Thirty-second Sunday in OT (Year B)
Thirty-second Sunday in OT (Year B)
Mark 12:38-44 The Scribes and the Widows Mite
On the face of it, today's gospel reading is quite straightforward!
We are accustomed to think of the widow in this story as a model of sacrifice. She commits her entire means of support to the temple. We should do the same: give as much as we can to God through the church.
But the story is much more complex than that.
It is cleverly prefigured by the first reading, where another widow puts her trust completely in God's grace and was rewarded with "the jar of oil was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied, just as the Lord had foretold through Elijah".
In the second reading we have a prediction of the "parousia", the second coming: "when he (Jesus) appears a second time, it will not be to deal with sin (that bit has already been done and dusted) but to reward with salvation those who are waiting for him."
Those who are fascinated by numbers tell us that the word "immediately" is used 59 times in the NT - 42 of them appear in Mark! Clearly it is his favourite word.
Mark believed that God was about to end the present age and replace it with a new one (the Kingdom of God). The word "immediately" shows his impatience for this to happen. The parousia was not coming quick enough!
Mark believes that most of the scribes, the other Jewish leaders, and the temple itself were creatures of the old world. He wrote his gospel sometime after the year 70 when the Romans had destroyed the temple and he is almost saying it was their own fault "the more severe will be the sentence they receive" when Christ comes again.
Mark characterizes the community of the kingdom as one in which those who are first (at the top of the social pyramid) become last (at the bottom). People who join the kingdom should set aside their desire for power and social recognition and instead welcome children (who were at the bottom of the social order in his day).
The population of the kingdom is a group of people who serve one another. Members of the kingdom are to cut their ties with values and behaviours of the old age.
In contrast, the behaviour of the scribes characterise what is wrong with the old age. Their goal is to reinforce their own social power and not to serve God's purposes for all in the community.
The connection between the first and second part of the gospel is revealed in the remark that the scribes "swallow the property of widows."
The OT 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. The life of widows in antiquity could easily become precarious. By "swallowing the property of widows", the scribes behave in a way that is exactly opposite to that which God desires. Mark does not say exactly how the "scribes" swallow the property of widows, that's left to our imagination.
Jesus has warned before that the rich will find it hard to enter the kingdom of God.
In this story he praises the poor widow's offering, and makes it clear that the way of assessing gifts is not how much we give to the work of God, not how much we put in the offertory plate, but how much we have left for ourselves. Those who give out of their abundance still have abundance left. And that can be a problem in the kingdom of God.
So, what is that problem?
When we look at what Jesus teaches, can it really be that the poor are praised, that this widow is lifted up, because she gave every bit of money she had? Is this what it takes to follow Jesus? Why is there an apparent preference for poverty in Jesus' teaching? It sometimes seems that Jesus is romanticizing and idealizing the poor?
I think the poor would be the first to object to that idea. Life in poverty is what we all want to avoid, not aspire to. No one dreams of growing up poor, of living from hand to hand, of digging through rubbish bins or living in run-down houses with no heat or even being homeless and on the street.
The woman at the temple was not a poor widow; she was poor because she was a widow. The sociology and economics in first-century Palestine was such that there was no such thing as a rich widow in that culture. Women were totally dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood. To be widowed meant not only losing someone you loved, but more tragically, it also meant that you were losing the one on whom you were totally dependent. Widows were forced to live off the good graces of other male relatives and anyone in the community who might provide a meal here, a little money there - a first century "basics bank"?
The two little coins in the woman's hand were all she had. A "penny" as it is described here is a tiny portion of a day's wages. Giving so small an amount wasn't going to change her life. When you've got so little, having a penny or two isn't going to move you from poverty to riches, but she could be at peace and joyful in knowing she was able to give anything to the temple treasury. With the coins or without them, she was still a dependent person.
Dependant on what, you might ask?
She certainly wasn't dependent on her money or her status in life; she had none of these. She was dependent on God and her neighbour for everything -- and that's what Jesus pulls out of her story. This is what we are to be like before God -- dependent on nothing but the grace of God. We are to be people without any resources except the riches of God's mercy.
Our culture tries to persuade us to become like the honoured scribes, but Jesus commends us to become like the dishonoured widow. We are to model our lives on one we would normally overlook, being too busy admiring the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
The issue is not how much we have in the bank, but what that money is for us. Is it our heart, our security our source of power, or is it a tool for our stewardship? Are we dependent on our money to give us all we want and need from life, or are we dependent on God to make us rich - or not?
If you follow me, Jesus teaches, you will walk in the way of the widow. We are to live lives that show in everything we do and say that we are dependent on God for all we have and all we are.
The widow tossed the only shred of independence she had in to the offering plate, but she kept intact her complete dependence on God and neighbour. Her way is a life of faith grounded in "the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit" - words that we often hear as the very first sentence of the mass. It's a life lived in the conviction that we are stewards of all we are and all that we possess, not the owners of these things.