Commentary on Mark 12:38-44
Money. Every pastor’s favorite topic.
Two brief stories in Mark 12:38-44 deal with wealth issues in ways that are still challenging today.
First are those who think they are more important than everyone else. In verses 38-40 Jesus specifically denounces the scribes. In Mark’s estimation they are self-important, arrogant, and self aggrandizing. This section of Mark’s gospel, since Jesus’ triumphal entry, has been dominated by controversy and antagonistic interaction between Jesus and various groups with leadership responsibilities in first-century Judaism. It is not surprising, then, that we find here a final nail in the coffin, a sweeping condemnation of the scribes.
This short text in Mark is replete with echoes and interesting interpretations of certain themes from Israel’s scriptures. Widows are often provided as the example par excellence as those to whom caring justice should be meted out. It is interesting that, in Deuteronomy 14:28-29, certain of the Jewish leaders (in this case, the Levites) are listed as among the aliens, orphans and widows who need support from the community because they have devoted themselves entirely to God.
The scribes here, with their ostentatious robes and prayers and their insistence on being first have lost their tether to the demands of God. Mark’s Jesus has already told us that whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all (10:35), so the basis on which the judgment rests in 12:38-40 has already been established.
Mark paints these opponents of Jesus even more starkly, however, by saying that they “gobble up” or “devour” the house of the widow. Mark has a tendency to pair together technical words that help associate disparate passages in his gospel. He does this with the tearing of the heavens and the tearing of the veil of the temple. He also uses the same word to describe the young man who flees in the garden and who sits on the empty tomb in chapter 16.
Mark uses the word devour in a similar way. In 4:4 it refers to the birds who “gobble up” the seed that the sower has thrown on the ground in the parable of the sower. These birds are interpreted by Jesus as Satan. By using the same word to describe the Scribes, Mark intends to bring the demonic powers that oppose Jesus into close alignment with Jesus’ human opponents. The opposition to Jesus in Mark is all of a piece.
The more problematic aspect of this text is trying to find relevance today. It would seem that Jesus’ judgment of the scribes is based, at least in part, on their inner motivation. How does one judge such a thing? More problematic is the reality that churches and communities need (or so they claim) money in order to carry out their mission in the world.
We have clear evidence that already by the time of Paul’s ministry (decades before Mark’s gospel was written), patronage was already an ensconced necessity. Paul names specific benefactors (e.g., Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2). He also makes frequent mention of churches that met in people’s homes, which could have set up awkward power dynamics and caused discord (as the abuses at the Lord’s supper described in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 indicates was the case).
When it comes to applying this today, how do you judge someone’s intentions? How do you know a long prayer is for appearance rather than genuine piety? While these questions are not easy to answer, what seems clear is Mark’s intention to reevaluate value. In the Kingdom of God, what is valued and important is different from that of the human kingdom(s).
Verses 41-44 pick up and confirm this same theme. In this short story, the offering of the rich people is rendered unimportant or insignificant. A poor widow, who gives everything she has, Jesus holds up as an example. Does this mean everyone should give everything they have? Maybe. This story could perhaps be interpreted in tandem with one earlier in the chapter, 12:13-17, a question about paying taxes. Here, after having the Pharisees point out that Caesar’s head is on the coin, that they should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
At first, this sounds like Mark’s Jesus has abandoned the exposition of God’s kingdom that has consistently been challenging human institutions. Another way of reading this, however, is that Jesus is saying: where you put your money will show your allegiance. In other words, if you think it really belongs to Caesar, then go ahead and give it to him.
This can help frame 12:41-44. This text isn’t necessarily saying that everyone needs always to give everything. Instead, the widow has decided that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. This text, then, consistent with Mark’s overall agenda, is about perspective and reevaluation. Those things that are valued in the kingdom of God differ from that in wider society.
If we were to apply this principle, rather than the specifics, to economics, we might find a text that we find extremely challenging. Giving everything we own may not be the expectation. What this text testifies to, however, is that how economic situations are to be evaluated needs to be changed.
The things that are valued in the Kingdom of God differ from the human realm. Should we give our money to fund a new air-conditioning unit for the church? Should we give money so that our name goes on a plaque inside the door as a cornerstone giver? Are those the things valued in the kingdom? Or, should money be given to relief organization? Food pantries? Homeless shelters?
More challenging yet: Time is money. What if, for us today, it is our time that is analogous to the widow? Helping those in need, doing something constructive with all of our resources, not just our money, might be a better way to embody this text than simply filling out a direct-deposit slip.