Commentary on Mark 12:38-44
Over the ages, Jesus has been persistently inconvenient for the elite classes of his and our societies.
In this gospel lesson, Jesus once again demonstrates his masterful ability to see beyond the surface, look deeply through and unmask the conscious and unconscious intentions of the religious-political oppressive ideas of his day. His prophetic ability to read the signs of the times ultimately resulted in his assassination. What was taking place in this passage was an unmasking of the oppressive dominant discourse of that time and has relevance for unmasking that of our time.
However, in order to capture his profound analysis, we must move beyond some of our prejudices. We must rid ourselves of the prejudices that many Christians have had against the scribes and others like them (i.e., Pharisees) with whom Jesus or at least the gospel writers had antagonistic relationships. What Jesus sees in the behavior of the scribes is not unique to them, but a phenomenon that seems to be common among elites in many if not all cultures.
The wealthy and powerful in virtually every society have been arbitrarily “bestowed” with intelligence, wisdom, decency, and, in many cases as it was in Jesus’ day, as having been selectively blessed by God. One example of this can be seen when considering how we treat celebrities. Regardless of their educational status or areas of expertise, celebrities are treated as if they have knowledge to impart to us all simply because they are famous, powerful, and generally rich.
In fact, whether or not one is a celebrity, if a person is wealthy we tend to believe that they are in some ways superior to the poor and working class. Have you ever been to an affluent neighborhood and assumed that all is OK there for no other reason but that it looks pristine? Rarely do we assume that perhaps underlying all the glamour and beauty lies a moral uncleanliness that has been produced by ill-gotten wealth and power.
In Latin America the oligarchs and their families had beautiful homes with gardens, beautiful family dinners and gatherings while their henchmen were torturing, raping, exploiting and murdering the masses who fought for justice and equality. Sadly, many decent people see the external trappings and believe that the highest quality of culture is present. Apparently, Jesus saw beneath the regalia and grandeur; his insight uncovered the rotten values that lay there.
This gospel lesson is not about the individual behavior of one scribe, but about the misinformed and immoral ideology that informed such behavior. Jesus confronts the beliefs and values of his day that maintained an oppressive system in much more authentic and powerful ways than the Colonial Roman empire could: 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, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance saying long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).
Can you imagine calling the oligarchs, bishops, and presidents exploiters and hypocrites seeking to be noticed and honored? Are the Supreme Court justices really pure and legitimate, because they wear black robes? Are these not the people blessed by God? Jesus declares that their condemnation/punishment will be greater than that of the poor, powerless sinner. He simply destroys the entire apparatus that maintains the system of oppression of his day.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably admit that there is a “soft” prosperity gospel influence in all of us. We quite often naturally make the assumption that those of the higher economic strata are automatically good people, good Christians, smart and honest. My experience over the last fifty years has been that the church community gives privilege to the economically well-off parishioners. In fact, we praised those who can give big sums of money to the church, while failing to recognize the average and more-humble contributions to our church treasury.
Maybe we need to be reminded that most of the philanthropy that takes place in our country is driven and given by the middle and working classes. Jesus is not persuaded by the deceptions of the scribes’ performances, which is evidenced when he says: “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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’” (Mark 12:42-44). It is truly sad that the church has allowed itself to behave like the scribes who Jesus condemned, inadvertently uplifting wealth and power to prominence rather than exalting the generosity of spirit among the least of these.
Jesus was assassinated because he dared to unravel the ideology that maintained the elites in power. I can’t help but wonder what the consequences for the church might be if it, like Jesus, turned the values and ideologies of oppression upside down and elevated the values of the kingdom to prominence. If instead of preaching from the perspective of the upper strata of society, it began to reflect and preach from the perspective of the widow, the orphan, the migrant and the poor. Perhaps the church would no longer be asked to do invocations for political rallies, and maybe powerful politicians will no longer attend our gatherings. I would follow Jesus in exalting the spiritual riches of the widow while letting the rich and powerful keep their scraps.