38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
What I Am Learning:
I had just taken a new call when I got a letter from one of the members. Margaret was a widow and her children had various difficult issues. She needed someone to be the executor of her estate. The previous pastors had been willing to serve in that capacity should she die. Would I be willing to serve as her executor?
This seemed like a somewhat overwhelming request, on top of the other duties of being a pastor and my responsibilities to my family. But she had nowhere else to turn and one of the key values in the Hebrew Scriptures is to care for widows, orphans and immigrants. So I said "yes."
In the first century widows most often could not hold the property for their families if the adult men died. If there was no adult son when their husband died, they would need to find an adult male to serve as a custodian of their property. A part of the reason that Martha and Mary were so devastated by Lazarus' death was that they might lose their home as there was no adult male to legally own the property.
So widows would do what Margaret did: go to a religious leader and as them to hold the property until one of the male children became an adult. The Scribes were a group of people who could read and write and were expected to know the 613 laws. The 613 laws included what we would call both religious and civil laws. They served as trusted advisers and even arbitrators in some cases. Surely, if they knew the law and that law included the command to care for widows, then they could be trusted to serve as custodians of widow's houses.
Jesus had seen otherwise.
Apparently many Scribes would take the widow's homes in trust, and then sell them to others putting the widows and their families on the streets or to live as low ranking servants (what are sometimes called slaves) to other families.
His critique of the Scribes is that at least most of them have seen their position of respect as way to make money and to exploit the vulnerable. In the case of the scribes, it was not just a case of religious leaders exploiting people (like televangelists) but a combination of someone with religious and civil authority.
Jesus is giving us an example of his value of exposing people in positions of power using that power in an unjust way.
If read by itself, this passage could sound like Jesus is saying that all people in any kind of authority, religious or civil, and all forms of organizations and associations are inherently exploitative. There would be many today that would agree with this perspective.
The problem with this is that none of us have the power to work for justice without partnership with others - and strong partnerships need some form of organization to focus their power.
Mark goes on to tell the story of the widow and her two small copper coins. If he thought that all monetary gifts to support community was stupid he could easily have said so in this way:
A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny."Truly I tell you, her gift is just another example of a person with internalized oppression."
But he didn't say this. He saw her small gift, given out of her need not as a trust in the Temple and its leaders but as a sign of trust that God's future is breaking into the present.
As broken as it was, the Temple was one way the People of Israel kept the stories of liberation alive. Even in the midst of a broken Temple system, the light of God shone through. In that broken Temple system, she saw God's ongoing promise of love and love for all in the healing and creation of the world.
At the same time she was offering her gift of hope to God, her gift could also be seen as a sort of public protest to the economic injustice rampant in first century. 85% of people were poor. 10% were abject poor. The rest were "middle" or upper income. Jesus points out that the Temple was complicit in this system and benefited from it. Perhaps this widow had been one of those whose property was stolen by the Scribes.
Giving to the Temple was a public act, not a private one. As usual, though, we tend to notice some people and not others. Some people are "invisible".
Jesus notices the invisible, poor widow and her two small coins. He notices her deep faith in God, despite the broken nature of the Temple. He notices her fierce truth-telling as a poor, disenfranchised widow as her gift in poverty was more significant than those of the exploiters who took her household away from her.
This means that Jesus notices us when we are invisible. Jesus notices us when we step out in trust in God's healing of the world. Jesus also works for us to be able to see those who are invisible to us. Jesus works to support those who publicly protest to make injustice visible - as the widow did.
The question for us, however, is this: is the church broken and if so what needs to happen?
My response to this is, of course, that the church is broken. The church, in all of its forms, have often chosen institutional advancement, social distance from the poor and marginalized, thinly veiled racism and has claimed God's blessing for our sub-culture of privilege instead of working as a part of the larger community.
All of this is true, and more.
Many choose to distance themselves from this broken church. That is understandable.
Yet we would be wise to remember that the very Temple system that Jesus and the widow critiqued was part of what proclaimed the values by which he made that critique. Jesus tried to reform Judaism by engaging it and calling it to move in the direction God was calling it.
If he had chosen to, he could have lived his life as an Essene - a separatist group seeking to be pure and isolated from all the problems of community. Instead he gathered a community of people, proclaimed God's reign in public, and sought to invite others to join him.
We would be wise to remember that no human institution or set of relationships or person is perfect. You aren't either and neither am I. We are loved as we are.
And yet being in a broken church or any larger community is messy and has its own costs.
But the other reality is that the larger culture, if we do not gather together, will immobilize or crush us one by one. Facebook slackivism and lots of "likes" and "shares" while a good thing is no substitute for being a part of a flesh and blood community responding to the Spirit's call to work for justice.
Jesus question to us is this: Will we join Jesus in the messy work of being community-in-public working for justice?