When we hear the story of the widow’s mite, that’s usually a sign that it’s stewardship season. A stewardship sermon would hold her up as a model of sacrificial giving, and urge us to give similarly. But as is the case with most passages of Scripture, if we expand the reading beyond the four verses that contain the story, the picture looks a whole lot different.
Today the Narrative Lectionary combines two weeks’ worth of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. The widow’s mite is the end of the passage, but there’s quite a bit that comes before it, and it might help us to understand her story as more than just an example that shows us how to fill out our pledge cards…
We start out, this week, with a scribe—sometimes the scribes are referred to as “lawyers,” because they are experts in the Torah, the Law of the Hebrew Bible. The scribes are the scholars who have studied the text carefully and help the people learn how to put it into practice in their everyday lives. Scribes in Jesus’ time could be members of any one of the various Jewish sects—they could be, for instance, Pharisees or Sadducees (the Sadducees were the ruling classes, the ones who were in charge of the Temple and its system of worship and sacrifice; they also were often collaborators with the Roman imperial authorities, which made them hated by Pharisees and other sects of Judaism). The first scribe we have recorded in the Bible is Ezra, who brought the Torah scroll back from Babylon after the exile, and read it to the people in front of the Water Gate (Nehemiah 8:1-12).
In our reading today, Jesus’ opinion of the scribes is definitely mixed. First we have one individual scribe that comes to Jesus to ask what his take is on one of the questions rabbis of the day were debating: “Which commandment is the first of all?” The conversation between the two of them reveals that the scribe has thought deeply about the question, and about the relationship between the commands to observe religious rituals and the commands to care for others, something about which the Hebrew Bible is quite concerned. And Jesus commends him for it.
It’s the last time anybody asks Jesus this kind of question in Mark’s Gospel.
But then, after a brief comment about the relationship between the expected Messiah and King David, Jesus speaks harshly about the scribes as a group. “Beware of the scribes,” he says; for they throw their weight around and expect special treatment, and they put on a great show of piety while they are at the same time actually violating the commandments that require care for the most vulnerable people among them.
Someone in one of the commentaries I read on this passage described a scene from The Godfather—I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to, so please don’t hold it against me if I get some of this wrong. Michael Corleone has taken his place as head of the family, and he needs to strengthen his position with a few targeted killings. But his hands need to stay clean, and he needs to have an alibi so he isn’t accused. So he attends his nephew’s baptism, during which he vows to “renounce Satan and all his works,” as his men carry out the brutal murders on his orders.
In essence, what Jesus accuses the scribes of is putting on a show of loving God through their long prayers and religious rituals, while at the same time violating the commandments about loving our neighbors—and remember the individual scribe who has just had a conversation with Jesus made reference to a sentiment that appears many times in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:22; Isaiah 58; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8), that obedience to all the commandments, including the ones about loving our neighbors, including foreigners in our midst, is more pleasing to God than burnt offerings that have no such obedience behind them.
It’s very clear in the Torah that the people are commanded to look after the people who are the most vulnerable in their society. In Jesus’ time and culture, those were the widows—in those days, a woman had to have a man to take care of her; and a widow who had no adult children or other family to look after her was in an impossible situation. But Jesus accused the scribes of “devouring widows’ houses”—of not just failing to look after them, but actively destroying their ability to survive.
And then, as he and his disciples watch everyone paying their required offerings, the temple tax, who should come along but a poor widow. She evidently has literally nothing except two tiny copper coins, and she puts them into the temple treasury. Jesus makes sure they notice her, and yes, he commends her for what she has given, for her faith and willingness to give her all, because she had been taught that giving to the temple was the same as giving to God, and would be pleasing to God. But there’s no doubt in my mind that this is also an illustration of exactly what Jesus has criticized the scribes for doing: devouring widows’ houses.
This woman literally has nothing. The scribes and Pharisees and wealthier folks are putting on a great show with their piety, their giving, their prayers and such—and here is this woman whom God has commanded the people to look after, being required to give her last two coins to the temple. It wasn’t optional; she couldn’t just decide, as we can when we feel it’s necessary, that she couldn’t afford to put anything in this week.
And because she had to put her two coins in, the chances were pretty good that she would not eat that night, and who knows about the next day. We don’t know if she had children; if she did, she would have had to listen to them cry themselves to sleep as their empty tummies rumbled and ached—all because the religious leadership that was supposed to feed them was instead devouring them.
What is the most important of the commandments? the scribe asked Jesus. Jesus reminded him of the prayer that he, as an observant Jewish man, would have said every day, from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one (or “the LORD is our God, the LORD alone”); you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But he adds a second commandment, from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
One rabbi who agreed with Jesus once said that these were the only two commandments that mattered; and “the rest is commentary.” The parallel version of this passage in Matthew says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”—in other words, do these two things, and you’ll be obeying all the others.
Love God with all you are and all you have—and this is, as the scribe recognized, much more than simply showing up at a house of worship once a week to pay our respects; it means observing all the commandments, including the ones that call on us to show mercy to others. So loving our neighbors—and Leviticus explicitly extends this to foreigners living in our midst, as well as the poor, the widow, and the orphan—is actually one way we love God. It’s not the only way, of course; but how can we say we love God, whom we haven’t seen, if we do not love our neighbor, who is right here to be seen, touched, and cared for? (1 John 4:20-21).
Once upon a time, a group of English Christian leaders had an epiphany. These were the early days of the Industrial Revolution in England, when men, women, and children were literally being worked to death. There are stories of families in which every single person worked long hours, every single day, and did not receive enough wages to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs—and when they reached their breaking point, when they could no longer function without enough food and other basic necessities, they would “take to their bed,” and die of starvation in one another’s arms.
The upper classes were, of course, shielded from this harsh reality.
So this group of church folks were sent out to collect the tithes of everyone in their parish. And as they knocked on the doors of people who didn’t even have enough money to feed themselves, much less pay their tithes, they came to a realization. Why are we asking them for money? We should be giving to them, not taking from them!
It is said that this realization, at the very start of the Christian movement we know now as Methodism, and the system that movement set up to make sure folks were cared for properly by their church, kept England from having a revolution similar to the one that happened in France in those early days of industrialism.
The gap between rich and poor was enormous; but the Methodists, by taking care of one another, helped mitigate some of the effects of that, so that the poor were able to hang on until the country’s conscience caught up with its technology. And it happened because people recognized neighbors in need, and realized that their traditions would devour them instead of loving them.