As (Jesus) taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44 – NRSV)
Matthew and Luke both report Jesus scathing comments by Jesus about the religious authorities. As with Mark, this takes place in Jerusalem, just before Jesus’ arrest. In Matthew it is “the scribes and the Pharisees” who are criticised – see Matthew 23:1-7. In Luke – as in Mark – it is only “the scribes” who are criticised – see Luke 20:45-47.
Luke also tells the story of the widow’s mite – see Luke 21.1–4. Again this is in the context of Jerusalem and the impending arrest of Jesus.
1. Although the temple is not explicitly mentioned in our Gospel passage, it is clear that that is where Jesus is. It is worth noting Mark’s nine explicit references to Jesus and the temple – they are all part of this end stage of the drama:
11:11: Mark tells us that Jesus “entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve”;
11:15-19: he tells us that Jesus cleansed the temple;
11:27: he suggests an almost casual mood to Jesus’ encounter with the religious authorities in the temple when he says “they came to Jerusalem (again). As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’”;
12:35: Mark again speaks of Jesus continuing to teach in the temple;
13:1-8: he records Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple;
14:49: when they come to arrest him, Jesus recalls that “day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me”
14:58: testimony is brought against Jesus: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”
15:29-30: when Jesus is on the cross, he is mocked by onlookers: “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”
15:37-38: one final reference to the temple is made when Jesus dies on the cross: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”.
You only have to go to the Old City of Jerusalem and watch as the Jewish men go to the Western/Wailing Wall and worship, to get some glimpse of what the temple means in Judaism. That Wall is a relatively small section of the Second Temple. Mark is not only associating Jesus close with the temple, he is actually identifying Jesus with the temple and therefore the symbolic heart of the Covenant tradition. Two Psalms capture the deep significance of the temple: “(The temple) draws people from every land to look on the face of God” (Psalm 42:3); “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalms 84:1).
2. Jesus’ attack on the scribes and his affirmation of the widow in this particular passage, are not so much about those people as such, but about certain bad attitudes and the ways of behaving that manifest and express those attitudes.
In Matthew 23 and Acts 7:51-53 we have more extended attacks on the scribes, suggesting that this was an alive issue for the first Christian communities.
One scholar writes of the scribes and their place in the synagogue: “The only possible standard to which Jesus’ teaching might be compared is to that of the scribes. In the first century, before the advent of universal education and literacy, there was a great demand for scribes throughout the ancient world, and especially in Judaism where the written code of the Torah regulated Jewish life. The Hebrew word for scribes, sopherim, has to do with counting, reckoning, and keeping written documents, thus providing an initial understanding of the functions of a Jewish scribe. The term ‘scribe’ occurs early in the Davidic monarchy for a royal official who was a general secretary and recorder (2 Sam 8:16–17; 20:24–25; 1 Kgs 4:3). In postexilic Judaism the word ‘scribe’ came to designate an expert in the Torah, of whom Ezra was the first in an illustrious line (Ezra 7:6, 11). The importance and fame of scribes grew during the Hasmonean period when Hellenistic ideals began to rival Torah-learning among the Jews. Scribes were, first of all, experts in the Torah who were capable of issuing binding decisions on its interpretation. Scribal knowledge of the Torah, and the means by which it was attained, were often regarded as esoteric enlightenment, and hence the more authoritative. With the growth of the synagogue, scribes became, secondly, teachers of the Torah, whose reputation was honored by the title ‘rabbi,’ meaning ‘my great one.’ Finally, scribes were legal jurists in the broad sense of the term. ‘Scribe’ thus combined the offices of Torah professor, teacher and moralist, and civil lawyer, in that order. Their erudition and prestige reached legendary proportions by the first century, surpassing on occasion that of the high priest (b. Yoma 71b). Only scribes (apart from the chief priests and members of the patrician families) could enter the Sanhedrin. Commoners deferred to scribes as they walked through the streets. The first seats in the synagogues were reserved for scribes, and people rose to their feet when they entered a room. (J R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, W B Eerdmans, 2002, 53-54.)
Mark 1:22 reports that many were impressed with Jesus’ “new” teaching and presented with “authority”, unlike the scribes; throughout Mark’s Gospel, scribes and the synagogue are seen in opposition to Jesus and his teaching; in Mark’s Gospel it is perhaps significant that, apart from Jesus’ encounter with “Satan” in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), Jesus’ first encounter with “an evil spirit” is in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28) – the evil one had penetrated to the heart of the community and the shepherds were to blame.
