Monday, November 13, 2006

The widow's mite (Mark 12.41-44)

An uncomfortable passage

And Jesus sat down opposite the temple treasury and watched the people throwing money into the treasury. Many rich people threw in large sums. And a poor widow came and threw in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has thrown in more than all those who are throwing into the treasury. For they all threw in of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has thrown in everything she had, her entire life." (Mark 12.41-44)
How many times have you heard a sermon extolling generosity based on this passage? If this poor little widow could give her little bit, though it cost her so much, how can we who are so wealthy not be giving more?

Now generosity is crucial and even giving till it hurts can be commendable (2 Cor 8.1-5), but I'm not convinced that this has very much to do with this passage. In fact, I wonder whether it mightn't be to turn the passage almost on its head!

The context of the passage is a section of Mark that begins with Jesus' triumphant arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 11 and which leads into his trial, passion and death. One of the major themes of this section, culminating in the temple veil being torn in two (Mark 15.38), is of a confrontation between Jesus and the Temple in Jerusalem. In particular, chapters 11 and 12 are filled with direct and indirect conflict. Jesus arrives with a bang, but having got to the temple, where we might expect fireworks, he almost dismisses it and goes home (11.1-11). The cursing of the fig tree (11.12-14, 20-24) is an image of the fruitless Temple, facing its own destruction, as is clear from the incident sandwiched in the middle: Jesus' dramatic actions in the Temple which disrupted the regular sacrifice (11.15-19). I suspect that this is more an enacted parable of destruction than a 'cleansing', but that is a discussion for another day. The next day, Jesus is again in the Temple, and there is a showdown with the Temple authorities ('the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders') over the source of his authority (11.27-33). Having evaded their question with one of his own, he then goes on the offensive, telling a biting parable about some tenants, which they correctly understand is about, and against, them (12.1-12). Their counteroffensive is a cunning trap of a question about taxes, which Jesus again uses to turn the tables on them (12.13-17). That Jesus asks them for a coin shows that they carry and use the idolatrous coins that bear the 'image' of a hated pagan deity (the emperor). The puny little 'image' of the emperor, the emperor can keep; but the image of God is to be given to God. The next round comes from the Sadducees and again Jesus emerges victorious while they are shown to be 'quite wrong' (12.18-27). After a brief rapprochement with one scribe, who is starting to get it (12.28-34), Jesus pushes forward the heart of his claim about the superiority of the messiah with a riddle from Psalm 110 (12.35-37). Throughout Mark 11 and 12, Jesus has been at the throat of the temple, revealing the corruption, impending judgment and subsequent obsolescence of the temple regime.

And so we come to our passage: not just Mark 12.41-44, but 12.38-44 since verses 38-40 are crucial for understanding the widow:
And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
When Jesus immediately then goes to watch what happens at the temple treasury (v.41), we have been prepared to see this for what it is: an illustration of how the scribes who run the temple are devouring the house of a widow, all she had to live on, indeed literally, 'her entire life'. Whether or not this was a 'freewill' offering or a compulsory payment, this temple system has eaten another widow. She has not just given until it hurts, but the temple has taken away her very life. There is no criticism of the widow, but neither is there simple commendation of her as an example of generosity. She is an innocent bystander, a casualty of the temple, pointlessly sacrificed by the very scribes who will soon go on to devour Jesus' life too.

Is it any wonder that having seen this heartwrenching scene of oppression, Jesus immediately lauches into his most furious and sustained attack on the temple, openly predicting its very destruction:
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!" 2And Jesus said to him, "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."


Anonymous said...

Contextual exegesis saves the day! I certainly have never seen it like this. Interesting stuff, interesting stuff.

::aaron g:: said...

Hi Bryon:

3 years ago – last time this appeared in the lection – I preached nearly the exact same sermon you have just given. I called it “The Widow’s Plight.”

I listed with interest yesterday to see if a similar line would be taken, but it didn’t really do justice to the travesty of the widow’s unnecessary gift.

Justin said...

Nice, Bryon. We read it tonight in church. Might put up a post on Jesus exchange with the SCribe on the greatest commandment.

Anonymous said...

very fascinating read of the passage - and compelling. Though I am always cautious when approaching the polemic against the temple if only because the writers of the NT clearly had ulterior motives for their rhetoric, which leaves me in some doubt as to how much of it goes back to Jesus.

byron smith said...

Miner - I've always found one of the most intriging criteria for the historical Jesus is 'crucifiability' - some versions of Jesus are so non-offensive that I'm left scratching my head over how he could have ended up dead. Jesus sure must have cheesed off some big wigs in Jerusalem somehow. For me, the temple critique makes a lot of sense, even if the later writers of the NT also had motive to remember and include those episodes.

byron smith said...

