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."
He sat down opposite the treasury
and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.
Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.
Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,
"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."
We are coming quickly to the end of the liturgical year and the narrative of Mark as captured in the Lectionary of Sunday readings. This Sunday’s (32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time) reading from Mark is the penultimate Markan appearance; on the following Sunday (November 15) the apocalyptic forecast of the last days will be Mark’s final Sunday appearance in Cycle B. The final Sunday of Year B is the Feast of Christ the King, which replaces the 34th Sunday of Ordinary time, and the Gospel will be drawn from St. John. On Thanksgiving weekend the Church begins with Cycle C and the narrative of St. Luke.
This weekend’s Gospel is a pairing of two separate narratives that compose a diptych. Mark 12:38-40 is Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes or lawyers of the Jewish Law, and Mark 12:41-44 is his observations about a poor widow’s humble gift to the Temple treasury. Father Daniel Harrington’s commentary in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (623) provides much useful information. Harrington observes that the connecting word of the two pieces is “widow.” In the first paragraph Jesus warns his listeners to be on guard for scribes who dress in long robes. Harrington is quick to point out that Jesus is not referring to prayer shawls, which were not uncommon, but to a wardrobe arranged specifically to impress and bring honor to themselves; this is clear from the “rewards” of such strutting, such as social popularity, places of respect in the synagogue, and places of honor at banquet. So far, their sin seems to be narcissism.
But Jesus goes on with a more serious indictment: as a group, “they devour the houses of widows.” Jesus’ words take on their full sense if one looks at the legal mores of the time. Typically, a widow was an individual of considerable vulnerability. Biblical texts of both Testaments attest to the need of “widows and orphans” as a moral obligation of the highest order. Widows, then as today, entrusted management and protection of their belongings, large and small, to knowledgeable and trustworthy men, something like our executor of an estate. In Jesus’ day, who better for a vulnerable woman to turn to than a master of the Law who is highly esteemed in a community’s Jewish society? And, as Harrington notes, “a common way of receiving their fee was to get a share of the widow’s house.” Jesus’ term for this practice was “devouring.” Lawyers with reputations for piety would have been very popular choices as executor. Jesus is thus condemning the practice of imitating and showboating religious fervor to grow rich from executor fees; Mark does not mention that afflicting the poor and vulnerable was a principle target of Old Testament classical prophets.
From here the text proceeds to a different setting (the Temple area itself) and a different audience, his disciples. The scribes are not mentioned by name, though the location, the collection, and the number of rich donors would certainly bring the scribes to mind. The heart of the story is well known, but Jesus’ interpretation is worth scrutinizing. There is a not-so-subtle displeasure with rich donors who are contributing from “discretionary income” as we would say today, while the widow donates two lepka, the smallest minted coins in existence at that time. It is not stated in the text whether the temple offerings were tithes (10%); Jesus says that she donated “all that she had,” which of course would be much more than a tithe. Moreover, he adds that her offering was greater than all the other offerings made in his presence.
There is, to be sure, an element of judgment and warning in Jesus’ commentary here. Harrington indicates that we are seeing the measure by which God will judge at the inevitable coming of his kingdom. It is worth noting here that the following chapter of Mark (13) describes the terrors of the last days, and does so in two parts: (1) the destruction of the Temple, and (2) the cosmic signs. The twin episodes of the wicked scribes and the casual/total donors above can be seen as the district attorney concluding his case that the official Temple worship by the current custodians—its teachers and supporters, for that matter—had drifted far afield from the intent of the Revelation given at Mount Sinai, and that the new Kingdom will, in a dramatic topsy-turvy fashion, restore Israel to a way of life that, for all practical purposes, had been lost over time.