November 11, 2012
In the Gospels, Jesus is a watcher. He notices things. Have you ever thought much about that? He watches how people interact. He notices the faces of weary women and the demeanor of anguished men. He sees how some seeds fail to grow on rocky ground while other thrive in fertile soil. He watches the birds of the air soar and the wildflowers of the field shout their hallelujahs. He notices abuses in the Temple and finds blessings in unlikely places.
All this watching and noticing has an impact on Jesus’ way of seeing. Where some see pesky complainers, Jesus sees sorrow and faith. Where some acclaim religious leaders, Jesus sees duplicity and abuse. Where some see bothersome distractions, Jesus sees loveliness and potential.
Jesus transforms his watching, noticing, and seeing into truth-telling through parable and story. These become Word remembered, retold, reshaped, and recorded. This watching, noticing, seeing, and truth-telling is a very powerful process.
One critical facet of studying scripture is discovering what we read into the text that isn’t really there. When we read words on the printed page, we naturally imagine vocal inflection. How could we not? We picture the speaker’s mood. We surmise his or her motivation. Yet, we really cannot know these things when they are not explicitly expressed.
The story of the Widow’s Mite feels to me like the center of the text we just read, yet its meaning is lost or misrepresented outside of its wider context. In Chapter 11 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus overturns the tables in the Temple, challenging the moneychangers, scattering the animals, and uttering an anguished cry of lament over the institutional abuses within the Temple system. He protests, “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!” (Mark 11:17).
As Jesus later talks to a large crowd in the Temple, he condemns the practice of worshiping for show while preening for human accolades (Mark 12:38, 40b). He critiques practices conducted under the veneer of religion which “devour widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40a). There is continuity between Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and his criticism of Temple leadership.
In “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” Ched Myers suggests that these scathing critiques refer to a particular practice of the scribes known as Scribal Trusteeship. In ancient Hebrew society, widows could not inherit property after their husbands died. Destitute, they had two options, both of which could be a burden to others–to return to their family of origin or remain with their husband’s family. They could easily be reduced to begging in order to support themselves.
An additional option was for another man to assume Trusteeship of the deceased husband’s property. While managing these assets, the scribes skimmed off a hefty portion for themselves, leading to continued exploitation and abuse of widows (see Myers, pages 320-321). All this happened in spite of the fact that the Torah clearly expected the people of God to offer special care to widows, orphans, and other marginalized populations (Exodus 22:22-23, Deuteronomy 24:17-22, for example).
So, Jesus stands among a crowd in the Temple, this place where he created so much ruckus earlier in this Gospel. Jesus is people-watching–noticing the faces, demeanor, and giving patterns of those who drop their gifts in the Offering Box. He notices how the scribes come dressed in their long robes, displaying an external air of piety, leaving their offerings that–while large in sum—are small, relative to their actual means.
Then Jesus notices a poor widow, a woman who gives two of the smallest coins available. It would be like you or me giving away two pennies. It takes eight of these coins to purchase one sparrow. She has two coins; she could keep one for herself, but she does not. Quietly and unobtrusively, this unnamed widow leaves both coins–all she possesses–in the Offering Box, and goes her way.
The contrast between these two gifts and their givers is obvious; it requires no commentary. Yet it is deeply instructive to consider what Jesus does not say. While he notices that the widow gives away all she has and the religious leaders do not, he offers neither approval nor disdain for her action. He does not commend the woman for her great faith, as he does so many others throughout the Gospels. After publicly noting the widow’s sacrificial gift, Jesus does not tell those around her to “Go, and do likewise,” as he is also at times known to do. Jesus simply lets this widow’s action speak for itself.
Knowing Jesus as you and I do, does it make sense to you that Jesus would celebrate this woman’s sacrificial gift to a system which oppresses her, leaving her destitute? In his thoughtful and provocative article, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament?–A Matter of Context,” Addison G. Wright suggests that there is only one consistent way to understand Jesus’ response if we understand Jesus’ role as a religious reformer and consider this story in its wider context. He posits that Jesus’ response is actually one of lament, not affirmation–lament that this poor widow feels compelled to give her last bit of income to an institution which does not care for her as it should (see www.visionsofgiving.org/widowsmite.htm).
Is the widow’s motivation great love, guilt, or duty? We do not know. All we see is that she gives extravagantly all that she has, while the well-off religious leaders give sparsely out of their abundance.
This story reminds me of the accounts we hear about famous television evangelists, with their air-conditioned dog houses, private jets, multiple homes, and endless appeals to low-income viewers to send “one more sacrificial gift” and “be blessed 100 times over.” How many of these donors are like this widow in the Temple, releasing her last coin to a ministry which, essentially, does not prioritize her needs or those of others like her?
The text that follows this story provides additional clues to Jesus’ intent. This is a vintage response of Jesus’ disciples, who remain utterly clueless about what just happened in the Temple. They are caught up in admiration for the beautiful stonework of the Temple complex. Jesus’ response is terse and strong: “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
In other words, “This structure is not what will last. It’s not even what’s important, or laudable.” Jesus’ heart is identifying with the plight of the poor widow, exposing the disease within the institution that exploits her, highlighting the impermanence of structures and systems that perpetuate injustice in the name of God. Jesus is not engaged in the external show, the nice bricks, the dressed up leaders, or anything like that. He just wants the Temple to be a House of Prayer that cares for the poor widow the way God cares for her. He wants the religious leaders to esteem this woman the way God esteems her. And I believe Jesus wants this poor widow to esteem herself enough to care for her needs and know that God does not expect her to do otherwise.
Why does this widow continue to support a Temple System that oppresses her? This is a good question. In reading “Believe Out Loud,” an online scripture commentary by lgbtq Christians on this text, some of the writers liken their own journeys in the Church to that of this widow. “Why do we stay?” they ask, amid so much rejection and abuse. Yet, their hearts feel a pull, a hope, and a yearning for the Church to become what it is meant to be–a home that is open and welcoming, loving and inclusive.
I love being married to a preacher! We have had such interesting conversations, thinking about this text in radically fresh ways this week. One important insight Steve offered is this: “Perhaps this plucky widow has more hope for the Temple as an Institution than any of those scribes and Pharisees put together.” Perhaps she can see beyond both the glitz and the abuse. Perhaps she catches a glimpse of what God can see. Perhaps she can offer us that vision and hope, as well.
May we, like Jesus, become watchers. May we notice, whether here or in a thousand other places, that which is most pressing on the heart of God. May we, like Jesus, be truth-tellers, responding with extravagant honesty, justice, and love. Amen.