Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
As he 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 follow Mark in his account of Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes – see Matthew 23:1–7 and Luke 20:45–47. Luke again follows Mark in his account of the widow’s offering – see Luke 21:1-4
“While Jesus’ critique of the scribes’ efforts at self-promotion (12:38–40) and his apparent praise of the generous widow (12:41–44) can be taken separately, they are better understood as a diptych that contrasts two kinds of “religious” persons. The scribes are criticized first for drawing public attention to themselves (12:38–39) and then for using their piety as a cloak for making a profit on vulnerable members of society (12:40). The poor widow in 12:41–44 is praised for her generosity shown in contributing what she had to the Temple treasury. Because she contributes “out of her poverty” she is actually more generous than all the rich people who contribute large sums out of their surplus. By placing the story of the widow between Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes (12:38–40) and his announcement of the Temple’s destruction in 13:1–2 Mark seems to hold up the widow as an example of the true piety and generosity that exists among God’s people. At least this is the traditional and most obvious interpretation of the figure of the widow” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 364).
Beware of the scribes: “Ben Sira’s positive ideal of the scribe is affirmed in the nt by what is often called Matthew’s self-portrait: ‘Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’ (Matt 13:52). Other Synoptic passages, however, are critical of scribes, or ‘lawyers’ as they are sometimes called. In Luke 11:45–52 (which reflects Q) the ‘lawyers’ are the objects of three ‘woes’ from Jesus on the grounds that they make life difficult for ordinary people, that they build tombs for the very kinds of persons they would kill, and that they take away ‘the key of knowledge’. Matthew in ch. 23 greatly expands the critique found in Q, and lumps together the scribes and Pharisees as the objects of Jesus’ criticisms. In teaching and preaching on Mark 12:38–40 one should note that these criticisms are not applied to all scribes without exception (see 12:28–34), and be aware that this passage as well as Luke 11 and Matthew 23 all carry the potential to encourage anti-Semitism when applied to all Jews at all times” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 365).
he sat opposite the treasury: In the ancient world temples, including the Jerusalem Temple (see 2 Maccabees 3), also functioned as banks or treasuries, and so were often targets for robbers and foreign kings in search of money. The assumption in Mark 12:41–44, however, is that Jewish people were contributing money for upkeep of the Jerusalem Temple. Whether the Greek word gazophylakion is to be taken generically as ‘treasury’ or more concretely as the collection-box or receptacle is a matter of dispute among scholars. According to the Mishnah (m. Sheqalim 6:5) there were thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in the sanctuary, each one labeled for its different purpose (yearly taxes, bird offerings, etc.)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 363).
a poor widow: Widows can be among the most vulnerable in any society – including modern day Australia. In ancient Israel, if the wife’s husband died, she had no inheritance rights. With a few exceptions, widows had to rely on their children or charity. Widows – and orphans – suffered badly in this society. This is acknowledged in the Hebrew Scriptures – see for example Deuteronomy 14:29, Jeremiah 49:11 and Psalms 68:5 & 146:9. The “levirate marriage” – where the deceased husband’s brother married the widow – sometimes took care of the situation. Jesus has already alluded to the injustices that might be done to widows when he criticizes the scribes because “they devour widows’ houses”.
We can think of spirituality as living relationships. It is about living relationships. Some relationships are death-dealing. And it is about choosing to live the relationships. It involves commitment and choice. We are made in the image and likeness of the community we call our Triune God. God is love! – see 1 John 4:7-5:4. Love is the epitome of living relationships. For us, to live is to love.
We need to give concrete form to relationships. Relationships – most especially our relationship with the Origin of all relationships, the Triune God – demand symbols, rituals, institutions, authority structures, statements of belief, rules to live by and so on. Thus, religion is born. Religion – if it is authentic – is spirituality incarnated. All the symbols, rituals, institutions and so on, should be in service of living relationships.
Spirituality without religion is generally truncated. Religion without spirituality is always dangerous.
Spirituality typically grows within the structures of religion. Our being constituted in and through relationships means we are community-tending beings. Community requires institutions to serve and nourish relationships. Those institutions call us beyond selfishness and individualism and our various egoisms. The common saying, “I am spiritual but not religious”, may be understandable these days, but it is not the best. It is understandable because religion as we have known it, is too often ideological rather than relational.
Religion can easily become an ideology. History is full of the tragic consequences of ideology masquerading as religion. When the living relationships are not fostered or perhaps not even respected, any action – including torture and murder – can seem permissible, even honourable. And the fact that such actions are done “in the name of God”, does not seem to strike the ideologues as in any way self-contradictory.
In today’s Gospel – Mark 12:38–44 – Jesus reminds his listeners of this truth. He condemns the behaviour of those 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”. Jesus is here taking aim at people who use the structures of religion to further their own ends. This is not unknown in our own Catholic history. Clericalism is one obvious manifestation of it. Clericalism replaces service and mercy with power and privilege. Those who are not clerics may be as guilty of this as those who are.
The way out of this pretence with all its destructive consequences, is the way back into relationships. Listening, courtesy, service, generosity, journeying together, care, are some of the words that come to mind. Relationships can be very demanding. But those demands are the demands of human existence itself. Evasion of those demands is evasion of one’s humanity. It might help to remember that we are at our best when we are in living relationships – with God – however we name God – with ourselves, with other people and with the world around us.