This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on November 8, 2015.
In my mind, I see a set of paintings hanging in a gallery. In the foreground of the picture on the left, there appear two distinguished Jewish rabbis with long beards and beautiful white prayer shawls covering their heads. These proud and confident men are engrossed in a conversation that is surely about deep matters of the law. Their absorption is so complete that they have failed to notice an old widow lying prostrate in front of a house begging for help.
The picture to the right is in many ways a counterpoint to the first image. This time the figures are reversed so that we see in the foreground an old widow bathed in a soft white light. She is walking out of a temple with the faintest glimmer of a smile on her wrinkled face. Off to the right in the background and bathed in shadow stand two Jewish rabbis again clothed in finery. This time, however, they appear with hunched shoulders as they slink off in shame through another gate.
While these paintings may not be exact illustrations of the two stories in today’s reading, they hopefully convey the purpose of the stories’ pairing. When they are read together, they provide a foretaste of the eschatological reversal of the last being put first and the first becoming last (Mark 9:35; 10:31; 10:44). Characteristically, Jesus has again castigated the religious elite by exposing their hypocrisy while elevating the poor and socially marginalized by extolling their piety.
In the first story, Jesus takes aim at the scribes, part of the Jewish religious establishment who specialized in the law. According to the Mishnah, these legal experts were prohibited from asking for money in exchange for teaching the law. Therefore, some would have supported themselves with secular work while others would have depended on the charity of others.
It is possible that some widows were being impoverished because of their generosity to these religious leaders. Perhaps the meager incomes of these widows had even helped to pay for the fine robes of these legal experts, the ones that they loved to wear while being greeted with honorific titles in the marketplace or while sitting in the places of honor at lavish banquets.
Another possible scenario is that scribes were mismanaging property or funds that were legally entrusted to them by these vulnerable women. We do not know the precise details of the situation. All we are told is that the scribes were exploiting some of the most vulnerable members of their community. Their showy public prayers become even more grotesque and the judgment on them even greater because of the inconsistency of their public personas with their predatory actions.
These legal experts who spent their lives studying the Torah surely were familiar with the recurring commands to care for widows and orphans and not to abuse them (e.g., Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:17-22; 26:12-13). Certainly they would have known that such vulnerable people are of particular concern to God (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalms 68:5; 146:9; Proverbs 15:25). In a sad twist of irony, those who devoted their lives to the law failed to keep it themselves.
Juxtaposed with the hypocrisy of these religious leaders is the sincere piety and generosity of the widow in the second story. The scene takes place in the temple, and like other temples in the ancient world, the one in Jerusalem was not only a place for sacrifice and worship but was also the administrative center for a great deal of wealth accrued through monetary offerings, donations of precious goods, and the yearly temple tax (cf. 2 Kings 12:4). Inside were vessels of silver and gold, rich tapestries, and, of course, large stockpiles of commodities, such as wine, grain, oil, and incense.
In comparison with the wealth of the temple, the widow’s gift was infinitesimal. Her two copper coins, called lepta, were the smallest coins in circulation in Palestine and together were worth only a fraction of a penny. At that time, this amount would have been enough to buy only one handful of flour, certainly not nearly enough to buy the extravagant banquets enjoyed by the religious leaders in the first story. Her coins were small, practically worthless, and insignificant—perhaps not unlike the poor widow herself. In comparison with the temple’s grandeur and in the eyes of Jerusalem society, she would have been almost nonexistent.
But Jesus noticed her, and he saw value and worth in her and in her gift. He judged her two coins as greater than the large offerings of the wealthy not because of the amount she gave but because of the amount she kept for herself—nothing. Theirs was only a tithe. Hers was totality.
Jesus’ commendation of the widow also carries with it an implied castigation of the establishment. In a society where approximately 90% of the population lived near or below poverty level, Jesus did not need to spell out for his audience that there was something wrong with a system willing to accept a widow’s last coins. Instead of giving to the temple funds, this widow should have been a recipient of the offerings that institution collected for the poor. Calling attention to the fact that she had nothing left highlights the injustice of the system and shames those in charge.
Even though her offering went to support an opulent temple complex, whose destruction Jesus will predict in the next chapter (13:1-2), and perhaps even the finery worn by the scribes (12:38), which is also condemned (12:40), Jesus still commends her gift. He does so not because of what it is worth or because of what it will be used to buy but because of what it represents—total devotion and extreme generosity.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that this story has another counterpart in 14:3-9 that serves as the other bookend to the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13. In Bethany, another woman offers a sacrifice in the form of rich perfume that Jesus deems to be of great value. The monetary value of her gift vastly exceeds that of the poor widow, but Jesus equally honors both women while at the same time shaming the men who were accustomed to being honored.
Both are stories of sacrifice, and perhaps it is the sacrificial nature of their gifts that touches Jesus’ heart. The poor widow who gave all the money she had and the woman who poured out her costly perfume serve as fitting foreshadowings for Jesus who will give all that he has when he pours out his life in sacrifice.
Dr. Meg Ramey
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Messiah College, Grantham, PA
Tags: generosity, money, sacrifice, widow’s mite, hypocrisy, social justice