Gospel: Mark 12:38-44

The Gift of the Poor

What gifts or challenges do the poor, the homeless, or the suffering bring us?

Sometimes we need to look at the world through different eyes. The poor give us this chance. Instead of looking at the rich and famous, we look at those less fortunate.

But the poor give us another chance to look at the world in a new way. Instead of looking down in pity, they give us to chance to look at a world where material goods are not as important, where sharing one's daily bread is a norm, not an exception. The story of the poor widow's offering gives us this opportunity. And it provides the challenge to shake off any pretense money and comfort may bring.

Popular Translation

38 As Jesus taught the people in the Temple, he said, "Look out for the scribes! They like to walk around in fancy clothes and have people greet them on the street. 39 They like to sit up front, facing the people when they are worshiping God. And they like to sit right next to the host at fancy dinners, so everyone can see them. 40 They destroy the lives of poor widows, while they puff themselves up saying long prayers. God will give a harsher judgement to these men!"

41 Jesus sat near one of the collection boxes for the Temple. And he was watching how everyone threw their coins into the box. Taking their time, many rich people threw in coin after coin after coin. 42 Then, a poor widow came and threw in two coins that weren't worth very much. 43 At that, Jesus called his followers together. "Hey, everyone! Listen!" Jesus said. "That poor widow put in more than everyone else put together! 44 For everyone else put in money that they didn't need to live on. But this woman threw in all everything she had, even the money she desperately need for food."

Jesus commented on pretentious attitudes: those of the leaders and those of the faithful. In both cases, Jesus criticized love of appearance had taken the place of faith.

Literal Translation

38 In HIS (Temple) teaching, HE said (to the crowd), "Look out for the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, (who like) greetings in the marketplaces, 39 the leaders' chairs in the synagogue, and the places of honor at banquets, 40 (the scribes) exploiting the houses of widows and praying long (showing themselves) pretentious. These (men) will receive greater condemnation."

12:38 "the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, (who like) greetings in the marketplaces" Leaders like the scribes were not only religious leaders; they were civic leaders in urban areas. Many times, Roman officials set aside Jewish quarters as autonomous sections of a city. Jewish leaders had governing power in most domestic affairs but not where the Empire had a vital interest (foreign affairs, military, capital punishment, etc.). The distinctive clothing and greetings in the marketplace defined their power among the faithful. Notice that Jesus did not criticize the clothing, the greeting, or the status of the leaders. He criticized their love of position and power.

12:39 "the leaders' chairs in the synagogue" The leaders' chairs were a line of seats that faced the congregations at synagogues. The seats were placed before the "Ark of the Covenant" (the cabinet that held the Torah scrolls and other sacred books). Many modern Catholic and mainline Protestant churches use this design. Seats in the sanctuary face the congregation and are reserved for the celebrant(s).

"the places of honor at banquets" These were reclining places (the recline position was the preferred eating position in the ancient world). These "places of honor" were usually to the left and right of the host.

12:40 "(the scribes) exploiting the houses of widows" The construction of this clause is questionable. Obviously, the subject is the scribes.

Jesus criticized the scribes for abusing and destroying the "houses of widows." This meant more than denying them possessions. Jesus charged the scribes with destroying the families led by widows (usually homeless). The scribes were legalistic, not compassionate.

"praying long (showing themselves) pretentious" The word "pretentious" can be interpreted in three ways. First, the word can refer to the activity of exploitation in the phrase that precedes it ("the scribes, praying long as a pretense for exploiting the houses of widows"). Second, it can refer to the attitude of the scribes themselves ("the scribes, who show themselves pretentious in their long prayers"). Or, third, it can refer to the prayers themselves (the scribes, who pray long pretentious prayers"). In context, the second interpretation is preferred; the scribes were themselves pretentious.

Everyone I know who has ever led in ministry (including me, the author) has secretly wanted to play to an audience. Every preacher, every teacher, has a small bit of entertainer in them. Every minister has wanted their few moments under the spotlight.

Of course, this is an immature reason to serve. Many people fight the urge (some even refuse to serve for this reason!). Many have this need fulfilled and have move on. Many simply grow out of the need and remain for the right reason: the joy of service.

Why did Jesus criticize the scribes directly? These men were the brightest, most influential, and most important experts on the Law. Since Jews in Judea, throughout the Roman Empire, and in many parts of the world lived in self-governing enclaves, the power of these scribes could not be underestimated. They were lawyers and judges. They were civic leaders and legislators. Their knowledge and ability were vital to the survival and the growth of God's chosen.

