The Widow’s Mite: Commendation or Condemnation?

WidowBy Ched Myers, for the 23rd Sunday of Pentecost (Mark 12:28-13:2)

Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.

Special Note From Ched: I apologize for conflating my comments posted last week, in which I treated BOTH Mk 12:28-34 (this last Sunday’s gospel) AND 12:38-44 (this coming Sunday’s gospel), with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Hopefully most of you focused on All Saints themes last Sunday and weren’t disoriented or disappointed. I was traveling and dispatched the blog with too much haste! is reposting last week’s blog to be of use to those preaching or teaching on this coming Sunday’s reading, which is indeed the story of the “Widow’s Mite.” Sorry for any confusion, and for giving short shrift to last Sunday’s gospel. Thanks for following this series, which now heads into its last few weeks.
The lectionary leaps ahead this Sunday (which is also All Saints Day), moving to the concluding episode of Mark’s Jerusalem conflict narrative (chapters 11 and 12), in which Jesus clashes with every authority group in the capital city. In this week’s reading it is the scribes, the arch opponents of Jesus. The sequence begins with their challenge to interpret the great commandment, which was a central debating point among the rabbis (12:28). Jesus knows that the “orthodox” answer is the Shema (12:29f; see Dt 6:4), but pointedly attaches to it a citation from the Levitical code of justice, implying that to love God is to refuse to exploit one’s neighbor (12:31; see Lev 19:9-17).

According to Mark’s narrative, exploitation is precisely what is perpetuated by the system the scribes uphold. Thus even though this scribe appears to agree in theory, even citing Hosea 6:6 in approval (12:33), Jesus stops short of commending him (12:34a). He has learned to be suspicious of flattery (see 10:17; 12:14)! The sovereignty of God demands more than orthodoxy and intellectual assent; there must be the practice of justice. Having silenced his critics, Jesus turns to go on the offensive against the scribal class (12:34b).

Returning to the Temple where his “exorcism” opened the Jerusalem narrative (11:1ff), Jesus finally addresses the lingering question of Davidic Messianism directly (12:35-37), shifting the focus from genealogy to political ideology. The scribes assumed that Messiah would act to restore the Davidic monarchy (which would further aggrandize their own position). But citing Ps 110, Jesus reverses the equation: even David is subordinate to the sovereignty of God. Jesus has no interest in rehabilitating the old dreams of Davidic empire, because the politics of domination is the problem.

Jesus now instructs the crowd in critical thinking, warning against the pretense of the scribal class, whom he portrays as solely concerned with the maintenance of their social status and privilege (12:38f). Such is the antithesis of his call to be “last” and “servant” (see 10:43f). These are hard words, but they get harder. Scribal affluence is attributed to “devouring widow’s houses under the pretext of long prayers” (12:40). This likely refers to the practice of legal trusteeship, in which the estates of deceased men were given to scribes to administer (because the widow was deemed unfit to run such affairs). In compensation the trustee received a percentage, and embezzlement and abuse were not uncommon. As in the earlier dispute over korban (7:9ff) and the Temple action, Jesus challenges “piety” that masks “robbery.”

The final Temple episode provides Jesus with an object lesson concerning such exploitation of widows (12:41-44). Jesus sits “opposite” the treasury (12:41), the same antagonistic stance he will shortly take toward the Temple building as a whole when he speaks of its demise (see 13:3). Ever class-conscious, Mark emphasizes the contrast between the large contributions placed in the till by the rich and the meager sums by the poor (12:41f). Infuriated by a widow who has been made destitute by her tithing obligation, Jesus summons his disciples for another solemn teaching (12:43f).

His comment here–“She has put in everything she had, her whole sustenance!”– has typically been trivialized by churchly commentators as a commendation of the superior piety of the poor, when in fact it is a scathing indictment. Jesus considers her impoverishment to be an example of “the devouring of a widow’s house.” The Temple, like the scribal class, no longer protects the poor, but crushes them. His critique of the political economy of the Temple and its stewards thus complete, Jesus exits the Temple grounds for the last time in disgust (13:1).

There is an intentional symmetry between the disciples’ awe at the Temple edifice Jesus has just repudiated (“Teacher, look!” 13:1) and their earlier surprise at the cursed fig tree (“Master, look!” 11:21). Key social institutions are always “bigger than life,” and indeed Herod’s Second Temple was considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient Mediterranean world. Moreover, it determined all aspects of the Judean universe: cosmology, politics and economics. Thus when Jesus calls for its destruction (13:2), it is no wonder that the disciples respond with terrified questions about the “end of the world” (3:4)! To articulate his alternative vision, he must turn to the language of apocalyptic, which readings usher in the final weeks of the Markan lectionary cycle.

One thought on “The Widow’s Mite: Commendation or Condemnation?

  1. Pingback: The End of the World | Radical Discipleship

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