Reflections on the power dynamics in Mark’s Gospel (The Widow’s offering)

Introduction

(This is a slightly revised version of a reflection I shared at a seminar last year.)

I would like to share some thoughts on the widow’s offering at the temple in Mark 12:41–44. (I confess that I am no expert in Mark’s Gospel—in fact, far from it. So, Markan scholars, please forgive me for any embarrassing error of judgment.)

I used to be a pastor in a big inner-city church (with more than 1,000 members). One day, a widow—whose husband had died about a year before—told me that she had listened to a motivational preacher at another church. That speaker inspired her so much that she gave a large sum of money to the ministry.

I could guess what the message of the motivational sermon was, for it was very popular at the time. The message was probably something like this: you reap what you sow; and whether you are rich or poor, the best way to get God’s blessing is to sow your money into the church and then you will reap God’s blessing.

The widow at my church was not poor, but was certainly vulnerable given the limited resource she had. She was, one might argue, exploited because of her vulnerability. (That was unlikely to be the intention of the preacher though.) As you will see, her story has somewhat shaped my understanding of the widow’s offering in Mark.

The Jerusalem temple and Melbourne

The setting of the widow’s offering is the Jerusalem temple. Like other well-known temples in the ancient world, it was the religious, social, and economic centre in the region. And like other major cities, Jerusalem, as an urban centre, would have been a melting pot of people, with a minority wealthy ruling class and a majority poor population, as well as some foreigners of non-Jewish ethnic origins.

The CBD (Central Business District) of Melbourne and the inner-city suburbs bear similar features. We have the State Parliament House, small and large churches, including St Patrick’s, St Paul’s, and City On a Hill (which is a big church that meets at Hoytes Cinemas in the CBD). Then we have one Hindu temple, quite a few Buddhist temples, and several mosques. In addition, Melbourne is a very multicultural society.

Most major banks and businesses can be found in the city. It is not true that the majority of the population is poor. But we do see sharp contrasts between the rich and the poor. Low-wage cleaners, middle-class professionals, and super-high-income executives work in the same buildings. There are expensive apartments and houses, but there are also many homeless people. Among the poor are those living with mental illness, many of them have suffered from family violence. Then there are asylum seekers, who are often very poor. Some of them suffer from mental illness because of the trauma they have experienced.

Power dynamics in the systems

Some have suggested, rightly, that the temple system and its leaders in Jerusalem were the ones responsible for the poverty and marginalisation in the city. The duty-bearers—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (that is, those in positions of power)—failed to act justly and provide for the poor. The presence of a poor widow was a vivid picture of the failure of the temple system to care for the most vulnerable in the society.

Likewise, behind the wealth and poverty in Melbourne are social, economic, political, and religious systems that fail to care for the poor and the disadvantaged. And our duty-bearers—and we, who have the right to vote in our democratic system—need to be held accountable. Saying that the asylum seekers came to Australia illegally is a violation of their humanity as image-bearers of God. A culture of neglect of domestic violence—both inside and outside the church—is unacceptable.

And we should not forget our highly market-driven global economy. I know that some people are unhappy with the wealthy Asians who contribute to the high property prices in Melbourne. Some think that their urban lifestyle is a reason why we now have high-density apartment blocks. But we have forgotten that for decades the West benefited from the cheap imported goods from Asia, which was produced by millions of low-wage workers who worked very long hours in unsafe working conditions. So, as we shop at our big department stores and as our financial planners help us to earn money in shares, we also help to create a minority wealthy upper class in Asia, who has the resources to buy expensive properties in the West, including those in the Melbourne CBD and inner-city suburbs. I think gentrification is a big issue for the urban poor today. But there are deeper issues and economic dynamics that we need to be aware of.

The desire for honour (Mark 12:38–40)

I have highlighted some of the power dynamics at play in our world today. Now let us take a look at Mark 12:38–40, which says,

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, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (NRSV; emphasis aded)

Anyone who has some understanding of the honour-and-shame social convention in the ancient world would know that this passage speaks of the scribes’ desire for honour and wealth within the social and religious culture at the time.

