Mark 12:38-44 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Many congregations across the land are in the midst of a season of stewardship. We’re preparing budgets and sending out our annual appeals, asking congregants to commit themselves to the support of the congregation. Preachers like me will offer sermons sharing why it is good to give to the church (and therefore to God). We will tell people that they will be blessed if they give. As pastor, I know I will be blessed if people give generously. After all, that’s where my salary and benefits come from. All of this is probably necessary. People need to know that there is a need and it helps to have a rationale for giving (besides keeping the institution alive). That being said, there are important questions to be raised about the way we go about things.
As we contemplate the season, this reading from Mark 12 is a challenging one. Both paragraphs speak of a widow or widows and the way in which it appears that they might be exploited by religious institutions. In the first paragraph Jesus is teaching the disciples about humility, and points to scribes (religious scholars) who love to parade around the community, hoping to be treated with respect and commended by all. Jesus says that they seek public commendation, by grabbing the best seats in the synagogue and at the banquets. Everyone wants to be at the head table—right? At the same time these religious scholars and leaders “devour widows’ houses.” What does this mean? Could it be that their own leisure that they have devote to their piety (saying long prayers) comes on the backs of the widows whose homes they foreclose. Jesus isn’t the first prophetic figure to speak in this fashion. Prophets like Jeremiah and Amos condemn the pious who exploit the marginalized, and Jesus does the same. He critiques the religious elite for how they treat those for whom they should have the greatest concern. Consider the message of James who declares: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Christians are regularly critiqued for our hypocrisy. Some of the criticism is unfair, and yet there is truth to be told. Too often we forget our calling to be a blessing to the nations. Too often we become self-satisfied and look to God to bless us so we might enjoy leisure even as we treat our neighbors with anything but love. Proclaiming our piety for all to hear (and see) while treating our neighbors with disrespect deserves censure.
Now it needs to be said that not all religious leaders (including scribes) fit this negative mold. It is important to remember that just prior to this conversation Jesus had engaged in conversation with a scribe whom Jesus commended for being close to the kingdom (Mk.12:28-34). Still, there should be a strong correlation between what we say and we do.
In the second paragraph we find Jesus sitting across from the Temple. It seems that he is doing a bit of people watching. As he does this, he notices how the rich are bringing in their contributions. From the brief picture we have here it does seem that they are doing this with some fanfare. Perhaps it is a parade where each is noticed for their generosity. They don’t give all, but they give a nice sum. The Temple requires big donations on the part of the wealthy. After all, this is Herod’s Temple and it is one of the great architectural wonders of the era. It is something to take pride in, as we often do with church buildings. I’m one who loves church architecture. The great cathedrals of Europe and America are beautiful, but there are always stories of the dark side of their construction and maintenance.
Then, perhaps largely unnoticed, and most assuredly not announced, a widow brings in her last few coins and drops them into the collection box. It’s not much. It won’t pay for the electricity or the support of the staff. But it’s all that she has. Even as Jesus had encouraged the rich man to sell all and give to the poor, here is a poor widow who does what the rich man could not do (Mark 10:17-22). She gives everything she has to the Temple. I’m wondering, is this one of the widows Jesus had spoken of earlier, a widow who had been exploited by the religious leadership. Jesus seems to commend her:
Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. (Mk. 12:43-44).
But, is he commending her or critiquing the institution? Is she our example of sacrificial giving or is this a warning against exploitation in the name of piety? We often lift up her contribution of what has come to be known as the “widow’s mites,” and encourage others to follower her example. But what if Jesus instead pointing out the problem with a system that would take everything from a widow, whom the faith community is supposed to be caring for, and using it for its own purposes? Could it be that she has sent in her last bit of money to a religious organization, and now is simply going to wait until death comes for her? I raise these questions with a bit of unease. I am, after all, employed by the institution. If people don’t give, I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, well I’m in a bit of trouble myself. Still, is there something we need to hear in this observation on the part of Jesus?
Once again, it is important that we note that not all religious institutions are corrupt—then or now. Still, the institution can become so enamored with itself that it fails to consider the needs of those around them. It is important that we acknowledge that then and now some of the worst abuses of people have come at the hands of those who claim to be religious. How many widows today are robbed of their funds, perhaps not by the local congregation, but by a TV preacher who makes promises of great blessings if only the person sends in a tidy contribution. Among the most likely victims of unethical activity have been the elderly, who no longer can get out and so these TV preachers become their church. It’s easy to become enticed by the promise that the more they give, the more blessing they’ll receive.
As we consider Jesus’ observations it is wise to remember that this Gospel being written shortly after the destruction of this very Temple by the Romans. It may have been a beautiful edifice, but it was only that. Now it is gone. So, whether or not Jesus was critiquing a religious system that would encourage a widow to give her last remaining pennies to the upkeep of a building or not, there is something valuable to consider here. That would be the question of whether the church is always the appropriate place for a person to give. William Placher writes:
Giving to the church is not always the right thing to do with one’s money. We have other responsibilities too. Churches should therefore not always urge without qualification that people give sacrificially before thinking about how much the church needs the money and what other needs it might serve. [Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), p. 183].
Placher adds a word to the church, reminding those who determine how the church spends money to remember from whence it came. The church should be prudent in the exercise of its own stewardship.
As it is the season of stewardship for many of us, perhaps this is an apt word to hear.