Date: November 7, 2021
Bible Text: Mark 12:38-44 | Bart Smith
What point is Jesus trying to make here, do you think?
In most traditional reads of this story, the line of interpretation goes something like this: she, the unnamed widow, is an exemplary giver. “See this widow,” Jesus instructs his followers. She took two coins — I love how the First Nations Version tells it, “two small, poorly beaded earrings on it, worth almost nothing” — and offered it all to God, every last cent. Out of her poverty, she gave an abundance. She’s a model of single-minded commitment and wholehearted devotion. Of sacrifice.
This story is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke and usually makes the rounds in the fall when churches are gearing up for (here) what we used to call “stewardship season.” I don’t know if the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary, the calendar of scripture readings a lot of churches follow, planned it that way. Preachers will take this episode of supposed model generosity and steer in the direction of “See this widow here? She gave her all, and you should too… or at least enough until you really feel it.” The ushers could then pass out the pledge cards. Or because we now include online giving options, I could say, “Get out your smartphones, open up the Venmo app, and when you send money to @StMarksAZ, put two emoji coins in the “what’s it for?” line.
But back to my original question: what’s the point that Jesus is trying to make here? What’s after?
He’s speaking to his disciples here, his followers, so what’s he trying to teach them? Is it about the total cost of discipleship, of following in his footsteps? Is it about giving God their all, giving everything to his kingdom of God movement? That would be consistent with his charge, “take up your cross and follow me” and what he is about to do in just a little while in Mark’s gospel, walk up Calvary to the cross. That would be consistent with what Jesus told the rich person two chapters earlier when he pleaded with Jesus to tell him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And one of Jesus’ answers is, “Liquidate all your assets, empty your bank account, and hand it over to the poor. Give it all away!” That’s my translation, of course. Give it all away…
That just doesn’t stack up, though. It seems out of character for Jesus, a prophet, a rabbi who was familiar with the traditions of the Hebrew scriptures that spoke repeatedly about God’s care for widows. There’s the triad of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, Biblical shorthand for the poor, the disenfranchised, the forgotten. Jesus would have presumably known that Exodus said to not mistreat the widow. Jesus would have known Deuteronomy’s instruction to save up a tithe for three years and to give it to, among others, the widows in your town. Jesus would have prayed the words of the Psalmist:
Don’t trust any human beings—
[trust] God: who is faithful forever,
who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low…
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!
And if we pay close attention to Jesus’ words before he calls the disciples’ attention to the widow, “Beware the scribes” (in this translation, “Be on the lookout for the scroll keepers...”). Be on the lookout.
Be on the lookout for those who make grand displays of their piety, but do evil in the shadows. Be on the lookout for the hypocrites — the hypocrites with their fancy robes and eloquent prayers, their thousand-dollars suits and clever sermons — who are just in it for personal gain, for privilege and power. The show-offs. The phonies. The frauds.
The scroll-keepers (the scribes) were a learned class in Jerusalem in the First Century, scholars who initially copied the Torah and royal documents and such, who later interpreted it for the people. With the Pharisees, Chief Priests, and Sadducees, they were the Temple elite, the aristocracy. What some New Testament scholars surmise is that Jesus’ accusation, that the scribes rob widows, is related to the fact that they were often in charge of handling women’s property upon their husband’s death — you know, because they couldn’t do that themselves — and some of the scribes would skim a little off the top; not just a little, but a lot.
So Jesus is calling attention to their exploitation of the widow! In public, in earshot of everybody gathered in the courtyard of the treasury (“the storehouse of the sacred lodge”) he points to someone who’s already broke being forced by the system orbiting Jerusalem’s Temple into giving what little she has left. The King James Version translates the two coins as the two “mites.” A little word play here: the widow's might (m-i-g-h-t) is that she’s a prophet against an unjust system.
Traditional interpretations skate right over the fact this destitute person has to empty her pockets. These interpretations spiritualize her poverty or, rather, “sweep it under the rug.” It’s more convenient to turn her into a model of sacrifice rather than confront the poverty. It’s more convenient to emphasize her generosity than the hypocrisy of the scribes.
It’s at this point, when we let this soak in, that there’s no shortage of contemporary examples— modern day scribes, if you will. People who make an elaborate show of their faith but do wrong on the side. I’m thinking of the HBO series, The Righteous Gemstones as a hilarious caricature of these types-- gaudy, opulent evangelical charlatans. Then there are televangelists who accept donations from poor folks with the assurance that God will bless them with prosperity tenfold, then fly off in jets purchased with those same offerings. Preachers from the Religious Right whose words are violence to LGTBQ+ folks, but who cover up deviance of their own. Bishops who lecture their “flocks” on abortion and contraception, but cover up child abuse. There’s no shortage of “scribes" in institutional religion.
Taking it out of the religious sphere for just a moment... Corporations that express their support for voting rights, but then give campaign contributions to the very politicians who vote against them. Politicians who broadcast a supposedly edgy personal aesthetic yet stand as roadblocks to any meaningful action on the minimum wage, climate change, lower cost medication for seniors, and other issues that affect ordinary people and the planet itself. scribes.
I could really get going here… It doesn’t take long to read the news and populate the list, does it?
But… I stand by what I say, but that building sense of self-righteousness feels good. Too good. It’s insidious.
Mindful of what Jesus said in Matthew, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”, I’m dragged by the Holy Spirit down the uncomfortable road of examining my own hypocrisy, my own “inner Scribe.”
How do I make a public show of faith while privately not following through on my commitments?
How am I not “walking the walk”?
How do I purport to love God — I’m the one wearing the robe here, after all — but am not loving my neighbor?
In what ways do I benefit from the same systems that rob widows blind? I don’t mean widows literally, but rather all sorts of vulnerable people. How do as an American citizen, a global citizen, participate in systems addicted to the logic of profit, where people are forced to throw in their very last cent to keep the machines running?
Here’s a solid question to ponder, In what ways am I not living up to the values I profess?
Jesus is addressing his disciples, you see, and Mark wrote his gospel to be read out loud to the disciples who would come after him. Jesus’ exhortation, “Be on the lookout for the scroll-keepers” (“Beware the scribes”) is for our benefit. “Be careful,” in other words, “For what they do, you can do too if you get enough power, enough status, enough money. The good news is that Jesus takes us seriously enough, that Jesus loves us enough, to warn us about our own very human tendencies.
You know, lambasting the Temple economy, ticking off the Scribes is one reason why Jesus got in trouble. The truth is that God loves the world enough to send him to show us the way. Jesus loves us enough, he loves the widow enough, to speak up against injustice.
May it be so with us…