The Widow’s Might

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”
Mark 12:41

“When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple….”
Mark 13:3

Our Gospel text this week is commonly preached at stewardship time to exhort faithful churchgoers to give their all – just like the widow who put into the treasury “more than all those who are contributing” (Mark 12:43). However, perhaps a look at the context of the story and the posture and positioning of Jesus challenges us to re-examine what might lie behind the comment Jesus makes to his disciples as he watches the widow’s actions.

The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in pompous clothing, high-fiving their homies while they demand seats of honor and offer up pretentious prayers. The cumulative effect of their actions, Jesus says, is that they “devour widows’ houses” (v. 40). That last piece is highly significant because of what unfolds next.

Jesus, sitting opposite (over against) the treasury, watches a bunch of guys wearing expensive clothes take a widow’s last two coins (mites) – all that she has to live on. He makes a comment about the beauty of her actions, but behind his words we can also read a scathing socio-cultural criticism of temple-based economics. In fact, he shows her actions as prophetic in revealing an oppressive system that no longer protects and serves the poor but instead “devours” them.

“Did you see the offering of the widow?” Jesus asks his disciples. “In case you think that the warning I just made about the scribes is unwarranted, this woman has just deposited all she had into an offering used to maintain the very oppressive system that has devoured her house in order to build another.” Could it be that Jesus is calling attention to the widow’s actions not so much for her giving but as a continuation of his pesky habit of pointing out the injustice of the scribes, the wealthy, and the oppressive system of temple-based economics that had been built for self-sustainability by those in power?

Perhaps the focus of this story is not tethered to the significance of her generosity in giving her last two “mites,” but rather in the might of her prophetic action that exposes systemic injustice for what it really is.

The rich give out of abundance while the widow gives out of her poverty. The question before us is: who truly ends up poor and rich in this story? Aren’t the power-mongers who play games of death in the sacrificial cults more impoverished than this widow who reveals the cults’ true nature by throwing in her entire living? She is a prophet; they are not. Their gifts do nothing to reveal the nature of the sacrifice. Her actions, on the other hand, have the prophetic might to reveal what is at the heart of the matter.

In 2005, we held in Guatemala City a consultation on gang violence called Street Psalms. In attendance were some 75 pastors and community leaders from the capital of every country in Central America. In an attempt to talk with gang members and not about them, we gave the first word of the extended three-day conversation to active gang members.

But because many of the gang members we wanted to engage at the event were incarcerated and unable to attend, we had given them an assignment: a month earlier, we asked them to write for us what they wanted to say to the pastors and community leaders. Here is a portion of the “offering” that came from their written communications:

“Frequently we have seen growth in the physical structure of many churches. We see leaders with a competitive attitude choosing, it seems, to compete with other churches while abandoning the needs that exist in prisons, neighborhoods, slums, and rehabilitation centers. The priority of these churches always seems to be focused on the comfort of their respective members so they can feel like VIPs. They have lost, or perhaps just forgotten, the vision of Jesus Christ, who said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” We don’t want to criticize just for the sake of being critical. [We do want] to stand for the truth that while churches are constructing huge sanctuaries and creating Christian clubs, there are children dying of hunger, gang members killing one another, and prisoners suffering greatly – all the while you Christians comfort yourselves in your nice, big, comfortable churches.”

Are we open to learn from Jesus the prophetic sight to see in the words and actions of the oppressed and marginalized the might to shed the light of truth on corrupt, self-serving systems – religious or otherwise?

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms

Image: “Widow’s Mite” by Royce Bair (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)