Mark 12:38-44New International Version (NIV)
38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Today’s passage is one that can have a very different meaning if you choose to look at it from another perspective. There appears to be two different things that are going on simultaneously. One, Jesus is praising the woman for making such a generous donation. Two, Jesus is criticizing the teachers of the law, whom we will simply call the Scribes today for convenience.
I want to look at both of these things today, because I believe we often try to over simplify this passage and in doing so, we don’t do ourselves any favors. Especially those of us who are religious leaders need to hear this reminder because it is really easy to focus on Jesus praising the woman’s generosity while we neglect to mention his critique of the religious leaders. So let’s start by considering how Jesus praised the woman for her gift.
Verse 41 tells us that Jesus sat down with his disciples across from where the temple offerings for the treasury were made. I have no idea how 1st-century Jews gave financially in the temple, but I like to imagine that they had a little wooden box with a slot cut in the top where you could slide your money, like a piggy bank. But pigs are considered unclean in the Jewish faith, so I guess that they would probably have a goat bank, or something like that. Actually, based on this passage, it was probably something a little less concealed and inconspicuous. From his position across the hall Jesus and his disciples could see what other people were giving. So perhaps it was a large basket or a bowl.
Mark tells us that Jesus “watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.” Today many of us would say that what we give is a private matter between us and God, and I think that is right. But just remember, Jesus is watchingJ. Mark then tells us that many rich people come and they are throwing around large sums of money. They are dragging in their coin purses and dumping out their offering. Notice that Jesus never says that there is anything wrong with this. But it does contrast with the next person to make a donation.
Mark then tells us that a very poor woman, a widow, comes and deposits two small, copper coins, worth only a few cents. This is like someone putting their last two pennies in the offering plate at church. If I see a penny lying on the ground, at my age, I don’t even bother to bend over to pick it up. But to the extremely poor, a few pennies could be the difference between life and death.
Seeing this act of generosity, Jesus calls his disciples together and says to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Come on now. I know that I’m not great with numbers, but how did she give more than those rich dudes that just emptied bags of money into the treasury? Based on percentage, she did. Those two little copper coins were all that she had. So while the rich men probably gave 10% to the temple treasury, she gave 10 times that.
Historically many of us have heard this story — sometimes called “The Widow’s Mite” – in the church as a call to give more generously to the church. And I believe that interpretation is valid. Jesus lifts this woman up for her generosity, gathering the disciples to teach them a thing or two about being giving people. If this woman gave her last few pennies, can’t you afford to give a few more as well? This text was probably also followed with a reminder from 2 Corinthians 9:7 that God loves a cheerful giver!
There is nothing wrong with those kinds of sermons, as long as the money that is given isn’t going to make the leaders of the church filthy rich. Let’s recall how the gifts at the temple were to be used.
In Deuteronomy 26 we have the instructions for the “First Fruits” offering. Every year when the Israelites began their harvest, they were to gather the first items that they pulled from the ground or the vine, place it in a basket, and take it to the place that will eventually be known as the temple. That grain, fruit, and vegetables were intended to feed a number of people. Let’s look at Deuteronomy 26:12 to see who was to benefit from the First Fruits offering: “When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce… you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” The first is the Levites, who were the holy people, the priests. They received a portion of the First Fruits offering because they were not given land when the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. They were in charge of the religious system and the people were to feed them.
The offering was to support not only the religious leaders, but the foreigner (who also did not have an allotment of land), the fatherless or orphans, and the widow.
So I have no problem with sermons about generosity, as long as the offerings given to that religious establishment does more than just line the pockets of the religious leaders. Clearly the religious leaders are to receive a portion of the offering for their work (thanks!), but not all of it.
Which brings us to the parallel point in today’s passage: a critique of the religious leaders.
Look with me at verses 38-39, “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.’”
The Scribes like to walk around in flowing robes. Obviously, this is a critique of loose-fitting clothing. From this we can deduce that if Jesus was alive today, he would wear skinny jeans! No, no man should ever wear skinny jeans, so that can’t be the point. And if you don’t know what skinny jeans are, consider yourself blessed. The idea behind the flowing robes is that they were expensive, fancy garments. The Scribes were wearing the equivalent of Gucci suits, or whatever the most expensive suit you can buy today might be. They were driven by power, greed, and honor.
Verse 40 is a strange one. In this verse Jesus is still addressing the corruption of the Scribes, and he says, “They devour widows’ houses.” I’ve never been hungry enough to eat a house, but evidently that isn’t the case with the Scribes. Obviously, this is a metaphor for how the Scribes are consuming something important to these poor women.
Consider the context of this passage once again. Women in the first century did not receive the same level of religious education that the men did. They couldn’t read, and if they could, they wouldn’t have access to the scrolls that the Hebrew Bible was written upon. Women also were not able to enter into the main part of the temple where many of the religious rights and teachings took place. So if they wanted to learn more about God and to be faithful to him, women had to learn from their fathers or their husbands in this patriarchal society.
