by Br Colin McDonald cfc
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept comments of respect in public, seats of prominence in the synagogue, and places of honour at banquets. They devour the property of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers…This poor widow contributed more to the collection than all the others put together. They all gave what they’ll never miss. She gave what she couldn’t afford – she gave her all.” Mark 12, 38-44
Once again, context is vital in coming to understand the significance of today’s readings. Today’s first reading from Kings recounts how a widow from the town of Zarephath, anticipating that she and her son were about to die of starvation, still shared with the prophet Elijah the little food they had left. She trusted in Elijah’s assurance that God would provide. And God did provide. However, the boy took ill and died. After praying aloud to God, Elijah raised the boy to life and restored him to his mother. This story is sandwiched between two illustrations of how King Ahab had led the people of Israel away from God, embraced false prophets of Baal, married ruthless queen Jezebel, and instituted a reign of oppression and terror. Ahab’s first major undertaking was to engage Hiel of Bethel to rebuild Jericho. The builder was forced by Ahab to murder his two young sons, Abiram and Segud and bury their bodies in the foundations of the building works, to gain the approval of Ahab’s new-found gods on the building project. The second illustration is an account of what Ahab did when drought ravaged his kingdom. He directed his lieutenant Obadiah to join him in searching for grain and fodder – not to feed the starving populace but to ensure that his war-horses got their fill (cf Kings 16, 34 & 18, 5). It was in circumstances such as these that the widow of Zarephath, Hiel of Bethel and all the ordinary citizens of Israel were forced to struggle for survival. Down through history, corrupt leaders and their misuse of position and power have visited suffering on ordinary people.
Now let’s look at the context of today’s gospel-reading. Jesus had just finished teaching in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. He had fielded trick questions, expanded on the great commandments of loving God and neighbour, and used his opportunities to criticise the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He then sat down in view of the stream of people coming up to make donations for the Temple and those who looked after it. His attention was caught by the poor widow at the centre of today’s gospel-reading, who made a very small donation. But it was everything she had left to live on. Singling her out to his disciples, Jesus commented: “Truly I say to you, this poor woman has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12, 43-44).
Immediately before this, Jesus had predicted that the scribes would be called to account for, on the one hand, seeking prestige, claiming privileges and faking religiosity, and, on the other, for resorting to extortionary practices by preying on the poor and “devouring widows’ houses” (Mark 12, 40). Then, as he left the Temple, he rejected the comment made to him by a disciple about the magnificence of the Temple buildings: “You see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another – all will be torn down” (Mark 13, 2). A short time later, as he sat with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, looking down on the Temple he described the profiteering of religious leaders as “desecration and sacrilege set up where it should not be” (Mark 13,14). In Jesus’ opinion, any religious system, that exploited those whom it was meant to protect, was worthy of annihilation. A religious system built around a Temple whose leaders were exploiting those they were meant to protect had surely lost its way. Jesus named it for what it had become. True, he was in admiration of the woman for her preparedness to give her all and for her implied trust that God would provide for her in her necessity. At the same time, he was appalled by the system that had deluded her into thinking that giving from her nothingness was pleasing to God.
While today’s gospel-reading puts the focus on the generosity of a destitute woman who has been tricked into supporting a Temple that has been infected by injustice and corruption, it leads neatly into the opening scene of Mark’s next chapter (ch.13) in which Jesus is depicted as sitting in judgement on the same temple that has lost its purpose as an edifice built to honour the God of Israel, a God of justice, mercy and compassion.
But all this still leaves me with a question: Why was it that Mark presented the story of the poor widow as the highlight of Jesus’ final visit to the Temple in Jerusalem? I dare to suggest that the story of the widow giving her all acts as a parable of the life and death of Jesus, a parable of Jesus who was about to give himself into the hands of corrupt and unjust religious leaders to be done to death out of love for the whole of humanity. Jesus trusted in God all the way to his death on the Cross. The poor widow trusted in God as she put her all into the Temple treasury. The widow of Zarephath trusted in God as she shared all she had left with the prophet Elijah. Jesus gave his all for the world by his death on the Cross.
Embedded in the stories of the two widows are messages and challenges for us all. The widow in today’s first reading opts for survival, using the little she had to provide a meal for herself and her son, but she finds within herself the generosity to share with Elijah. She also places her trust in God. The widow of the gospel-reading, rather than letting the circumstances of her life push her into spending her little to survive, acts extravagantly and sacrifices her all for God. Aware or not of the abuses carried out by Temple officials, she freely drops her all into the Temple treasury, trusting that those in her community, who take God’s Law seriously, will open their hearts and their purses to provide for her. If our discipleship of Jesus is genuine, if we, too, are true to the God whom Jesus and the two widows trusted, we have to be prepared to make some sacrifice, to make the effort to connect with the poor and destitute in our communities. We all have something to give, not out of our abundance, but out of what we regard as essential – our gifts, our energy, our qualifications, our time to listen, to visit, to assist. For whom and for what are we prepared to make sacrifices? The answer to that has to find expression in meaningful action that touches people in need.