Commentary on Mark 12:38-44
We come today to the end of our readings from Mark’s gospel. We stop just on the threshold of prophecies about the end of Jerusalem and the final coming of Jesus and the story of his passion and resurrection.
There are two related passages today serving as entry points for this last phase of Jesus’ life and mission among us.
First, Jesus hits out at some of the scribes, the expert interpreters of the law. As such, they feel that they are expected to be perfect models of that law down to its smallest details. Jesus says they go around in long, flowing robes (the working poor could not afford to dress like that); they expect to be “greeted obsequiously” in the street and to be given the best places in the synagogue and at banquets. (Such behaviour, we have to confess, is not unknown among Christian clergy and other religious leaders.)
At the same time, Jesus says, these leaders were rapacious hypocrites. They did not hesitate to “swallow the property of widows” while, at the same time, making a show of lengthy prayers. They were the opposite of everything that Jesus was proposing as the way to love and serve God. They emphasised the external appearance rather than the inner spirit; they were concerned about being served rather than serving others; they thought only of what they could get through their privileged position rather than what they could share, especially with those in need.
Jesus warns that, precisely because of their greater knowledge of the law, their responsibilities in not keeping its real spirit will be all the greater. To whom more is given more is expected.
The mention of widows leads on to the second part of the reading. Jesus was sitting facing the treasury of the Temple and watching the people putting in their offerings. A poor widow – and widows were, almost by definition, poor and, because they could no longer produce children, regarded practically as non-persons, rejected by their husband’s family. They were often reduced to poverty. Yet, it is one of these who approaches the treasury box and drops in two coins of negligible value.
Jesus draws the attention of his disciples who were with him and points out that the poor woman had put in more than all the others combined. They were contributing what they could easily spare while she put in her whole livelihood. It was an act of total trust in God’s providence and care for her.
It has been pointed out that she put in two coins. In other words, given her situation, she would have been more than justified in putting in just one. Compare her to the rich man who could not part with his wealth to follow Jesus.
It has also been pointed out that this anonymous woman is, in a way, a symbol of Jesus himself. He also will “empty himself”, give away everything, including his life, out of love for his Father and for us. It seems no accident that the story is placed just here as Jesus enters on his final days.
Today’s two incidents both provide matter for us to reflect on. Do we wear our Christianity just on our sleeve? Do we tend to assert our “rights” over others and expect due deference from them e.g. in our working place? How much of what we have are we willing to share with others? “Teach us, Lord, to be generous.”