The Gospel for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 12:38-44) gives us two distinct stories. They are, in my opinion, linked primarily by the fact that Mark told them back to back.
There is one small point of contact shared between them. Depending on how you think about that point you could argue a larger subtle connection.
Story 1: Jesus rants a bit about the scribes for doing stuff to get the praise of others.
Story 2: Jesus praises a widow for an objectively small but personally sacrificial offering.
Point of contact: Widows.
In the first story, seemingly out of context, Jesus complains about the attitude of the scribes. But it isn’t really so random. It is the end of a conversation with the scribes.
- In last week’s text (Mark 12:28-34) it was a scribe who came up to Jesus to test him, asking about the greatest commandment.
- Then the lectionary skips a short passage (Mark 12:35-37). Jesus turns the conversation around and tests the scribes. He asks why the scribes say the Messiah is David’s son, when David himself calls the Messiah his “Lord.”
This was both a stumper and a crowd pleaser. Perhaps we should imagine the scribes slinking away with heads hung low.
So Jesus sees the retreating backs of his debate opponents, and says that they exemplify something he really doesn’t like. As he said in other words in other contexts, seeking to make yourself look good at all costs is a pretty rotten approach to life.
So, in a time when it is more common and much easier to turn the gaze outward and accuse others of being self-absorbed monomaniacal narcissists, I think the passage is calling me to self-examination.
Time to root out my own tendency to Dress for Success, because
Beware of the scribes, who like
to walk around in long robes,..” (Mark 12:38 NRSV)
and my tendency to be glad in successful networking with the Right People, because
Beware of the scribes, who like …
to be greeted with respect in the market-places” (Mark 12:38 NRSV)
and my tendency to do a big fist pump and shout “YES!” when I get to be seen at the Right Place at the Right time, because
Beware of the scribes, who like …
to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (Mark 12:38-39 NRSV)
Time to lay aside my pleasure in such things. At least it’s time to give up my active efforts to seek them, to measure my worth in their terms.
Better to seek to do the good thing, and to seek to do what I do well — without regard to lusting after praise. Jesus has a low view of my desire to live on the praises of others.
The second story, since it lands mid-November, makes me ask how much effort the lectionary committee was making make sure preachers had a text for their stewardship campaigns.
Jesus sees all kinds of people making big donations to the temple fund…
Except then, when nobody else is looking, this little old lady steps up.
She’s a widow. That pretty well defines her poverty back in those days. She has a tiny bit of money to spend on anything — just a quarter or a dollar bill maybe.
You may have had those seasons when all you could put in the plate was a buck. You wondered if the ushers were looking in there and thinking
Not Jesus. He sees this woman, knows her situation, knows her heart, and he values it all proportionally.
In God’s math, who is giving more?
- The former CEO who bundles up the profits on the sale of their stock options to create a charitable foundation and goes back to the big house for dinner?
- Or the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet but who still brings a couple cans of chili for the food bank basket in the back of the church?
You figured it out.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Jesus is still really happy when the rich give heaps and bushels of money to the church or the poor or a non-profit.
It’s just that Jesus values changed hearts more than anything — and you really see the change when someone gives when it is hard. That’s what you see when someone who is struggling still gives.
We all need the changed heart, and we all need to give, and there is an endless supply of needs we can give to.
Point of Contact
The point of contact between the two stories is widows.
In complaining about the scribes, Jesus says, in passing,
They devour widows’ houses…” (Mark 12:40 NRSV)
And then the second story, of course, he praises the widow who gave so generously.
The idea that the Scribes devour widows’ houses is kind of weird, actually. He doesn’t give us any clues as to the mechanism.
Maybe they devour widows houses by focusing so hard on what others think of them, their standing, status, and reputation, that they just don’t look at the poor. Neglect has unintended consequences.
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but is there some kind of tie between those unintended consequences and the generous widow hidden in Jesus’ statement elsewhere about giving to those in need?
When you give alms…” (Matthew 6:3)
It isn’t “if” you give alms. And giving alms isn’t something as distant as paying taxes to create a social safety net, happy as I am that we do that. Almsgiving is personal. Old fashioned, but personal.
If we attend only to ourselves, we won’t be caring for others directly or indirectly — and in the end, the poor, the widows of the text, will have their houses devoured.
Having your home devoured is not a bad way to describe the process of becoming homeless. Repossession and eviction are a very big reality for the poor.
Is there a bigger connection? Maybe so. Maybe it is the big contrast between the Scribes who aggrandize themselves and the widow who acts so humbly, and serves others through humble giving.
Someone will surely have an opinion. I hope you’ll share yours in the comments!
Hoping for a way to make time in Scripture more a prayerful encounter with God? Get on the waiting list for my Advent course on the classic spiritual practice of lectio divina.