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The most obvious connection between the two stories in our text: "Denouncing the Scribes" in vv. 38-40 and "The Widow's Gift" in vv. 41-44; is the term "widow" which occurs in vv. 40, 42 & 43. A possibly more subtle connection is with the related words: perissoteros (v. 40) and perisseuo (v. 44). They carry the sense of "to have more," "to have in abundance." The rich people give "out of their abundance" (v. 44), but the "abundance" mentioned in v. 40 is condemnation (or judgment). Note also that perissoteros is used in v. 33 by a scribe to indicate that the two great laws are "more important" than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. This "more important" law of loving one's neighbor is one that other scribes fail to do, so they will receive a "more severe" judgment.
Before looking at "widows," we start with "scribes." Generally, they were people who could read and write. The Greek word translated "scribe" is grammateus which comes from grapho = "to write." The same is true of the word "scribe," which comes from the Latin scribo = "to write."
Scribes were common in many countries of the Near East. They were more than copyists. The title became synonymous with being educated. Note in 1 Cor 1:20 where "scribe" is used in parallel to "wise" and "debater". Some scribes were legal and biblical experts. Note that in Luke 5:17 "Pharisees and teachers of the law" (nomodidaskalos) is used, but later, in the same setting, it is "scribes and the Pharisees" (5:21), thus the scribes in that story were teachers of the law.
Perhaps more than defining "scribes" as they were understood in the first century, we need to understand what Mark and his (Gentile) readers might have understood by "scribes." The following is what Mark tells us about "scribes" in other verses.
They were teachers (without the authority of Jesus) 1:22
They frequently question Jesus (their method of teaching and learning?):
about forgiving sins (2:6)
about eating with sinners and tax collectors (2:16)
about eating with defiled hands (7:1, 5)
about the source of his authority (11:27)
about the first commandment (12:28, 32)
They accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul (3:22)
They will be part of those who reject Jesus (8:31; 10:33)
They (as Bible experts) say that Elijah must come first (9:11)
They argue with Jesus' disciples (9:14)
They seek to arrest and kill him (11:18; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1)
They (as Bible experts) say that the Messiah is the son of David (12:35)
They mock Jesus on the cross (15:31)
The "scribes" are not always pictured negatively in Mark. In 12:34 Jesus declares that this particular scribe "is "not far from the kingdom of God." Jesus agrees with their interpretation that Elijah must come first (9:11-13). Perhaps like the arguing scribes in 9:14, Jesus is critical of his disciples' inability to cast out a demon.
Note that "scribes" have been mentioned three previous times in chapter 12: vv. 28, 32, 35. Besides the repetition of the word "scribes," are there other connections intended between these three stories?
In our text they are (literally) described as:
wanting to walk in long robes
[wanting] greetings in the market places
[wanting] the first seats in the synagogues
[wanting] the first places at the dinners
devouring the houses of widows
praying long from false motives (or just as a show)
I think that the issue in these verses is not "scribes" as such, but a caricature of them to emphasize the need to watch out for people who act in such ways. Nowadays someone might say: "Watch out for politicians who ...." or "Watch out for used car salesmen who ...." or "Watch out for lawyers who ...." Certainly not all politicians or used car salesmen or lawyers will fit the description, but the point of the descriptions (which may be exaggerations) is not to condemn only politicians or used car salesmen or lawyers, but all people who act in such ways.
What is wrong with these desires and/or actions? Don't most ministers today walk in long robes -- at least during worship? Don't people greet us in the market places and in other public arenas? Don't we often have special chairs in special locations in the chancel area? Aren't we sometimes given first place in line at potlucks? Is it wrong to want or accept such special privileges?
I also find it interesting that Jesus does not address these comments to the scribes, but to the crowd (v. 37b).
Perhaps, taken in the context with the other two "scribe" stories, Mark may be pointing out that they are not loving others as themselves -- they are just concerned about themselves; and that they are lording it over others, rather than, even as David did, putting themselves under the Lord.
I also note that it is not the actions per se that Jesus criticizes, but their desire [thelo] to do such things (v. 38 -- translated "like" in NRSV). It is really their inward desires and wants that are the issue.
It also seems likely to me that this serves as a warning to the early leaders in the Christian community: Watch out for those other religious leaders (namely, the scribes). Don't become like them. How often are we tempted to want to become like those who appear "successful" by worldly standards?
It is unclear exactly what is meant by "devouring the houses of widows." Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) offers a couple of interpretations.