It is not difficult to imagine that scribes may have become more than a little disconnected from the lives of the people and perhaps lost in the minutiae of doctrine and law, perhaps even a law unto themselves. All in the service of Torah of course! Christian theology and its theologians suffered from a similar problem as we came into the middle of the twentieth century.
However, we should not forget the positive exchange between Jesus and one particular scribe in 12:28-34: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that (Jesus) answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself,”—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.”
Again, it is not the scribes as such who are being targeted in Jesus’ criticism, it is a certain way of being in the world – attitudes and behaviours. What he condemns in the behaviour of the scribes is in fact their failure to live by the great commandment of love, so beautifully brought out in the exchange with that one particular scribe cited above in 12:28-34.
3. The second part of our Gospel text is played out in the context of the temple treasury. One scholar writes: “In addition to worship, one of the most important functions of the temple in Jerusalem was as a depository for and the administration of vast amounts of wealth. In this respect the Jewish temple was no different from other temples in the ancient world. Unlike the other tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi possessed no land. In place of land, the Levites were responsible for superintending the temple, which accrued great quantities of wealth in the form of dues, taxes, and donations of valuable objects and money (2 Kgs 12:4). The vessels used for sacrificial worship were required by the Torah to be made of gold or silver. In addition, there were stocks of priceless curtains and priestly garments, and virtual warehouses of flour, oil, grain, wine, incense, and other valuable products. The temple could and also did function as a repository of the wealth of individuals who deposited money there in the belief that a sacred place was a safe place. Given the financial resources and treasures of the temple, it is not surprising that the officer in charge of its administration, the gazophylax, was, according to Josephus, second in importance only to the chief priest.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 380)
Josephus (Antiquities 19:294) tells us that the temple treasury was located in the Court of the Women, the first enclosure of the temple, where women and children were allowed.
All those present would have known the amount being offered: “In cases where a contribution was rendered for priestly service, the attending priest examined the currency for genuineness, inquired of the purpose of the gift, and verified that the contribution corresponded to the prescribed sacrifice. The priest then directed the worshiper to deposit the amount in the appropriate receptacle. All this was spoken aloud and would have been audible to bystanders.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 380-381)
The “poor widow” would have stood out against the ostentatious manner of the scribes and the hustle and bustle of the normal crowds milling around in that enclosure.
Mark says the widow put in two lepta (λεπτὰ) – the smallest coinage in circulation; Mark, for the sake of his Roman audience, says this is the equivalent of the Roman quadrans – “worth a penny” – in Greek, kodrantes (κοδράντης).
There is a profound contrast here that appears frequently in the life and teaching of Jesus: the poor widow is a person described in terms of what she does not have – of less; it is what she lacks that makes her standout initially; but what makes her worthy of Jesus’ recognition is the more that she gives. We are put in mind of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about “losing your life to gain it” (Mark 8:35); the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with the expensive perfume has a similar implication to it (Mark 14:3-9); recall the parable of the measure: “And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you’” (Mark 4:24). The poor widow gave “everything she had”; we are reminded of the early liturgical hymn which St Paul cites: “His state was divine yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself ….” (Philippians 2:6-7)
This story of the poor widow – the nameless, poor widow – concludes Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry.
The primordial story of Adam and Eve is instructive – see Genesis 3:1-13. This is not the place to attempt a full reflection on that story. We note simply the act of “sewing fig leaves together to make themselves loin cloths” – see Genesis 3:7. It seems that we are all born with knowledge of “fig leaves” and how they can hide from view what we do not wish to face in ourselves and certainly do not want others to see. Thus we are inclined to blame others, to pretend and play games, to become arrogant and superior, to hide behind roles and rituals and forms of dress.
Anxiety is the boiler room of the fig leaf phenomenon. The fig leaves a manifold. They can be small acts of dishonesty or they can be more significant failures to be who and what we are. And the alternative is not to be literally naked before the world. It is rather to engage ourselves and the people and events of our world truthfully.
The story of the scribes and the poor widow might be understood as a variation on the fig leaf theme. The scribes, as Jesus describes them here, are arrogant, superior and rapacious. They withhold themselves. The poor widow is simply who she is, without pretence. She gives herself completely.
“Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about that person. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
“My false and private self is the one that wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves – the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin.
“For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. But there is no substance under the tings with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness to tell me that I am my own mistake.
“The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. … Ultimately the only way I can be myself is to become identified with Him in whom is hidden the reason and fulfilment of my existence. … Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”
(Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation, Anthony Clarke, 27f.)