Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
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 market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They 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. 42A poor (πτωχὴ ) 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.’ (ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)
I guess that widow would need to carefully ration her pantry until the next pension cheque came in.
Except that the words "all she had to live on" are literally "all the life of her." She is "'ptoche' - really poor," and in a time with no pensions, will probably die because of her giving. And it's all for a temple and a system that is falling apart. A couple of verses later, Jesus is saying "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." Mark puts her next to this futility for more than the purpose of showing the hypocrisy of the scribes. In the end, we are all poor widows— impoverished people who will be forgotten— even the scribes. Why do we bother with life?
Why did the scribe who did not parade and posture like his fellows, and who did not devour widow's houses, even bother to love his neighbour as himself? How do you keep going when the system is corrupt and the end seems obvious? Why bother?
For the first time in half a year, I ventured past the supermarket into the depths of our regional shopping centre, seeking the optometrist. Even without new glasses, my long absence helped me to see the place with a new clarity. There is nothing here, I thought, that I would buy. It is all junk. Why do people bother with this place?
Yet the owners have been installing solar panels on the shopping centre roof for all of that time, and have now begun to extend the solar farm to the many acres of the car park. We soon will be able to park our cars in the shade of solar panels, and there are billboards in the centre extolling its green credentials, seeking our respect for their market place. Does not Jesus still say, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
And later in that week, I spent the day working in a city church where, several times, I needed to quietly step around a tiny group of elderly women as I went about the tasks of the day. The minister who was leading them is herself 85, and among the younger ones of the group. They followed the patterns of the fellowship meeting which they have followed for fifty years, and more— carefully tracing the template of a previous time when 70 or 100 women needed to sit in rows to fit in the same place.
We are coming to the end of Jerusalem, and to the end of the Gospel of Mark, to which we are introduced by a really poor widow who is soon to die. And if we were looking for some great breakthrough, some reason why we might bother, that hope seems to die with Jesus.
Except that the tomb is found empty. "Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." No resurrected saviour in the garden, no risen saviour calling in the fish from the beach, but only an invitation, a direction, into a way to live. Is it the giving of her whole life which allows a widow to find a life in the ordinary Galilee of her own living? Is it this which dignifies her devotion, even to a compromised institution, and which makes the scribe's living worthwhile, and which completely recasts the meeting of my old friends in a city church?
For we can give our whole life to nail parlours, laser hair removal, the macho military myths of Aussie Disposals, and buckets of protein supplement, or we can walk past the glitz and denial of our emptiness, and give our whole life to the Way. The widow was nobody. The scribe has no name, and was probably shunned by his peers for agreeing with Jesus. The women in the church will soon be forgotten names in someone's family history, if they are lucky. But they have made a choice.
It's not a choice about judgment. I am not who I am because I fear that when I look upon my life I "will receive the greater condemnation." It is because I feel now that life focussed on me, is empty. And have found that life not focussed on me brings riches. The two small copper coins of the widow's devotion are her sacrament, and what little giving I can drag past the distractions of the empty commerce of our culture, are mine. Here there is life. Amen
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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