When I hear Jesus in today’s Gospel (Mark 12:38-44), I think about the comedian John Oliver.
The reason I think of him has to do with an episode of his television program Last Week Tonight that aired earlier this year. In August, Oliver and his team did a segment unveiling what began as critique of perceived abuse of the religious tax exemption provided by the IRS. It highlighted the personal wealth that certain televangelists accumulated while ostensibly fleecing their virtual congregants, many of whom were poor and even physically ill.
What we witness in the clips highlighting the practice of wealthy preachers calling viewers to donate their money to them in the name of God is indeed appalling, particularly in light of the stories shared by family members of deceased individuals who refused to seek medical treatment and instead sent what remained of their money to these charlatans using the name of God for personal profit.
The reason I think of John Oliver is because what he identifies by way of his condemnation of this practice is awfully similar to what Jesus does in today’s Gospel, though perhaps Jesus does so with fewer jokes.
As I mentioned some years back in a popular blog post on this Gospel, far too often this passage (and its analogs elsewhere in the synoptics) have been misunderstood or at least misrepresented in way that portrays a very different picture than the one I believe Jesus wants us to have.
Typically, the observation of the widow’s donation of her livelihood in the form of two measly mites (think pennies) is hailed as a sign of complete dedication and trust in the Lord. To be sure, this is certainly the case. From this particular woman’s perspective, we might imagine that this is exactly what she is thinking. As a result, preachers often claim that she serves as a model for us in how we should donate to the church, giving completely from our livelihood and not merely from our abundance. We should give, these same preachers imply, even when it hurts — just like this poor widow.
However, what is far too often not considered in this accounting of the narrative are the lines immediately preceding this observation of Jesus about the poor widow.
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.”
How quick we are to forget (or to project our own interests into the Gospel).
The passage begins with Jesus’s condemnation of the religious leaders who benefit from the convincing poor widows with “lengthy prayers” to pass over their livelihoods, their financial resources. In a way, we might imagine those who seek places of honor at banquets and want to be greeted with important titles to be like first-century televangelists (minus the TV of course).
When we read this passage in its entirety, though, we should begin to see a bigger picture and recall that Jesus’s mission is one of justice and peace, announcing the love and mercy of God in word and deed. His condemnation of the religious leaders of his time followed by the observation of this poor woman surrendering all of her resources to the temple treasury should elicit a deep and troubling reflection.
Instead of admiring the poor widow, we should ask ourselves two questions:
- How did this woman come to be so destitute in the first place? Jesus notes that she’s a poor widow and that two mites are all she has, at all, to offer. What are the social conditions and structures that allow for such a reality?
- Why would she think that God wanted her to give up all that she had?
To the first question, we can look to First-Century Mediterranean culture. Women had very little standing in the deeply patriarchal society. Widows, especially, along with orphans and poor children had little to no recourse and no legal standing. A poor widow is a person facing a dangerously precarious reality, whose very life is always on the brink of complete ruin.
To the second question, the answer is found implicitly in Jesus’s condemnatory remarks. The sin of the scribes and other religious leaders at the time is the predatory practice of convincing the poor and disenfranchised that they needed to give what little subsistence money they had to the religious institutions in order to find favor with God.
This is not something we can simply relegate to the past. It is a practice that exists today, something that is highlighted in the extreme by John Oliver’s exposé of the predatory practices of televangelists. And yet, it happens in so many other ways, too.
Thinking about the systems at work that socialize people to operate against their own best interest for the sake of benefiting a select few. For example, health care in the United States. First, why do we live in a society that hasn’t provided this fundamental element of basic human flourishing to all people? And why do those who go without health care support ideas and even politicians who want to ensure that this is not a universal right? Or what about the issue of income inequality, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the latter people which are encouraged to support and defend the “haves” as heroes without critical reflection on the reason that they themselves have not.
Today’s Gospel is a call not for us to idealize the poor widow who finds herself giving everything she has to the religious establishment, but it is a challenge for us — like Jesus — to identify the scribes and others of our own time who are fleecing the poor and perpetuating the conditions of structural injustice, and then do something about it. Each of us has been given different gifts and skills that can be used in this work of the Gospel. Perhaps some, like John Oliver, may even use comedy. However we proceed, we should proceed for the sake of justice in the name of God.