Scribes and the widow   

Few passages have been as radically re-interpreted in my life-time as the story of the widow who places her two small coins in the temple treasury.

March 18, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 12:38-44 

Few passages have been as radically re-interpreted in my life-time as the story of the widow who places her two small coins in the temple treasury.

I grew up thinking of the widow in this story as a model of sacrifice. She commits her fundamental means of support to the temple. We should do the same: give as much as we can to God through the church.

A parallel story does not occur in Matthew. While Luke may use the widow as such a model for readers (Luke 21:1-4), a good deal of scholarship in the last twenty-five years sees the story in Mark as casting a negative judgment on the temple and its leadership at the time of Mark. This conclusion derives from the larger way in which Mark portrays the temple and its leadership and the immediate context in which Mark places the story.

As noted in connection with Mark 12:1-12 (March 4) and Mark 12:28-34 (March 11) Mark wrote about 70 CE after the fall of the temple when Mark’s congregation was in tension with many Jewish leaders. Mark typically uses the figures of the scribes, priests, Pharisees to portray the Jewish leadership of Mark’s own time. Furthermore, Mark believed that the leaders had corrupted the practices of the temple.

Mark was an apocalyptic theologian who believed that God is about to end the present age and replace the present world with a new one (the Realm of God) which manifests God’s purposes in all ways. For Mark, most of the scribes, the other Jewish leaders, and the temple itself are creatures of the old world.

Mark characterizes the community of the realm as one in which those who are first (at the top of the social pyramid in this world) become last (at the bottom). People who join the movement towards the Realm should set aside their desire for old-age style brute power and social recognition and instead welcome children (who were at the bottom of the existing social order) (e.g. Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16). The population of the realm is a population of people who serve one another (e.g. Mark 10:41-45). Indeed, participants in the Realm are to take up their crosses, that is, to cut their ties with values and behaviors of the old age.

By contrast, the behavior of the scribes in Mark 12:38-40 reinforce their allegiance to the old age. They wear long robes — symbols of social power at the time of Mark. In the manner of the Roman patronage system, they like for people who are lower on the social ladder to greet them (i.e. to acknowledge their social status) when they are in public. They seek the best seats — in which they can most easily be seen by others — in the synagogues and at banquets. In order to make a positive impression on other people (and to communicate with God), they offer long prayers.

The scribes are the epitome of what is wrong with the power structure of the old age. Their goal is to reinforce their own social power and is not to serve God’s purposes for all in the community to experience blessing. According to Mark, “they will receive the greater condemnation” at the apocalyptic judgment.
The connection between Mark 12:38-40 and 41-44 is revealed in the remark that the scribes “devour widows’ houses.” As is well known, the covenant God made with Israel called for the community to care for widows, orphans, and others whose quality of life — and, indeed, whose very existence — were often threatened in antiquity (e.g. Exodus 22:21-24; Deuteronomy 10:18, 14:28-29; 16:11, 14; 24:19-22; 27:19; Psalm 68:5; Jeremiah 49:11). As we learn from the situation of Ruth and Naomi, the situation of widows in antiquity could easily become precarious. By devouring widows’ houses, the scribes engage in behavior that is exactly opposite that which God desires.

The text does not say directly how the scribes devour widows’ houses, but Mark 12:41-44 implies that the widows make themselves bankrupt by putting all of their money into the temple treasury. Void of income, they would sell their houses in order to have financial resources with which to buy food. The scribes would buy these houses, thus increasing their own social power even as they violated God’s purposes by devouring the widows’ houses.

The plight of the widow is reinforced when Mark contrasts the contribution of the widow and that of the wealthy. “Many rich people put in large sums,” yet these sums were but a small percentage of their total worth. They contribute out of their abundance. The widow, by comparison, put in “everything that she had,” which Mark emphasizes, was “all that she had to live on.” The “two small copper coins” were the smallest coinage of that time. It took 64 such coins to make a denarius, a day’s wage, that is, enough on which to live for a day. The woman had only 1/32 of what it took to live for a day, yet she put it all in the temple treasury.

Mark thus leaves the impression that the scribes and the leadership of the temple engaged in a form of robbery. In Mark 15:38, Mark essentially declares the temple bankrupt. By the time Mark wrote, of course, the temple had been destroyed, and thus had received a form of greater condemnation.”

Using the scribes as a lens, the preacher might meditate on leadership in the church, in government, in business, and in other settings in North America. To what degree do our leaders — do we ourselves as leaders — serve our own status and glory and to what degree do we serve the purposes of God’s realm?

Indeed, do the congregation, church related bodies beyond the congregation, and other institutions in public life engage in behaviors that essentially devour widows houses today? That is, do we robe people and communities of the resources for meaningful life rather than support such life?