So if you were a mature woman who had lost both her father and husband, you were in a real bind. The only place you could get money and religious instruction was in the temple courtyard or on the street. First of all, you were living off the generosity of others, often begging for money. And because you couldn’t enter the inner-most part of the temple, study your own Torah, or receive teachings from your father or husband, widows relied on people like the Scribes to teach them how to be faithful followers of God.
When Jesus said that the Scribes were devouring widows’ houses, he was saying that they were misleading this marginalized group into giving their money and possessions to the religious leaders.
Recall that the passage from Deuteronomy taught that widows were to be among those who received a portion of the temple tithe, not pay it. Furthermore, the Mishna, which is a Jewish commentary on the Torah, says this: “He who has barely sufficient for his own needs, is not obligated to give charity, for his own sustenance takes precedence over another’s.”
How scary is that! Think of the power a Scribe would have over the widows. He could tell them, “If you want God to bless you, or if you wish to stay in God’s good graces, you must give to our ministry.” And how could the uneducated, illiterate widow argue with that?
This is the contrast we find in Mark 12. These Scribes in their Gucci suits are teaching that everyone must give to support the religious system. And even though this teaching goes directly against the teaching of the Torah and the Misha, the widows don’t know any different. They simply think that they are being faithful.
I have a friend who is not a part of our church who I think represents the position of the widows in our text for today pretty well. He can read, but he has some mental challenges. I think that one of his challenges is that he is at times too trusting, too gullible. Sometimes this is great, because he has the faith of a child and he thinks everyone wants the best for him. But it can also get him into trouble.
This friend, we will call him Robert, receives a disability check because of his mental condition on the second Wednesday of every month. And like many people on disability, he has a difficult time making it from one month to the next. But he keeps a close eye on his account balance, so he knows when it is getting low.
I saw him one day and he started telling me about a book that he had just ordered. He saw it on t.v. and it was about praying yourself to financial stability. And best of all, it was a free book! All you had to do was mail the tv personality a donation of $50, and he would mail the book to you for free. A great deal, right?! But that’s okay, because once he got the book, he was going to learn how to pray and be able to make ends meet.
Of course I had my reservations, and I expressed them to Robert. I asked him where he got the $50. He explained his plan to me. He sent a check. And his bank charges $25 for a bounced check, but it would be worth it when he got the book.
Had I thought that it would have made a difference, the tv personality would have received more than the $50 donation from my friend that week. He would have received a strongly-worded letter from me. But I’ll leave judgment to Jesus, and in verse 40 he says that those who take advantage of weak people will be “punished most severely.” That might be worse than a strongly-worded letter.
People who interpret the will of God for others have a great responsibility. We can use that responsibility to do good, or to do evil. We can use that responsibility to gain for ourselves, or for the good of those to whom we minister.
So what message of redemption is there in today’s passage? Let’s look again at verse 44, “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” In the Greek, that last section is “ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.” To translate that as “all she had to live on” isn’t quite a literal translation, but it is one way to understand what Jesus was saying. Literally, Jesus said that the widow put all of her Bios in the offering. Bios, from which we get words like “biology,” simply means “life.” What Jesus literally said was that this widow put her entire life into the offering.
When Jesus calls the disciples over to witness the generosity of the widow, I don’t think he cares one bit about just how much she or any other person is putting into the treasury. I think he is trying to point out that she is fully devoted to the ministry of the temple. Out of her poverty, she gave the most important thing that she could give. She gave her life.
The widow may have been duped into thinking that she needed to give financially to the temple, even if it meant giving her last two cents. Maybe she didn’t need to do that, and perhaps she made a mistake by giving away those two coins. But Jesus praised her anyway, because even though she was mistaken, she gave her all to something that she believed in.
I think that this is the challenge for us today. Are we “all in?” Are we fully invested in a movement started by Jesus almost 2,000 years ago with a handful of fishermen, a tax collector, and a religious extremist? 2,000 years ago Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming a message that stood in contrast to the dominating ethos of the world of their time.
I’m pretty sure that Jesus cares less about us getting everything just right and more with our effort to do the best at what we believe is correct. I come back to my friend Robert. He got his book and he prayed his prayers. And guess what. He still struggles financially. There’s always too much month at the end of the money. But here’s the thing I want to learn from Robert. He’s all in. Even though he has some limitations, he does the best that he can with what he has.
Last I heard Robert was involved with a small church plant. No, he isn’t preaching or leading music. Robert has one job and he does it well. He is responsible for moving the speakers out of the church van and into their rented space every Sunday morning. And after the service, he is the one who carries those speakers back again. This isn’t a job that everyone can do because it is physical. But he does it, and he does it without fail.