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.”
Jesus 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).
Mark draws a clear contrast between the scribes – for whom religion has become something of a project of self-interest – and the poor widow – for whom religion is utterly about God. However, some commentators have found reason to wonder about the interpretation of the widow as a simple representation of what is good: “It is clear that the poor widow stands in contrast to the evil scribes. Whereas the scribes are ostentatious and devious she is little noticed, sincere, and generous. Whereas the scribes put all their efforts into promoting themselves and thus expanding their opportunities for financial gain, the poor widow contributed ‘everything that she had—her whole life savings’ to the upkeep of the Jerusalem Temple.
“The widow is surely generous. But is she generous to a fault? Does Jesus really approve her action? Thus far in Mark 11–12 the Jerusalem Temple and its officials have been treated from a critical perspective (see especially 11:15–19), and in 13:2 Jesus will prophesy the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—an event that was to occur in 70 C.E. under the Romans. Thus the context of Mark 12:41–44 raises the question whether the generosity of the poor widow should be taken as an occasion for praise (the usual approach) or for lament (an approach suggested by Addison G. Wright and others). When interpreted as cause for lament the widow’s action would illustrate the perils of institutional religion whereby the Temple establishment manipulated this generous woman into parting with what little she possessed. At the very least, attention to the Markan context leaves open whether the widow is presented as a model to be imitated for her sincerity and generosity or as someone to be pitied as a victim of religious exploitation.” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 365.)
beware of the scribes: The scribes were educated men, proficient in reading and writing contracts and interpreting the law. “Since the Torah was the basic law for the Jewish people, the scribes combined in themselves the roles of lawyer and theologian” (J R Donohue & D J Harrington, op cit, 362). The scribes are generally spoken of in the synoptic Gospels in a negative light. They are with the Pharisees in plotting the death of Jesus – see Mark 14:1. But just before this incident in today’s text, we hear Jesus praise one of the scribes – see Mark 12:28–34.
They devour widows’ houses: Jesus accuses the scribes of multiple failings – vanity, hypocrisy, greed and unjust practices that oppress the vulnerable. “Lawyers with a reputation for importance and for piety might more easily have themselves appointed as trustees over the estates of widows and so gain a share in their estates. The “household” (oikia) refers to the whole estate, not simply the house. The reference to widows prepares for the contrast that follows in 12:41–44. Jesus accuses these scribes of deliberately campaigning to gain public notice in order to enhance their reputation and put themselves in a better position to make a profit on the most defenseless members of Jewish society” (J R Donohue & D J Harrington, op cit, 363).
“It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. …. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition. …. Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Shambala Publications, 2005, 127 & 132) What makes life worthwhile? What gets us out of bed in the morning? What matters in the end?
How pathetic it is to be strutting around in long robes, seeking to be greeted with respect in the marketplace, going for the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honour at banquets. How despicable it is to take advantage of the vulnerable and try to cover it all up with pious devotions. Jesus is ever the realist – see today’s Gospel, Mark 12:38-44. He cuts through the fictions and pretences, the posturing and unreality, that are more less part of all our lives. We are all geniuses at self-deception, at seeming rather than being. To think that we have gotten beyond such fictions and pretences, posturing and unreality is the greatest of all self-deceptions. We need the Truth to set us free.
In our journey towards freedom, the poor and rejected can be effective reminders of what matters. Perhaps their greatest gift is in their capacity to bring us face to face with that of ourselves which we are inclined to reject. What I do with those parts of my life that make me feel uncomfortable, that prompt me to hide from myself, will determine whether or not I move towards reality or unreality: “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’”. In giving all, the widow reminds us of Jesus himself: “…. though he was in the form of God, (Jesus) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6–7). The scribes certainly do not remind us of Jesus.
Our God is a “self-emptying God”. We are made in the image and likeness of this “self-emptying God”. And this is not a challenge or a call to wilfully become “self-emptying”. It is rather a call and an invitation to wake up and become aware of who and what we are. Our awareness grows each time we submit to the truth. Is it ultimately worth striving for anything else?