Today’s Gospel from Mark is a bit more complicated than most people might initially think. The story about the “widow’s mite,” when Jesus and his disciples sit near the Temple and see an impoverished widow put in two coins that in and of themselves are not worth much, but presumably represent a significant portion of the woman’s resources, presents us with a comment from Jesus that has been largely interpreted in one particular way. Jesus responds to this scene with the line: “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” A classic reading of this remark has rendered the widow a hero, someone worth emulating, a selfless giver who gives until it hurts, and so on. However, this may not be what Jesus is really getting at in this passage.
We cannot read the story about the widow’s offering without taking into consideration the few verses that immediately precede this text.
In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation.”
Prior to witnessing the widow’s offering, Jesus had been teaching his disciples about some systems of social inequity, of imbalance in the religious, political, and social structures of his day. This is not simply to contrast the wealthy with the poor, those who have a “surplus of wealth” from which they offer their gifts at the Temple versus those who have only their subsistence from which to draw. No, Jesus is painting a much starker picture that is, in effect, more about the wealthy scribes than it is about the poor, destitute widow.
I would venture to say that if you think that this Gospel passage is about the widow or about how honorable the poor are for being generous, you’re missing the point.
The Gospel passage for this Sunday in full (Mark 12:38-44) is a two-parter. In Act I (to borrow the theatrical division popular with NPR’s This American Life) we see a religious and political system that is run by a few wealthy and powerful individuals in the culture. These are the entrepreneurs of the religious establishment, who “as a pretext” to fleecing the poor and the vulnerable “recite lengthy prayers” in show of their religious commitments and to paint the financial exchange as “of God.”
These scribes about which Jesus warns the disciples to be wary use their social location, power, and wealth only for themselves. Sure, Jesus points out, they “give to the church” (to use a modern phrase), but they do so only in the most superficial and painless way. Their real concern is themselves, maintaining their wealth, and shoring up their hegemony at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable of their time.
Jesus clearly condemns this.
Then we get Act II. Here Jesus and the disciples are hanging out across from the Temple treasury, not necessarily on purpose, but they happen to be there and happen to do a little “people watching.” They see what’s going on, who is offering what. And, as if by chance or coincidence, a poor widow (which was, in truth, the only type of widow, because they were often counted among the poorest, most vulnerable, and voiceless in first-century palestinian society — they have no security, no claim on property, no protection, and little resources) comes and puts in a sum that represents all that she has.
This is not an opportunity to praise the widow, but a chance to lament the disgusting injustice that creates the condition for this scene. The widow’s offering is an illustration of what Jesus was just talking about — the religious, political, and social establishment has systematically corrupted her way of thinking such that she apparently feels compelled to give far beyond what likely hurts her and anyone, say children, that might depend on her.
The real question that lies beneath this Sunday’s Gospel is: What is the reason that someone who has nothing feels compelled to give from that lack to the Temple (or church or charity or whatever)? Who seeks to benefit from this exchange? We know who certainly stands to lose.
A reading of Jesus’s comments that appears to hold the widow up on a pedestal is, I believe, a perpetuation of this injustice that inflicted the widow of Jesus’s time and continues to affect the poor and vulnerable in our day.
A few years back, while reflecting on this reading, I wrote about a New York Times Magazine article that highlighted the myth of philanthropy and the “benefits to the poor” of having the super wealthy (“Today’s Parable of the Widow’s Mite“). What this well-researched article revealed was that the super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes. Most absurdly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today — those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy!
Jesus is not endorsing this behavior, but blatantly naming it for what it is (especially when we read the full text with vv. 38-40 included about the Scribes) and challenging us to see the structures that allow this to continue. What can we do to make society and the our faith communities more equitable? Why do we let this continue to happen such that the poor give until it hurts and the wealthy seem to so often benefit from this self-defeat of the impoverished?
Hopefully this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead follow Jesus’s line of thinking and make a difference in our world.