Impoverished By Her Obligations

BindingComments on this week’s Gospel text (Mark 12:38-44) from Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988), the commentary from Ched Myers, celebrating 30 years of prophetic utterance. 

The last episode in the temple is a story of a widow being impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus (12:41-44). Long mishandled as a quaint vignette about the superior piety of the poor, Wright has shown that Jesus’ words should be seen “as a downright disapproval and not as an approbation”:

The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section (as is the customary view); rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion. Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament….Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.

The episode begins with Jesus taking a position seated “facing” (ketanti) the temple treasury (12:41). This stage direction is proleptic of judgment, for Jesus will shortly “face” the temple mount in order to predict its demise (13:3). The setting would have been either that of:

Thirteen trumpet-shaped chests placed round the walls of the Court of Women in which the people threw their offerings…[or] the treasury itself, [where] donors had to declare the amount of their gift and the purpose for which it was intended to the priest in charge, everything being visible and audible to the onlooker through the open door.

This scene Jesus carefully scrutinizes (etheorei).

Mark again reveals his class consciousness through the use of extreme opposition in his description of what happens next:

many rich persons put in from their abundance;
one poor widow put in two little coins.

The contribution of the widow, lepta, was a term “used in late Greek for the smallest coin in circulation.” At this point Mark chooses to reintroduce the disciples (absent since 11:27). The phrase, “he called them to him,” and the Amen signal we are about to receive an important teaching (12:43). For a second time Jesus poses the stark contrast:

they all gave from their affluence…
she in her destitution gave everything she had–her whole life.

The temple has robbed the woman of her very means of livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. As if in disgust, Jesus “exits” the temple–for the final time (13:1a).

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