These are hard words, but they get harder. Scribal affluence is a product of their "devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers" (12:40). There are two possibilities for interpreting this bitter euphemism. Derrett ["'Eating up the Houses of Widows': Jesus' Comment on Lawyers?" NovTest, (1972) 14, pp. 1ff.] argues that Mark must be alluding to the practice of scribal trusteeship of the estates of widows (who as women could not be entrusted to manage their deceased husbands' affairs!). Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the "pretext of long prayers"), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse. In this case the issue here would be similar to the korban practice to which Jesus objected in Mark 7:9-13. The vocation of Torah Judaism is to "protect orphans and widows," yet in the name of piety these socially vulnerable classes are being exploited while the scribal class is further endowed.
Fledderman ["A Warning About the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40)." CBQ, (1982) 44, pp. 52ff.] on the other hand believes that the explanation lies in Mark's narrative opposition between "prayer" and "robbery." The sites of scribal prayer is the temple, and the costs of this temple devour the resources of the poor. Jesus, who fiercely opposed such exploitation in the temple action and demanded a new site for prayer, points to the tragic story of the "widow's mite" by way of illustration. Because of its narrative analysis this interpretation is probably the stronger one. In either case, however, the essential point is the same: scribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation. Mark charges them with full responsibility for these abuses, and in perhaps the harshest words in the gospel, announces that they will receive far heavier judgment (cf. 9:42). [pp. 320-321]
"False motives" or "just as a show" come from the word prophasis, which carries a meaning of "pretending to be engaged in a particular activity." They are "pretending" to pray -- while they are devouring widow.
Do we ever "pretend to pray?" Is it pretending to pray for justice and not work at making society more just? Is it pretending to pray for healing and not go to the doctor or take the medicine? Is it pretending to pray for church growth and not actively invite friends and neighbors to church? How much of the sincerity of our prayer is determined by what we are willing to do, rather than just the words we pray?
Jesus declares that these scribes will receive greater judgment (krima = condemnation in NRSV). This Greek word does not necessarily imply condemnation, just judgment. The "more severe" negative judgment can be assumed by the context. However, "more severe" or "greater" judgment than who? The only other person who is "condemned" (katakrino) in Mark is Jesus (10:33; 14:64)! [The word is used in the addition to the ending in 16:16 concerning those who do not believe.]
This picture of the scribes presents them as wanting and seeking a positive judgment from other people -- taking, even from the most vulnerable, to improve their own status. Jesus indicates that they will receive a judgment -- but it probably won't be one they like.
Perhaps the greater judgment comes because these "Bible scholars" should know better. Their training and knowledge should be used to help the weak and helpless, rather than to exploit them.
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes these statements about "widows".
"In every code except the Hebrew, the widow has rights of inheritance but in Hebrew law she is completely ignored" [T.J. Meek, Hebrew Origins]. One reason for this strange neglect may be the Hebrew belief that death before old age was a calamity, a judgment for sin which was extended to the wife that was left. It was therefore a disgrace to be a widow (Ruth 1:20-21; Is 54:4). On the other hand, several laws do consider her plight or recognize her existence.
The biblical concern for the widow is evidence that she needed it because of her inferior position in the community. She evidently had only the protection which public compassion afforded her by acts of charity and justice. [vol. 4, p. 842]
I'm not sure where I got the following information about widows, but I had used it in a sermon. Becoming a widow was the fate most feared by a woman. They were people with no means of support. They didn't own property. They usually didn't have any way to earn money. They were people on welfare -- living off handouts from society or family.
When a woman's husband died, she could go back to her own family -- if they would pay for her. Otherwise she would have to stay with her husband's family, and was usually given very low and humiliating jobs. She was an extra burden on them.
Besides the low status of widows (and women), the widow is described in v. 42 as "poor" (ptoche). There are two Greek words used in the New Testament for poor. One word refers to someone who doesn't have a steady job (penes). Everyday, such persons would stand at the employment office hoping to get work and money for the day. The other word (ptoche) refers to someone who is a beggar -- someone who sat by the curb seeking handouts from anyone. This widow's whole life is dependent upon the grace of other people.
There is an obvious contrast between "rich" and "poor" in vv. 41-42, but there's another contrast between "many" (polys) rich people throwing in "much" (polys) and "one" poor widow. (Polys is also used in v. 37b about the "large" or "great" crowd.)
How did Jesus know she was a poor or beggarly widow? Perhaps it was by her clothes or her attitude. Maybe he had heard about her from someone else. Somehow he knew that she was a poor widow.
In v. 41b, literally the Greek states: "He was watching (imperfect tense) how the crowd casts (present tense) money into the treasury.
Most translations leave off the word how. Jesus isn't just looking at how much each person puts in, but also how they make their donation. Are they joyful? Are they sad? Do they make a big show of it? Is it given with humility? How are the people putting their money in the offering plate?
