For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.
By the time we get to the familiar text in this week’s Gospel reading—sometimes referred to as the story of the widow’s mite—Jesus has made his so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. More street theatre and political satire than victory parade, the festivities end with Jesus casing the temple late of an evening. He returns the next day and turns over a few tables, infuriating the religious authorities and confounding everyone else. He enters the temple a third time on the third day (a detail not extraneous to Mark’s purposes, we might suppose), and offers an accusatory parable. Pharisees and Herodians are dispatched to trap him; they find themselves amazed instead. He bluntly tells some Sadducees: “you are wrong . . . you are quite wrong.” Third up are the scribes, for whom Jesus reserves his most caustic criticism:
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. (38-40)
Jesus then takes a seat “facing” (kateanti) the treasury. This detail, too, seems deliberate on Mark’s part: a short while and a few verses later Jesus will “face”—the same word in Greek—the temple mount as he foretells its imminent destruction (13:3).
From his choice seat, Jesus carefully “scrutinizes” (etheōrei) the scene, observing “how the crowd put money in the treasury,” and noting that “many rich people put in large sums” (41).
Just the day before he had directly attacked the temple establishment so we might assume he’s still seething a bit. Not because a sacred place had been profaned by commerce—the temple was an economic institution as well as a religious one. Rather, Jesus is scandalized by the exploitation of the poor in their attempts to participate in Israel’s cultic life.
But his anger at what he sees in the temple treasury has a sharper focus. He has just depicted the scribes—the temple lawyers—as not only religious hypocrites but also as abusers of their fiduciary power: “they devour the houses of widows.” (40)
Mark is alluding either to the scribal trusteeship of the estates of widows (can’t have women looking after their own finances, after all), a practice that, Ched Myers notes, “was notorious for embezzlement and abuse,” or to the costs of the temple that consumed the resources of the poor. Whatever the case, says Myers, “scribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation.”
Amid the ceremonial clang and clatter of great sums being deposited into resonant treasury coffers, Jesus notes that an impoverished widow has put in two tiny coins—the smallest in size and value and constituting everything, everything she had. Camille Focant contends that the last phrase of v 44 is better rendered (all the more hauntingly, in my view) as “her whole life.”
In remarking on this scene, Jesus does not praise or admire or commend the woman’s devotion. This scene is not, as it is often interpreted, Mark’s way of contrasting the crass hypocrisy of the elite with the piety of the noble poor.
Jesus, hours from his passion, laments what he sees: the destitution of this woman who had no money for food or anything else after making her oblation. As Addison Wright has noted, “if, indeed, Jesus is opposed to the devouring of widows’ houses, how could he possibly be pleased with what he sees here?”
One could also argue that Jesus laments the entirety of the situation before him—not only this poor woman’s plight but the whole political economy of the temple and its corrupt ways, and even the disciples’ failure to understand (“Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”). He has to tell them that he is both the ultimate sacrifice and the end of sacrifice, and thus is himself the new temple, the meeting place of God and humanity. (The second reading this week from the letter to the Hebrews makes this clear). This woman’s sacrifice was a waste in a system both fraudulent and passing away: “They devour the houses of widows . . . not one stone will be left upon another.”
The widow may have felt shame at the impossible situation she faced but, in facing her and the others, Jesus exposes the shameful system that put her there. Contemporary readers of the text ought to avoid the shame of misreading it, of putting it to the purpose of shaming persons (even mildly) into giving of their own resources to church treasuries. That this text appears in the lectionaries during, what for many churches and parishes is “stewardship season,” increases these shameful possibilities.
But maybe the story says something about stewardship after all. Not about writing checks or making pledges but about the vocation to care for all of creation, especially its most vulnerable members. Psalm 146 in the lectionary for mass makes this clear—even as it echoes the Torah’s command to care for widows, orphans, the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoner, the blind, the defeated, and the stranger, and prefigures the Gospel’s call to do the same. (Followers of the revised common lectionary will note that Psalm 127 provides an interpretive frame for Jesus’ words about what—or who—the temple is).
Both lectionaries give us other stories of widows alongside the Gospel text—Ruth in one and the widow of Zarephath in the other. As with the widow in Mark’s story, our tendency may be to valorize these women and to sentimentalize their struggles. But we’re not to pity them nor imitate them; with Jesus we grieve their plight and with his righteous anger we challenge corrupt systems on behalf of those like them.
Which means we might have less cash on hand to pledge and give to the church since we may need, say, bail money—both for ourselves for acts of civil disobedience, and for our vulnerable friends mistreated by an unjust system, such as the widow in California who was preyed upon by an abusive, scandal-ridden bank whose fees and hidden costs routinely consume the resources of the vulnerable poor.
If, as Dorothy Day once said, our salvation depends on the poor, then our willingness to confront an unjust social order and to care for creation’s most vulnerable—whatever it costs—might mean we will find, rather than lose, our whole life.