I've received a few emails from friends with suggestions about this passage. The first asked:
So are you saying that Jesus viewed it as a bad thing that the widow put in "all she had to live on"? Why then does Jesus draw attention to the fact that she has put in more than the rich?

Here was my reply:
I think he did so in order to highlight the injustice of the scribes and temple system. Was this a voluntary donation? I haven't done enough research to be certain, but I'm not convinced so far that anything in the passage itself necessarily forces that conclusion. Many translations assume so and so use words like 'offering' or 'contribute', but from my little Greek, the words are more neutral: 'treasury' and the verb is consistently ballo 'throw/cast'. The fact that Jesus is never (as far as I can tell) positive about the present temple system to my mind suggests that this could be his protest against an unfair requirement - or perhaps at least an unfair expectation, that the livelihood of widows would be devoured by the greedy manipulation of temple officials, even for the sake of two leptons! I need to chase the references in the Mishnah to check this out further.

Another friend also wrote, wondering whether Jesus' words could be both an inditement upon the temple system and a commendation of the widow's generosity. What do people think?

Anonymous said...

I wonder since we assume that Mark is written toward a particularly Gentile audience (at least from what I've heard, feel free to call me silly if need be), and since these gospels were meant to be read in one sitting and heard aloud, whether seeking more than one meaning might be going for more than what the author expected his listening congregations to catch at once. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I love that that at the bridge in Florence? love the windows..(just taking a break from studying..)

byron smith said...

Jenny - very close! It was in Florence, but not the Ponte Veccio. Even though I wasn't offering points since I thought it would be too hard, I'll give you fifteen for getting the city anyway.

byron smith said...

Rob - that's true, yet since the stories were also intended to be read multiple times, I'm not sure I would in principle rule out passages having multiple levels of meaning.

Anonymous said...

Moreover, since we (do we?) hold to some kind of double authorship, this would seem to necessitate some kind of multiple meaning-ability, would it not?

Great reading Byron.

byron smith said...

Drew - yes, I agree with double authorship, and certainly Augustine thought that God could have intended more than the original author, but I'm not sure we need to go to this doctrine to ground multiple meanings. Isn't the existence of ambguity and 'depth' simply a function of language? Again, this doesn't decide the issue on this particular passage. Just because multiple meanings are often, perhaps always, possible doesn't validate every conceivable reading. Language is fuzzy, but not infinitely so.

Anonymous said...

I like the criteria of 'crucifiability' a lot. And yes it does make sense that the temple critique would go back, at least in part to Jesus. All I meant to say is I approach it with some caution since it is an obvious polemical vector in the text.

Actually, I heard a FANTASTIC sermon on this today that I highly highly encourage you to go read. The manuscript can be found here:

byron smith said...

Miner - you're right, what a great sermon. Here's a taste:
For Mark the widow and her contribution are not the point. The widow is contributing her all to a doomed institution, the temple. Jesus has said more than once, directly and indirectly, that to save your life you must lose it; but here he cannot be commending the widow for giving her all for the sake of the temple and its privileged officers. Jesus points her out to show up the thieving temple scribes who flout God’s command to care for widows and the fatherless. This widow is not a stewardship campaign’s dream, but a casualty of a political and religious tyranny represented by the scribes.

Steven Carr said...

Jesus said the gold in the Temple was sacred (Matthew 23:17)

Somebody had to pay for that gold.

And , unlike Jesus and the disciples, not everybody could look in the mouth of a fish to find the money to pay for that gold.

Jesus seemed to want the sacred gold in the Temple without having to put his hand in his own pocket to pay for it.

byron smith said...

Stephen - I'm not sure that Jesus' comments in Matt 23 reveal one way or the other what he thought of the temple, since he is simply showing up the inconsistency of the scribes and Pharisees, whose arbitrary distinctions between kinds of oaths is really about allowing people to get out of their promises. Earlier, Jesus had declared all oaths unnecessary (Matt 5.33-37), since we should simply speak plainly and mean it.

Thanks for continuing to keep us on our toes.

Anonymous said...

This is really WEIRD. I read the passage and came up w/ almost the exact same thoughts! I did a devotional message on this in my home group. I did check the web and make sure my thoughts weren't entirely off the wall before I did the talk! I think you're definitely onto something.

byron smith said...

Fr'nklin - sounds like great minds think alike. Glad it was helpful. Hope the devotion went well.