Have you ever wondered what the Bible meant by scribe? Minimally, scribes were educated people who read and wrote for a living. Scribes could be hired by illiterate people (the vast majority) for legal and financial matters. More typically, scribes were also experts in Torah (the Mosaic law), and the New Testament often refers to them as lawyers. We might consider them a combination of pious theologians and civil lawyers. Lived rightly, it was an honorable profession. Sirach says that “the scribe’s profession increases his wisdom” and describes him as one who “devotes himself to the study of the Law or the Most High. He explores the wisdom of all the ancients and is occupied with the prophecies” (38:24; 39:1).
We encountered such a pious scribe in last week’s Gospel reading. It appears, however, that many scribes were far less pious. Our Gospel reading this week begins with the sentence “Beware of the scribes.” Jesus then denounces them as inclined to ostentation and places of honor. Then comes his great criticism: “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.” The situation would work like this: a widow, with no social power or protection, might have to rely on a scribe to act as a conservator of her estate. An unscrupulous scribe could take great advantage of her weakness, enriching himself and impoverishing her. This would be especially easy if he appeared particularly devout, and Jesus was scandalized by their public campaigning. In condemning the exploitation of widows, he follows notable prophets who had done the same (Is 1:23; Jer 7:6; Ez 22:7).
Whether they were cheats or not, Jesus observes that their piety was worse than compromised; it was downright hypocrisy. In our Gospel reading, such a religious sham contrasts with the poor widow who humbly contributes two small coins to the Temple treasury. He also contrasts her with affluent contributors who give far more than she: “For they have contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Much ink has been spilled on whether contributing all one has is a wise, authentic expression of radical faith, utter foolishness or something in between. Literally relinquishing all one’s possessions is surely unwise, unless one is called as St. Francis was. I think most of us would do well to be guided by St. Paul’s comments when collecting relief funds to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. He encouraged generosity, of course, since by it God would “increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor 9:10). One’s generosity, however, should be “according to what one has, not according to what one does not have; not that others should have relief while you are burdened” (2 Cor 8:12–13).
It strikes me that what the poor widow best models for us is humility (contra the scribes) and extraordinary generosity. What she gives really costs her, while for them it was merely a part of their “surplus wealth.” Many of us are generous and kindhearted. But we are usually so only until our comfort zone gets threatened.
One of the great studies of the human condition is Shantung Compound, a narrative by the theologian Langdon Gilkey about life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. As Gilkey describes it, the Japanese treated these Westerners relatively well, and they adjusted to this quasi-imprisonment. There were conflicts, however, when people were asked to give up some comfort for the common good. Those called upon for a small sacrifice were resentful and complaining, and they contrived all kinds of reasons why it would be more just for others to be imposed upon, instead of them. Gilkey’s experiences led him to abandon his optimism concerning human nature, and he came to regard humans as deeply narcissistic. We can be generous, he thought, just as long as it doesn’t really cost us by violating our comfort zone. Push the edges of that, and it is dog-eat-dog. Today, Jesus points to the poor widow. Be like her, he tells us; make it cost.