Beware and Shine: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-Fifth Week after Pentecost

 
Progressive Weekly Lectionary Commentary

Twenty-Fifth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 12:38-44

Big Picture:

1. This week’s Gospel reading is the eleventh week of a twelve-week chronological walk through several chapters in Mark.  When Advent starts on December 2, we’ll begin a year-long pilgrimage through the Gospel of Luke.

2. The story of “the widow’s mite,” as it’s often called, is typically cast as a model of sacrificial giving for us all to follow - but it turns out the passage is a good deal more complicated than that.  As we’ll see below, while Jesus does lift up the widow as faithful and generous, his primary point is a powerful critique of the religious powers that be, and a celebration of how God is turning the world upside down.

3. Since his arrival in Jerusalem (Mark 11:1), Jesus has been engaged in a series of controversies with various religious leaders.  This week’s story brings those disputes to their conclusion - and culminates finally in the next section, in which Jesus foretells the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (Mark 13:1-2).  (Mark was probably written just before, during, or just after the Romans put down a major Jewish rebellion, devastating the temple in the process).

4. For Mark, not all of Jesus’ interactions with the religious establishment were contentious (just last week, for example, we saw him adamantly agree with a scribe - that is, a religious leader and scholar of the Torah - on the crucial question of which commandments are most important).  But throughout his ministry, Jesus was keenly concerned about religious arrogance and hypocrisy inside his own camp, and this frequently brought him into conflict with religious authorities. For Christians today, honoring the prophetic power of Jesus’ teachings means explicitly interpreting them as inside-the-camp critiques of Christian religious arrogance and hypocrisy, including our own - lest we arrogantly and hypocritically find fault with others!

5. This Sunday is also Veterans Day, originally “Armistice Day.”  On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (i.e., November 11, 1918, exactly 100 years ago this Sunday!), the truce was declared that ended World War I, then known as “The Great War” and “the war to end all wars.”  Check out SALT’s brief theology of Veterans Day here.

Scripture:

1. Teaching a “large crowd” gathered somewhere on the temple grounds (Mark 12:35,37), Jesus warns his listeners to beware pretentious religious leaders.  There’s no punctuation in the original Greek text, so in the English translation, the first comma inserted in Jesus’ remark (“Beware the scribes,”) is a matter of interpretive choice.  Does Jesus mean, as inserting the comma would suggest, Beware the scribes, because all of them like to walk around in long robes…; or does he mean, as removing the comma would suggest, Beware the particular scribes who like to walk around in long robes…?  The first option condemns the group wholesale as pretentious; the second zeroes in on the pretentious members among the group.  The fact that Mark has just gone out of his way to relay a story in which Jesus and a scribe adamantly agree on an essential question (Mark 12:28-34) indicates that we should remove the comma - and frankly, so does the long and sordid history of Christian anti-Judaism, which includes the disastrous habit of painting Judaism with a broad, unflattering brush.  In any case, Mark is clear: some scribes were pretentious, and others weren’t (we can certainly say the same about Christian leaders today!).

2. What does Jesus mean when he says they “devour widows’ houses”?  Widows were often economically vulnerable in the ancient world, and for the Hebrew prophets, exploiting widows was an iconic shorthand for economic oppression (see, for example, Psalm 94:1-7 and Isaiah 10:1-2).  More specifically, Jesus may have in mind here the fact that some scribes became legal trustees of widows’ estates, charging exorbitant prices for their services.

3. Which brings us to the “poor widow” Jesus points out on the temple grounds, delivering her offering of “two small copper coins” - the equivalent of a dollar or two today (Mark 12:42).  How did she become so destitute?  The story’s clear implication is that she, too, has been exploited by the religious establishment - and behold, even at this very moment, she gives her last penny to the temple!  But the astounding irony of the situation, Jesus says, is that this widow is actually more faithful, more generous, more righteous than the pretentious scribes who “say long prayers” and the “rich people” who give large sums “out of their abundance” (Mark 12:41-44).  Their large sums aren’t so large after all, nor is their alleged holiness so holy.  The poor widow, the very one they oppress and overlook, outshines them all!

Takeaways:

1. While this passage does include Jesus lifting up a poor widow as faithful and generous, his main point in this passage is to prophetically condemn religious hypocrisy.  The widow is a foil for both the scribes’ unrighteousness disguised as righteousness and the rich people’s selfishness disguised as generosity. It’s as if Jesus is saying, You hypocrites! Even this poor widow’s faith and generosity puts yours to shame!  You may have the long robes, the long prayers, and large sums of money - but she outshines you with two small coins!

2. Accordingly, to pluck the story of the widow’s offering out of context and simply laud her as a model of generosity is to miss what Jesus is up to here.  In one sense, of course, the widow is exemplary - after all, she does what the rich man in Mark 10:17-22 fails to do, giving “everything she had, all she had to live on” (the literal Greek is, “her whole life”).  Like the blind beggar Bartimaeus, her actions expose the empty pretensions of the supposed insiders, the religious and economic elite.  But Jesus’ primary point is precisely that exposé. To focus only on the widow’s apparent altruism is to domesticate the passage and drain it of its prophetic power, Jesus’ searing critique of how religion is too often distorted to camouflage or justify injustice, selfishness, and apathy.  “Beware!” Jesus says. “Beware!” You see these great prayers, these great sums - they’re bankrupt!  And then, in the verses immediately following this week’s passage: You see these great stones, these great buildings? They’re coming down! (Mark 13:1-2).

3. At its heart, then, this passage is both a warning and a formidable challenge to its readers and listeners.  The good news of the Gospel this week is that, first, the challenge itself is dignifying: God seeks to alert us to religion’s capacity for distortion (“beware!”), and at the same time to call us to practice religion with genuine faith and generosity, turning away from our hypocrisy and self-deception.  And second, the good news of the Gospel this week, and indeed in Mark generally, is that God’s mission (to borrow a few phrases from Luke) is to “lift up the lowly,” “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” and “bring down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52).  To the extent that we reflect on this passage as a meditation on “giving,” our focus should be less on emulating the poor widow and more on how we might give our time, talent, and treasure to more fully participate in God’s joyous work of lifting up the lowly, scattering the proud, and thus turning the world upside down. For after all, this joyous, world-turning work, this care for the vulnerable and love for our neighbors, is “true religion” (James 1:27; Mark 12:28-34).