I wonder whether this passage has something to say about the celebrity culture today? Fuelled by consumerism and aided by the social media, our celebrity culture allows people to gain honour and social power by virtue of a niche market or message, rather than the quality of the whole of their lives.

And don’t think that this only applies to reality TV shows and popular churches. All of us are subject to the same temptation, including pastors, biblical scholars, theologians, and urban mission practitioners. Popularity is forever seductive, for it appeals to our never-ending desire for power.

Here I would like to highlight the devouring of the widows’ houses in Mark 12:38–40. Prior to this passage, Jesus had been debating with the scribes about the Scripture. Implicit here is the scribes’ failure to practise what the Scripture clearly says concerning solidarity with widows. Jesus responded with some very strong words, “they will receive the greater condemnation,” which (in context) paves the way for his prediction of the temple’s destruction in Mark 13.

An unnecessary offering (Mark 12:41–44)

After this, Jesus said,

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 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. 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.’ (NRSV)

Mark’s account is different from Luke’s in that in verse 43 Jesus called his disciples to highlight the contrast between the giving of the widow and that of the rich. Three verses later, one of the disciples made a remark about the magnificence of the temple building, which is remarkable in that this means that the temple hardly needed the widow’s tiny offering.

This begs the question of whether the widow’s offering was misguided—perhaps by the scribes themselves (although we cannot be sure)? Maybe, like the widow I knew at my previous church, this widow was misled by the religious leaders of her day? At any rate, at a practical level the widow’s offering was so insignificant in economic terms that it was hardly necessary for the temple’s upkeep.

Economics and power

In a moment I will look at the devotion of the widow. But before that, two observations on the economic and social dynamics are in order.

First, the coins and the economy of the Roman Empire. Earlier in Chapter 12, the Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13, 14). Then Jesus asked them to bring him a denarius, which was a silver coin with a portrait of the emperor and an inscription saying “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The two coins used by the widow were lepta (λεπτα; plural of λεπτόν), which were the least valuable coins used in circulation in Palestine.

What we see here are pictures of religious-political and economic power dynamics. Who was in power, the God of Israel, or Caesar—who was the “son of the divine” according to the inscription on the coin? Or was it the interconnected oppressive religious-political and economic systems in the Empire?

Second, the widow and the social system. In Mark’s Gospel, the Greek term for “widow” (χήρα) appears only in our passage (12:40, 42, 43). But let us not forget that 20 verses earlier Jesus debated with the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead. The illustration used was a woman whose seven partners died. This means that the woman effectively became a widow seven times! It also means that she became vulnerable seven times because of the prospect of socioeconomic marginalisation as a result of not having a husband in a male-dominant society.

The pro-Roman Sadducees did not like resurrection because they believed that prosperity and security came from Rome, who had the power to kill and conquer. But the belief in the resurrection would render that power meaningless.

The resurrection, of course, also meant that the widow could have the hope of ultimate liberation from socioeconomic oppression.

But in our passage we hear that the scribes devoured the widows’ houses, and a poor widow is giving all that she had to live on to the temple system that failed to protect her.

I think similar social, economic, and religious power dynamics are at play in Melbourne, and I have already mentioned examples of these above.

The devotion of the poor widow

I will now look at the devotion of the poor widow. And here I want to emphasise that I am referring to the devotion of the widow expressed in her giving, not the financial gift itself. I have mentioned that the beautiful and imposing architecture of the temple is set in sharp contrast to a vulnerable widow. But I think the contrast between the giving of the rich and that of the widow is just as—if not more—striking. Jesus said,

For all (πάντες) of them have put in out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all (πάντα) she had, everything she had to live on. (12:44; my translation)

It is in this sense that the widow put in more than all of (πάντων) the others (12:43).

(For those who know Greek, see how the Greek highlights the contrasts between them, the dual use of πᾶς and ἐκ: πάντες γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ περισσεύοντος αὐτοῖς ἔβαλον, αὕτη δὲ ἐκ τῆς ὑστερήσεως αὐτῆς πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)

As mentioned above, my sense is that the widow’s offering was somewhat misguided, and her giving was definitely not a model for the poor. In fact, one can argue that her financial giving was an illustration of the exploitative social-religious system that the scribes represented.

