Portable Commentary

7 November 2021

Thought for the day  
Money can easily distort our attitudes and values. It is tempting to react more warmly to those who give more generously—we all do it. It is easy to overlook the motive behind giving and focus, not on the giver, but on the gift. We do have the expression that it’s the thought that counts. Usually, though, such proverbial wisdom is employed to help me/us be consoled when some expectation was not realised. Thus, this apparently consolatory thought acknowledges the tendency to the opposite, the attraction to the gift as such!! The Lord, however, reads our hearts.

Lift us up, O Lord, that we may always value what really matters, the heart and not the appearances, the giver and not the gift. When we give, help us remember that you love the cheerful giver, giving from the heart.

Jesus Denounces the Scribes

Mark 12:38   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 honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The Widow’s Offering

Mark 12:41   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.”

Initial observations
This passage portrays Jesus in prophetic mode in both sections. The first section is a teaching, which brings to a close the difficult disputes in Mark 12. The second story is a contrasting illustration of the same teaching. Formally, the stories are linked by the mention of the widow. The link however is not simply verbal because, while the teaching deplores external show and hypocrisy, the story extols genuine sincerity of heart. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus had contrasted a narrow, legalistic practice (Mark 7:2-7) with the true moral intent of the divine Law (Mark 7:8-13).

Kind of writing
The first story is a straight teaching. In prophetic manner, Jesus names the temptation of all who are “profession-ally” religious: self-importance, greed, hypocrisy. The second story is a chreia, a story with a direct observable point. The contrast is not between material giving and spiritual giving: both the widow and the very rich give materially—and the Temple needed support. The contrast lies between the attitude (self-glory v. gift) and the cost of the donation (relatively little v. “all she had to live on”).
On the amounts mentioned (lit. a chalcon, two lepta and a quadrans): Sizeable transactions were made in the denomination of the talent (Matt. 18:24; 25:14-28) or the mina (Luke 19:13-25). The debtor of Jesus’ parable owed alternatively 10 thousand talents (Matt. 18:24) or 500 denarii (Luke 7:41). The smaller denominations, the chalkos, lepton, assarion, and quadrans, were used in more daily affairs, for which a purse would be carried (Luke 22:36). Monetary exchange was required to accommodate the variety of coinage, not in the least for cultic and sacerdotal purposes (Matt. 21:12; Mark 11:15-18; John 2:14). Luke judges the Pharisees to be “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). The Euro one cent coin is called a lepton in modern Greek—an illustration of the value intended.

Old Testament background
The Temple was a hugely important part of Israelite religion and the support of the Temple was a religious duty. The Temple reconstruction started under Herod the Great and continued all through Jesus’ ministry. It was almost completed only very shortly before its complete destruction by the Romans in ad 70.

Warnings against hypocritical religious practice are found also in the Old Testament:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! (Isa 10:1–2)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. (Zech 7:9–10)

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Mal 3:5)

New Testament foreground
“Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” (Mark 12:15)

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Pet 2:1–3)

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (Jas 3:17)

Cf. Mt 23:1-36 or Lk 11:37-52 (given here):

While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realising it.”
One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” And he said, “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:37–52)

St Paul
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor 9:6–11)

Brief commentary
Verse 38 Scribes were the scholars who studied and interpreted the Law. The way the Greek is written, it can be “the scribes who do this” rather than all the scribes. The previous story involved a sincere scribe, even if an exceptional one in Mark’s overall vision.
Verse 39 Social advancement is often a “benefit” of higher roles in any religion and, of course, hard to resist. The long robes are most likely festal robes which scribes put on every day to show their piety. There may be a contrast between the Christians of Mark’s day and their contemporary scribes: the Christians did not meet in synagogues nor on the Sabbath.
Verse 40 This is a very harsh condemnation, given that it judges the piety to be false and, in a way, empty. The expression “for appearance sake” (prophasei) can be positive (the real reason) or negative (falsely alleged motive, pretext, ostensible reason, excuse). In our story is it clearly negative. But which aspect does it govern? It could mean that they cover up their avarice by piety. It could also mean that they facilitate their avarice by piety. It could also mean that their prayer is entirely insincere. In the context here, it means that the piety is done in order to take advantage of vulnerable widows.

As is well known, widows at the time had no inheritance rights and were dependent upon family or community welfare programmes. The care of widows is regularly insisted upon in the Hebrew Bible and the prophets fiercely condemn the neglect of widows. In that context, this story constitutes a severe judgment, but fully in line with the prophetic tradition. Cf. Lk 11:37-52 and Mal 3:5, both above.
Verse 41 The temple treasury appears rarely in the NT. The widow who gave all she had (Mark 12:41-44 par.) put her money into the gazophylakion, meaning “contribution box or receptacle,” here apparently in or near the Court of the Women (cf. John 8:20). According to the Mishnah, there were 13 such trumpet-shaped receptacles, seven for various required offerings and six for freewill offerings. The administration of the treasury by this time had passed to the chief priest (Matt. 27:6), a fact confirmed by Josephus (Ant. 11.5.2). The fact that we know the donations were large tells us of the ostentation.
Verse 42 In a patriarchal society, a widow is a defenceless female, being without a male to protect and support her.
Verse 43 Apparently not, because she puts in so little. But, at another level, she puts in much, much more.
Verse 44 So, the principle is not the amount but the attitude of heart. “All she had to live on” sounds precarious or even foolish. Literally in Greek, it says “all her life/living” (bios).

Pointers for prayer
1. The scribes are presented as ostentatious and devious, acting more out of self-interest than the love of God or people. There can be a element of self-interest in each of us. Perhaps there have been times when you have been disturbed by glimpsing in yourself ‘other motives’ in your doing good. Recall when you were awakened to this fact. Where was the good news for you in these experiences?
2. In material terms what the widow had to offer was very little. Recall when you felt yourself called to give and gave even though you apparently had very little. Perhaps you have had the experience of finding that what you thought was little and insignificant meant a great deal to another person. Recall some of those moments.
3. The widow ‘gave everything she had, all she had to live on’. In doing so she placed herself in a very vulnerable position, trusting that things would work out. Have you ever found that what seemed a generous but reckless giving of yourself proved life-giving for yourself and others?

God, our provider you are the orphan’s hope and the widow’s bread. Strengthen our faith, that with simplicity of heart we may come to trust in you alone and hold back nothing in serving you. We make this prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.