe that contributing to the temple treasury took priority over her own need to survive and the needs of any dependents she might have. In his comments about Korban in the passage cited above, Jesus was highlighting the stupidity and injustice of religious leaders who compelled people to contribute to the temple, even if it meant not taking proper care of themselves, needy parents or anyone else reliant on them. Having declared his outrage at such abuse carried out in the name of religion, he could hardly start commending the poor widow for throwing all she had into the collection box.
Rather than comparing the widow’s gift with the rapacious conduct of scribes who swindle poor widows out of their property, Jesus is expressing his dismay at the depths to which the organized religion he sees all around him has sunk. In Jesus’ view, it was a downright tragedy that the religion in which he had lived his own life had so lost its way that it was encouraging practices that abused the very people for whom it was meant to care. As he grew and matured, Jesus found the courage to name the decay and abuse, and to challenge the religious leaders who continued to promote and encourage abusive practices.
Like all literature, the books in the Bible are open to interpretation. To find the meaning of any of the readings presented to us each Sunday (or any other day) we have to look closely not only at the text itself, but at the context. The context of this story we call “The Widow’s Mite” is the opening tirade which Jesus aims at the scribes. He condemns their ostentatious behaviour, their desire for special treatment and the way they prey on widows. However, let’s not miss the significance of what follows immediately after Jesus has drawn his disciples’ attention to the significance of the widow’s donation. Regrettably this is not included in today’s gospel reading, but it’s part of the context of today’s reading.
As Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple, one of his disciples drew the group’s attention to the enormity of the stones that were part of the Temple structure and the impressiveness of the buildings. The response that Jesus gave contains one, last irony about the impact of the widow’s contribution. Predicting the destruction that awaits the Temple, the pride of Judaism, Jesus says: “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.” The poor widow’s contribution, along with all the other contributions of the rich, the important and the strugglers and all the misguided efforts of their religious leaders will turn out to be a total waste. Is any other comment on the widow’s contribution needed or relevant?
Two other comments: I cannot read today’s gospel without reflecting on the fact that there are ways in which our own Church has lost its way. We have witnessed abuse and seen its terrible impact on people who have been betrayed rather than nourished and protected. It is all too easy to point the finger and condemn. I have to ask myself what I am doing to breathe life and hope into the Church community of which I am a part. Secondly, I respectfully suggest that the selectors of the readings for today missed the point by paralleling the first reading from the Book of Kings with the gospel reading from Mark. About the only thing they have in common is their focus on poor widows. The widow of Zarephath was encouraged by an extraordinarily good and holy man (Elijah) to share the last of her food. The widow of the gospel was compelled by meaningless practice to give all she had to a system that had lost its way.
And for all those who insist that “The Widow’s Mite” is a story about generosity and stewardship, here’s a parable: Once upon a time there was a man who had nothing. God noticed his distress and gave him ten apples. Three were for food, three were for trading, so he could find shelter, and three were to exchange for clothes to keep himself warm. But the tenth apple was included so that the man would have something to give back to God as a “thank you”. The man followed the instructions, feeding himself and trading to get shelter and clothes. Then he looked at the tenth apple and saw that it was better than the other nine. He knew in his heart that this was the apple that God was expecting in return, but then thought that God had all the other apples in the world. So, he ate the tenth apple and gave God the core.