38As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”Mark 12:38–44
[Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on Nov 7, 2018.]
The enormity of the world’s grief and its wounded nature makes even the most determined and optimistic people tired. Imagine this widow in Mark 12:38-44. One wonders if this Jewish woman’s husband was killed by the Roman army. Was the husband part of a revolt or was he just a bystander?
Quenching revolts or teaching bystanders a “lesson” is internal to the logic of an army interested in geopolitical control. We understand this when we place the text in context. Due to oppressive Roman rule and unending people’s revolts, heavy militarization was a daily feature of Jesus’ time. The consequences of such militarization left many dead.
This widow is thus no stranger to the reality of the world’s wounds. She knows through firsthand experience the wounds of the world around her. They continue to fester while fresh wounds are executed. We can expect this widow to be tired. Nevertheless she persists by being a public presence.
Public presence, in more ways than one, interrupts and breaks a culture of secrecy around issues that are evident and commonplace, yet not articulated in the public for fear of repression. This Jewish widow’s public presence, therefore, does at least two things, both of which are political.
First, it critiques the so-called peace of Rome. In other words, by exhibiting the absence of her husband, she removes the cloak of imposed civility and reveals Rome’s inflicted wounds. Rome’s “peace” has taken her husband away. Rome is violent and that fact cannot be hidden.
The text also tells us that this widow was poor. It adds a layer of complexity that brings us to the second point about her public presence. Ancient Palestine was familiar with patriarchy. In the absence of a husband, a woman was left without a means of financial sustenance. While physical violence is enacted by Rome, patriarchy’s violence is slow, but nevertheless damaging, causing poverty. By showing up in public, a critique is thus leveled also against this system of patriarchy.
The widow may not even have intended these two critiques. This possible lack of willed intention presents the reader with an intriguing set of possibilities, a point we will come to later. Nevertheless, these critiques are certainly present in her act of appearing in public.
But the widow does more than just appear in public. She drops two small copper coins. The two coins amount to just a sixty-fourth of a day’s wages. To make a current-day application, if this widow worked at Walmart for eight hours a day, those two copper coins would amount to four or five quarters, not enough to do even one load of laundry at a laundromat.
For those of us who are embarrassed about dropping small denominations into the offering plate, imagine how much such an embarrassment could be multiplied if we reached into our pockets and we dropped, let’s say, five single quarters. What if it was not one of those days we merely forgot to carry loose bills? What if we did not have a choice and all we had on any given day were those five quarters? The widow seems to have found herself in such a state.
Despite her poverty and despite the humiliation that she might have been subjected to, she does drop the coins into the treasury. Reflecting on this passage, many commentators have attributed to Jesus’ words—“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury”—a connotation of praise.
Rather than praise, however, the better posture one could take in reflecting on Jesus’ words is to view the passage as an indictment of a system that makes the poor poor in the first place. This interpretation is not new. Commentators such as Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) have noted this. Jesus is perhaps highlighting the absurdity of a system that makes someone poor and allows for the little that one makes to be given away in service of something supposedly larger than life.
Let us return, after having considered all this, to the possibility that the widow did not intend to critique Imperial Rome’s omnipotence or the patriarchy’s omnipresence. Where does that possibility leave the reader? I believe it leaves the reader in a place of feeling the absence of hope kindled by the widow’s intention. The image of the widow, in this reading, presents the tragic nature of the event in Mark 12. The reader is able to see the tragedy unfold without being able to do anything nor being able to attribute resistance to the intention behind the widow’s action. All one is left with is the action with no intention.
This absence of intention in the widow’s action still allows for it to be seen as a deeply political act. This political aspect of the action is understood when viewed as revelatory potential. In other words, the widow’s public presence sheds light on other larger realities such as the ubiquitous violence of both empire and patriarchy. The fact that an intended critique of empire and patriarchy may not be present in the widow’s heart does not mean that such a critique is not felt in the hearts of the readers today and the onlookers of Jesus’ own time as recorded in this passage.
The absence of intention does not prevent the presence of political ramifications of public presence. By showing up, the character of the widow is an indictment of not only society’s structural injustice but also the complacency of onlookers, actors, and bystanders who have eyes but do not see and ears and do not yet hear.
This widow of Mark 12 is the same widow of Psalm 146 and the same widow of the Torah that God promises to uphold, protect, and do justice for. We are called to do the same
In the final analysis, this text presents readers with a set of questions. What are our own missed opportunities for critical self-reflection on structural injustice that we encounter in our own time? When we see the bodies of others—especially the bodies of others that are different than our own—what reaction does it elicit? Does the reaction hide or reveal deeper issues? And, how many analytical and repentance-laden opportunities have we missed in not seeing differently presenting bodies? Or, further, are we inadvertently creating conditions to sequester ourselves from seeing bodies that are different because of the political ramifications of their presence and the demands that they make on our conscience and habits?