A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27 (31): November 7, 2021: Mark 12:38-44

38 In his teaching he kept saying: 
     Beware of the scribes who want 
          in garments of honor 
     to walk around 
          and want greetings in the marketplaces 
          39 and first seats in the synagogues 
          and first places in the feasts, 
     40 They eat up the houses of widows 
          and on a pretext pray long prayers: 
               these will receive a far greater judgment.
41 He sat opposite the treasury;
he was watching how the crowd threw coins into the treasury.
     Many rich men threw in many things.
42 There came one woman,
     a poor widow.
     She came.
     She threw two coins 
          (worth about a quarter of a cent).  
43 He called to him his disciples;
he said to them: 
     I tell you the truth: 
          this widow, 
               this poor widow, 
          more than all the others she threw,
               more that all those who threw into the treasury.  
               44 For all those,
                    out of their excess, 
               they threw. 
                    out of her deficiency, 
               she threw all, 
                    as much as she had.
                    She threw the whole of her life.  

Translation from my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary (The Pilgrim Press, 2005)

A Question or Two:

  • Who do you know that eats up the houses of widows?

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing to notice is that Jesus DOES NOT tell his audience to beware of ALL scribes. We have, in fact, met scribes in the story who are “not far from the dominion of God.” Jesus is only warning the audience about those scribes who like to traipse around in long robes, sucking all the oxygen out of the room and taking advantage of people who cannot defend themselves.

This matters.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus has a mother, but there is no mention of his father. None at all. We aren’t even given a name. He is never identified as Jesus Josephson. (Well, sure, they would have said “Jesus, bar Joseph,” but you get the point.)

That might mean something. Taking Mark’s story as the WHOLE story (at least for the moment), that could mean that Jesus simply has no father. That could be because his father was never in the picture in the first place. Or it could mean that his father (whoever that was) died early. (And, just for reference, notice also that Mark says nothing about a “virgin birth.”)

Based only on the story that Mark tells, Mary is a single mother. Perhaps she is a widow.

If she is a widow, perhaps she is one of those people whose house was eaten up by some scribe who was full of himself, but was still hungry enough to eat up Jesus’ childhood home.

I have used the word “perhaps” an awful lot. You should notice that, and you should withhold judgment as a result.

But what if Jesus’ knows what it’s like to have someone with power take advantage of your mother? That might go a long way to make sense of his concern for people who are poor or powerless.

It might also shape the way you read his reaction to the woman who throws her whole life into the treasury. The storyteller does NOT say that Jesus approves of her desperate generosity. He only notes that she has just thrown it all away.

On the one hand, if all you have in the world is two coins, you might as well give it away. You can’t buy supper in any case. That makes her a bit like the widow in the story from 1 Kings: she also decided to give her son one last meal and then die.

But on another hand, it is possible that Jesus sees the contribution system as abusive. Perhaps scribes who are unscrupulous tell poor people that God expects them to give all they have, and will reward them richly. Of course, such scribes first need to buy themselves a private jet or a new Mercedes.

And on yet another hand, maybe what is going on here makes sense only in a culture that practices give-away. My friends who are Lakota have told me about the practice of giving everything away after a death. This leaves the widow with no resources. No resources except for the resource of the family and community to which she belongs. Give-away makes it clear that, in the face of bereavement or other ordinary catastrophes, we need each other if we are to survive.

And, to add yet one more hand, perhaps the widow in this scene is one of the crowd of women that Mark’s storyteller points out as having always been around Jesus (see Mark 15). These women “deaconed” for Jesus, which means they connected need with resource. They will have brought people to Jesus who needed help. They will presumably also have connected people with needs with other people who could help them. After all, in the gospel of Mark it is not just Jesus who has resources to share. (“You give them something to eat,” says Jesus in chapter 6. Jesus then multiplies the resource, of course, but it all starts with people sharing food.)

But nothing says that the people in this ever-present-but-always-overlooked crowd were all people of independent means. Perhaps some of the women in this group were poor widows, and perhaps the woman in this scene was one of them. In that case, Jesus in this scene has to consider whether he has said or done something that left that woman without resources.

Of course, these are only exploratory questions, not judgments based on incontrovertible evidence. No kidding. But I am convinced that preachers (and all theologians) need more questions and fewer answers.

Answers tend to shut our eyes and ears, which is why Jesus speaks (and perhaps acts) so often in parables.

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