Yet her devotion to God was to be commended, and it seems that Jesus did just that. The evidence for this, I think, is found in the theme of wholehearted devotion in the current passage and in the pericope a few verses before that.

The theme of devotion to God is present in Mark 12:38–44 itself, although in a very negative way. In verse 40 Jesus mentioned the scribes’ long prayers, which was the evidence for their false devotion to God. Of course, the theme of wholehearted devotion is found in Jesus’ conversation with a particular scribe in 12:28–34, which was about the greatest commandment.

Here we need to note that Mark 12:38–44 ends with a reference to the widow’s devotion to God.

She put in the whole of her life (or “livelihood”) (My translation of ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)

The word “whole” is highly significant. Mark just used the word “whole” (ὅλος) very recently—seven times in 12:28–34 (verses 30, 33). A scribe asked Jesus which commandment was the most important (12:28). Jesus referred to Deut 6:4–5 and said,

Love the LORD you God with your whole (ὅλης) heart, with your whole (ὅλης) soul, with your whole (ὅλης) mind, and with your whole (ὅλης) strength. (12:30; my translation)

The scribe agreed and added “to love one’s neighbour as oneself” as the other important commandment (12:33).

Ironically, only seven verses later Mark speaks of Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes. Instead of loving their “neighbours”—that is, the widows—they exploited them (12:40). But most significantly, it was the poor widow’s offering that Jesus described as a “whole of life” expression of devotion to God.

So, the rich and the scribes failed to keep the second greatest commandment, while the poor widow fulfilled the greatest commandment by loving God wholeheartedly. In fact, by failing to keep the second commandment, the rich failed to love God with their whole heart. But the poor widow demonstrated her genuine devotion to God despite her lack of resources to give to anyone.

Devotion to God and faithfulness in suffering

Three further observations before I wrap up with some final reflections.

First, as mentioned, the theme of devotion to God actually started in Jesus’ comment on the scribes, where he said that as a show they made long prayers (12:40). Their devotion was a false one. This is set in shark contrast to the devotion of the poor widow. Incidentally, even biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, and social justice activists face the temptation to put on a show in their work, especially when they have become famous. We need to be on our guard all the time.

Second, the widow’s offering is the last thing mentioned before Mark 13, which speaks of the destruction of the temple. If Jesus, the “faithful suffering servant” figure was the one who had the authority to prophetically announce judgement on the temple system, then the widow, given the location of the text in Mark’s Gospel, is the most prominent human figure who embodied the call to being faithful in suffering.

Third, the first story after Mark 13 is the anointing of Jesus by a woman. It seems that the theme of devotion bookends the judgment in Mark 13. (Incidentally, both the denarii and the poor are mentioned the Mark 14:5—economics again!)

Concluding stories

To conclude, let me suggest that those who suffer more are often those who love God more. I think the widow’s offering serves as a prophetic critique against the exploitative socioeconomic and religious systems. But it seems that it is simultaneously a demonstration of the power of the powerless. When you are poor, when you have nothing to live on, and when you are suffering, the best you can offer to God is your whole life.

Faithfulness in suffering is in fact the most powerful response to unjust system, and, indeed, cosmic evil powers. The Crucified Christ and Risen Lord is, of course, the one who showed us what this means.

Neil, a former member of my church who died from cancer some time ago, is a good example of faithfulness in suffering. Neil lived with mental illness for many years. But despite his many struggles he said to me one day, “I am not afraid to die, for I know where I am going.” His hope was, of course, ultimately on the resurrection, for just as God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is also the God of Neil.

Mary (not her real name), a friend from Chin State, Burma, is another example. She came to Melbourne as a refugee, fleeing from severe persecution in Burma. And she has no relatives here. We can hardly imagine what it was like to be a refugee and how it feels to be a migrant like her. But one day she told me how often she prayed: whether at work or study, she always prayed. I wish I were as devoted to God as she is.

I can go on and on, but I hope you get the picture. I set out to look for hidden power dynamics in Mark’s Gospel. And I ended up finding the most powerful story in a widow—the most powerless person whose voice is arguably the loudest even though she didn’t say anything.

The question is: how often do we allow the noise in the city and the marketplaces to stop us from hearing her voice?

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