A closer reading of the text revealed Jesus did not speak of their position and power. No, Jesus attacked the scribes for their love of the limelight. He slammed their love of reputation and implied they cheated the poorest of the poor ("houses of the widows") for their own gain and the gain of their benefactors, the wealthy. On the heels of last week's study about the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34), the words of Jesus had a special sting. What did the leaders love more, popularity or service? Self or God? The actions of the scribes said it all.

41 Having sat opposite the (collection) box of the treasury, HE was watching how the crowd threw coins into the treasury box. Many rich (people) were throwing in many (coins). 42 Having approached, a poor widow threw in two small coins, which is a quadrans. 43 Having called together HIS disciples, HE said to them, "Amen, I say to you that this poor widow threw in more than all those throwing (money) into the treasury box (put together). 44 For all those threw in from their abundance. But this one out her need threw in everything she had, her whole means of support."

12:40 "Having sat opposite the (collection) box of the treasury" This box was one of thirteen placed at the outer entrance to the Temple building (the "Court of Women"). These boxes were collectively known as the "treasury."

"Many rich (people) were throwing in many (coins)" The text implies continual action. Instead of putting in all the money at once, the rich would take their time, put in one coin after another, and make a show of their offering.

12:41 "two small coins" is literally "two lepta," the smallest coins in circulation at the time. 96 lepta made up on denarius (the denarius was one day's wage). These two small coins would be overlooked in a collection as two pennies.

"which is a quadrans" This is an approximate comparison for Mark's Gentile audience. The lepta and quadrans are not equivalent in worth. 16 quadrans made up one denarius.

12:43 "this poor widow threw in more than all those throwing (money) into the treasury box (put together)" Jesus compared one poor widow's offering to the activity of the entire crowd.

Mark's gospel compared the actions of the rich with the giving of a simple widow. Many rich would take their time to give many coins, one at a time. Then a widow entered who have the little she had. On the surface, Jesus seemed to praise the sacrifice of the widow, who offered all she had that day to God.

However, many scholars believe that, beneath the surface, Jesus lamented the action of the widow. By sacrificing all she had, she became even more dependent upon others and even more of a burden on society. In a culture where survival was the priority, was such a sacrifice wise? Was this not an act of suicide?

In addition, who did she give to? The temple treasury was controlled by the same scribes Jesus criticized. The treasury funds were to be used for the poor, but, some have charged, they were really used for the expensive lifestyle of the scribes that Jesus detailed.

But, who was the widow ultimately dependent upon? God. She sacrificed all in the same way many neophyte Christians gave up social ties and economic support of extended family to follow the Way. This poor widow represented the Christian (just as Mary, the mother of Jesus and the widow of Joseph, embodied the movement). Jesus pointed to the self-giving of the widow as an example for all Christians to emulate. And he implicitly criticized the "show off" attitude of the rich who give to build up their reputation.

Catechism Theme: Love for the Poor (CCC 2443-2449)

The widow in Mark's gospel represented the truly poor, those who can neither speak for themselves nor fend for themselves. She shared what we had for the good of others and the glory of God. We are called to do as much.

The Church identifies itself with the poor. In the Beatitudes, Jesus himself proclaimed the Kingdom as the home of the poor. Throughout the centuries, many faithful have served the less fortunate. Today, we, as Christians, are called to share time, talent, and treasure with those who cannot speak for themselves. In fact, our call as Christians demands we share. Any love of wealth is inconsistent with our love for the Lord.

The corporal works of mercy (feeding the sick, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned and the sick, burying the dead) detail the Church's love for the poor. These should be at the forefront of Christian activity, not an afterthought.

Have you recently been involved in an activity or ministry that served the poor? Are you involved in a "corporal work of mercy?" Explain.

A wise person once said, "We should thank the poor for the opportunity to serve." Many well-meaning people expect thanks from the less fortunate. But, we who are well off who should lower ourselves to serve the poor, so they can maintain their dignity. We should be the ones who say, "Thank you" and expect nothing in return.

The poor widow gave all she had as a gift. She also gives us a gift. The opportunity to sacrifice our convenience, our self-centeredness, our petty concerns to share what we have with others. To her and all like her, let us express our gratitude.

How can you serve the poor and the less fortunate in gratitude this week?