Commentary on Mark 12:38-44
The text for this week presents both a caution and an example. “Watch out for the scribes” who devour the houses of widows, on the one hand, and “Look at this widow, who put in her whole life,” on the other. Mark 12:38-44 transforms our understanding of honor, who has it, who receives it, and what it means to communities of faith. The text begs the question: What consumes our whole lives? Where do we put our energy, our finances, our time, and our patience? What results or recognition do we expect in return?
While the caution against pursuing honor seems relatively clear, the example of the widow is less clear. While many interpretations present the widow’s offering as an example of discipleship in keeping with loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength,1 recent commentators have questioned whether the widow’s action is an illustration of systemic injustice or the devouring of widow’s houses.2 Raquel Lettsome notes rightly: “How we understand the relationship between the woman and the Temple influences how we use this passage either to encourage or discourage relationship between giver and the faith community to which they give.”3
Perhaps this widow’s house has been devoured as she gives the last of it to a broken system. Maybe this widow places her whole life in the treasury because she trusts God with all she has and all she is. Maybe the widow’s offering is both an expression of trust in God in the midst of the world comprised of broken people, systems, and communities of faith. These people, systems, and communities of faith often forget the call to care for the poor, the undocumented alien, the widow, and the orphan (Deuteronomy 10:18, 14:28-29; 24:17; 27:19). Given Jesus’s interaction with the scribe last week and its connection to Deuteronomy, this exchange—as the Gospel of Mark presents it—continues the trajectory of the argument.
Mark 12:38-44 bridges two different contexts. Mark 12:38-40 is located in the Temple; the audience includes those in the Temple, the disciples, and various religious leaders. In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus is opposite the treasury, and the disciples are the primary audience. The shift from the scribe who was “not far from the kingdom of God” seems quite far off from the scribes Jesus describes in verses 38-40.
“Beware,” Jesus says. Jesus does not say “beware of all scribes.” Rather, the community is to be on guard against the scribes who pursue prestige, respect, and honor and against those who would devour widows’ houses. This devouring was likely the result of either 1) the demand for tithes beyond what the widow could sustain or 2) mismanagement of the widow’s assets by the scribes entrusted with such tasks. Given the concern for widows expressed in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the TaNaKh, this caution would not be a surprise to Jesus’ auditors.
What would have likely been a surprise, however, was what happens in the next scene of the text. As people give from their excess, a widow gives two lepta, the smallest monetary denomination in first century Palestine. Jesus, somehow knowing this woman’s financial situation, indicates that she has put in her whole life. The NRSV here softens the Greek expression olon ton bion autēs from “her whole life” to “all she had to live on.” While the phrase can mean the latter, the former connects this phrase with Jesus’ words in Mark 12:30 (“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”). Those whose sacrifices provided for the Temple financially were not the ones who gave the most. Rather than lifting up those with power and influence in the community, Jesus identifies the widow as having given more: she gives herself.
Preachers this week may want to engage what devours or consumes our communities and our society today. Many among us are exhausted as COVID-19 numbers are on the rise when some only recently started worshipping face-to-face and letting down our guards. Many have worked tirelessly to resist racist structures and confront our own racism. It often feels like the demands made of us outrun the time, energy, and life we have been given. Regardless of whether the widow’s offering is an example or a critique, it is crucial to remember that the house of God is not a place to devour widows. It is not a place where anyone should be devoured. There is a difference between giving everything and having everything taken away.
The cruciform existence, or the life of discipleship, according to Mark, involves giving one’s life (Mark 8:34-37). It is important, however, to keep front and center what consumes us. If we are consumed by honor, power, social media, beauty, or money, they will eat us alive, and they ultimately leave us empty. Emptiness devours us, and it promises a life it cannot give. Part of the task of preaching is to identify hunger for Good News when spiritual junk food is readily on offer. Invite people to taste and see: when you give your whole life to God, it becomes fuller than you imagined.
- Adela Yarboro Collins, Mark, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 590; Collins notes, however, that this behavior is in contrast with the scribes described in Mark 12:38-40.
- Emerson Powery suggests that the widow’s action is a condemnation of injustice, “Mark,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 145.
- Rachel St. Clair Lettsome, “Mark,” in The New Testament: Fortress Commentary on the Bible, ed. Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 202.