Give until it hurts?

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Think about the poor widow who gave all that she had to the Temple. Shouldn’t we, who have so much more, do the same?

Stop right there.

It is easy to interpret the story of the poor widow [MK 12:38-44] and her contribution of two small copper coins as either an example of piety and generosity, or an admonishment to those who can afford to give more. This traditional interpretation might have some merit in terms of financial stewardship, but was this Jesus’ message?

The story takes place in the Temple where Jesus had been teaching since he and his disciples entered Jerusalem. Among his listeners were several religious leaders who were intent on trapping Jesus. After lobbing responses to a series of questions related in one way or another to his teaching authority, Jesus points to the scribes, who were both trained in the law as well as theology. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” [MK 12:38a-40]

In your face, scribes!

(Keep in mind, though, that Jesus does not condemn all religious leaders. For example, in the course of this Temple teaching Jesus praised another scribe’s articulation of the greatest commandment, saying “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” [MK 12:34])

Jesus then moves to another part of the Temple, opposite the treasury. The word “opposite” describes Jesus’ position within the Temple both literally and figuratively. The Temple treasury can be compared to today’s collection box, except instead of a slot for money, treasuries were topped with a kind of funnel, or trumpet, into which donors could toss their coins. The sound of coins reverberating off the sides of the trumpet made giving a very public act. Hefty donations made an especially loud racket, but the clinking of two copper coins entering the treasury would also have been unmistakable.

From his vantage point, Jesus could watch the wealthy dropping their contributions into the treasury. After witnessing a poor widow deposit just two coins, Jesus summons his disciples and makes an economic comparison. The widow’s contribution was the largest. She gave 100%, whereas the others gave from their surplus. “(t)his poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” [MK 12:43b-44]

Jesus’ Kingdom economics begs us to answer the question, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Jesus does not use the word good when he speaks of the widow’s contribution. He does not praise it. He merely states the facts. Nor does Jesus make the widow’s resulting impoverishment a value judgment on the contribution of the wealthy. Why? Because this is a story about institutional greed and injustice, it’s not about tithing.

In biblical times, women who were widowed did not inherit their husband’s wealth. And unless they were supported by their children or husband’s family many were left destitute. Jesus recognized something in the poor widow’s act of tossing her entire livelihood into the Temple treasury: an institution that allows its poorest members to impoverish themselves in order to support it is no different than the scribes who devour widows’ houses; the condemnation will be the same.

Would Jesus make the same comparison today? Isn’t some aspect of the scribe, at times, in the person we see in the mirror? Consider the pervasive nature of domestic and global economic systems that devour the weakest members of society. What can we, as good disciples do to correct it?

Today’s readings can be found here.