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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Widows’ Gifts—Mark 12:38-44 (Jan Rippentrop)

Often misread as a statement in praise of ‘sacrificial’ giving, Jesus’ observation concerning the widow’s offering at the temple is designed to condemn exploitative structures that prey upon the most vulnerable. We should not be able to read this account without reflecting upon comparable systems of economic injustice in our own day.

38 As 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, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then 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. 44 For 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.”

Before Jesus beckons you to sit with him across from the treasury, he frames the scene for you. The frame in Mark 12 goes something like this: There are those (and there will always be those) who seek the greatest respect, the best seats, and the places of honor—and not just anywhere, but in the most public of spaces—in the marketplace, in the synagogue, and at the banquets. Despite all the honor that is sought, wariness is due whenever these folks build themselves up at the expense of the widows.

Having framed your view, Jesus invites you to sit down “opposite the treasury” and observe people. One might suppose you’ve been invited to observe those who are offering their gifts, and, perhaps, that’s where our gaze falls first. Thus, we settle down in the court of the women, our gaze trained on the people putting offerings into the thirteen chests that comprise the treasury. The people we see, a rich man and a poor widow, aren’t doing different things; they’re doing the same thing: putting money into the treasury.

It is the quantity of their act upon which Jesus remarks. He notes that quantity is often defined in terms of total amount: the rich man put in “large sums” while the widow put in “a penny.” However, Jesus shifts the ground under the definition of “quantity” and suggests a reversal. Instead of being about a total amount, he suggests that quantity is more truly dependent on the cost to the giver. Two copper coins given out of poverty can exceed large sums given out of wealth. The quality of quantity evidently depends on giving, giving that exacts something from the giver.

Our minds conjure up 2 Samuel 24:24, and we hear on David’s lips, “I will not offer burnt-offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” Something happens to us when we give in ways that demand something from us. Not only does something happen to us: something also transpires between the giver and recipient, as well as between the giver and God, when significant cost is at stake for the giver. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the costliness of the gift of grace.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son… Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”[1]

God in flesh exemplifies God’s attentiveness to the material needs of humanity. The first reversal places a spotlight on human need. First, in the face of economic need, a penny becomes more costly than large sums. However, there is a second, more hidden but also more telling, reversal in this text. It is only clear when viewed in the context of chapters 11-13, where Jesus directs our sightline beyond the collection trunks and toward the office of the treasury. Ultimately, this people-watching in which we’re involved is not about watching those who give. It is about watching those who create systems of giving. Jesus directs our vision beyond the collection plate to the treasury’s office where the scales hang, where the plans are hatched, where books are balanced, and where the bottom line can receive more attention than the cries of the people.

Now, we recall the framing given to this story. The frame sets the widow’s story, not as a story of her heroism, but as evidence of the scribes’ corruption. Therefore, Jesus’ words hardly represent just an affirmation for quality giving. Jesus’ words stand primarily as a harsh rebuke of the temple authorities, who are exploiting people under the guise of religious commitment. “Jesus condemns the scribes generally for ‘devouring widows’ households,’ i.e., for preying on the poor by urging them to give their scarce resources to the Temple, thus leaving themselves destitute of even the usual subsistence livelihood.”[2] Jesus says, “Beware of the Scribes.” Far from a benign comment, the trajectory of this rebuke concludes with Jesus’ assertion that the Temple will be destroyed. Institutional economic injustice receives Jesus’ harsh rebuke.

Having thought we’d settled in at the court of the women to observe the treasury, we find ourselves, instead, in a much more familiar spot. It is at once more comfortable … and less comfortable. The lamp glows golden beside our reading chair, the news in hand. Whether it’s the Chicago Tribune, The Economist, or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reading about economic systems’ care for today’s widows—those who are most economically vulnerable—is uncomfortable. Perhaps so uncomfortable that it becomes disquieting—and having been disquieted, we begin to speak on behalf of those oppressed by economic injustice. How can leaders who seek funds protect the widow without shaming her for not giving? How can more be asked of wealth without honoring minimal sacrifice?

Pope Francis has gazed at the office of the treasury and has been willing to speak:

We have forgotten and are still forgetting that over and above business, logic and the parameters of the market is the human being; and that something is men and women in as much as they are human being by virtue of their profound dignity: to offer them the possibility of living a dignified life and of actively participating in the common good. Benedict XVI reminded us that precisely because it is human, all human activity, including economic activity, must be ethically structured and governed (cf. Encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate…, n. 36). We must return to the centrality of the human being, to a more ethical vision of activities and of human relationship without the fear of losing something.”[3]

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Revised & unabridged edition containing material not previously translated. (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 45.

[2] Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story : The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel, 1st edition. (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 111.

[3] Pope Francis, Address to the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation, 5/25/13 http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/economic-justice-economy/, accessed 31st October 2015.

Jan Schnell Rippentrop is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria Swanson Carlson Chair in Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she also serves as the Director of the Master of Arts Programs. Working ever at lively intersections, she is a liturgical theologian whose scholarship focuses on homiletics and a political theologian whose scholarship is informed by communities suffering from the stifling effects of poverty.

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