The word for rich (plousios) is used elsewhere in Mark only in reference to the rich man who can't part with his property in order to follow Jesus (10:25). A related word is used in 4:19 as one of the things that can choke the word so that it produces nothing.
Lepta is the name of the coins that the poor widow put in the treasury. According to different dictionaries, it would take 4 to 8 of them to make one cent. It was the smallest coin available. The money she put in was trivial -- unimportant, insignificant -- at least to the church. What could two lepta buy? It would take about eight "lepta" to buy one sparrow (Mt 10:29 -- 1 assarion ("penny") = 8 lepta).
It is significant that she had two lepta. She could have put one in the treasury and kept the other for herself -- thus giving 50% to the church. It is a mistake stewardship concept that 10% of our income belongs to God. 100% of our income belongs to God and God has given it to us to manage as best we can. That's what stewardship means -- managing what belongs to another.
I've already mentioned the status of the poor and of widows, and the insignificance of two lepta. However, Jesus lifts up this widow and her offering as being greater than all the others.
The contrast is not how much they gave, but how they gave. All the others gave from their abundance. The word for "abundance" (perisseuo) implies having (much) more than one needs. Their giving came from what they didn't need -- from their excess -- the leftovers. They may have given large amounts, but it didn't cost them anything. A few years ago, Ted Turner said that his gift of a billion dollars to the United Nations didn't cost him anything. It was excess money that some of his investments earned over the first nine months of the year.
I've heard the following story in connection with a special fund drive that the ALC did before the merger. A very wealthy man in California wrote out a check for $10,000 as a special donation to this fund drive. The minister who receive the check gave it back, telling the donor that he could afford to contribute a lot more. Although his gift was substantial, it didn't cost him anything. It was just a trivial treasure to him.
Perhaps along the same line, I've been involved in some recent discussions about planning liturgy and the use of inserts because "it's easier." Should we be thinking about the easiest (and cheapest) way to worship God? What does or should it cost a congregation to conduct a high quality worship of our God? Should we devote as much time in rehearsing for Sunday morning as we do for weddings?
In contrast to the "abundance," the widow gives from her "lack, need; poverty" (hysteresis).
A possible play on words may be intended at the end of v. 44. NRSV translates it, "all she had to live on." Literally it is "her whole life" The word for "life" is bios which means both "property or possessions" and "life".
Williamson [Mark, Interpretation Commentaries] sees this text as prefiguring Christ giving "his whole life".
The scene is the last in Jesus' public ministry; only the Temple discourse in chapter 13 and the passion narrative in chapters 14-15 remain. The teaching, however, is directed explicitly to the church by means of the familiar Marcan formula, "He called his disciples to him, and he said to them." The importance of the teaching emerges when we read it as the overture to Jesus' passion. The woman's action is praiseworthy because out of her poverty and without reservation she gave her whole living to God. But more is meant here. Her gift foreshadows the one Jesus is about to make: his very life. In Mark this poor widow becomes a type of him whom, "though he was rich, yet for (our) sake became poor, so that by his poverty (we) might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). [p. 234]
Perkins (Mark, The New Interpreter's Bible) writes:
... some interpreters find the meaning of the story in the contrast between the widow and the scribes of the previous story. They suggest that Jesus is attacking both the scribes and the religious system that taught this woman to offer her tiny coins, as though God would demand such sacrifices of the poor of the world. [Footnoted reference: Addison G. Wright, "The Widow's Mites: Praise or Lament? -- A Matter of Context," CBQ, 44 (1982) 256-65.]
Myers (Binding the Strong Man) offers the same interpretation, quoting from the same article by Wright:
The last episode in the temple is a story of a widow being impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus (12:41-44). Long mishandled as a quaint vignette about the superior piety of the poor, Wright has shone that Jesus' words should be seen "as a downright disapproval and not as an approbation":
The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section (as is the customary view); rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion. Jesus' saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament. . . . Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it [p. 262]. [p. 321]
Myers concludes this section by stating: "The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. As if in disgust, Jesus "exits" the temple -- for the final time (13:1a)." [p. 322]
Note that immediately after this story Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. Could that be a reference to the ending of exploitation of the poor and vulnerable?
With many of our congregations involved in stewardship campaigns at this time of the year, what should we tell our poorer members? What should we ask of them?
Another application of this interpretation might be to question whether or not our religious institutions, e.g., the local congregation; are agents for the coming Kingdom of God and equality for all; or are working in opposition to it, and will be destroyed at the coming day of the Lord.
James Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) presents a more traditional view when he concludes: "... the chief purpose of the widow is as a model of discipleship. No gift, whether of money, time, or talent, is too insignificant to give, if it is given to God" (p. 382).
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