He central characters in Mark’s Gospel are Jesus and the Twelve, though a number of minor characters are spread throughout the entire narrative. At the end of Chapter 10, however, a series of lesser characters emerge, who (in contrast to the Twelve, who become increasingly obtuse) respond to Jesus in remarkably positive ways. They include Bartimaeus, the friendly scribe of last Sunday’s reading, the generous widow in today’s text, the woman who anoints Jesus at the beginning of the passion narrative, Simon of Cyrene, the centurion at the cross, the women at the cross and at Jesus’ tomb and Joseph of Arimathea, who sees to Jesus’ burial. The reader is encouraged to admire and identify with these figures. Today’s passage from Mark 12 features a contrast between scribes, who carefully cultivate their reputation for holiness, and a poor widow, who really is holy.
In Jesus’ time scribes wrote out legal and other documents for people who were illiterate. They were experts in Jewish religious traditions and knew Israel’s Scriptures very well. Bear in mind that the religious law for Jews was the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The scribe combined the roles of lawyer and theologian.
The description that Jesus gives of the scribes in today’s passage from Mark is very negative. (Recall, however, his positive attitude toward the friendly scribe in Mark 12.) Jesus first accuses them of being ostentatious in their piety and of doing everything in public in order to gain a reputation for holiness. Then he charges them with using their position to take advantage of widows, the most defenseless members of Jewish society in Jesus’ time. They are condemned for making their reputation for piety a cloak to conceal their dishonest and profitable dealings. These scribes are not really holy. They provide negative examples of behavior to be avoided by Mark’s readers.
By way of contrast, the Markan Jesus points to the poor widow as a positive example of generosity and the true religious spirit. The scene takes place at the Jerusalem temple, a large complex of structures more like a campus than a cathedral. There seem to have been there several trumpet-shaped metal receptacles into which people could throw coins for the upkeep of the temple. Those who threw in many coins would make a lot of noise, while the widow who tossed in two small coins would make hardly any noise at all.
In this context Jesus points to the poor widow as a good example, a model of humble generosity. Even though she contributed little in quantity, the quality of her giving—she gave all she had—makes her into a good example to be imitated. This “minor” character reminds us that genuine holiness resides in a humble and generous spirit before God. Holiness does not always reside in religious professionals, like the scribes, in those who are learned in the things of God and with a public reputation for holiness. As a Catholic priest, biblical scholar and public religious person, I know that none of these roles is an absolute guarantee of holiness and closeness to God. There is more to holiness than ordination, theological education and public position.
For the generous widow the religious activity of almsgiving was not intended as a show to impress others or an opportunity to improve her social and economic status. For her, as one totally dependent on God and without social or economic importance, her action was what a religious action should be (as in Matt 6:1-18)—an expression of love of God and love of neighbor.
The lesson from the contrast between the scribes and the poor widow is this: Be slow to judge holiness by appearances only and be slow to equate holiness with office, credentials and honors. Look beyond appearances and externals, and you may well find to your surprise some very holy persons. These persons are loving and generous—not full of themselves and their own achievements,—and knowing and acknowledging their dependence on God. Though only a minor character, the poor widow in today’s Gospel passage shows us that genuine holiness can exist in some surprising persons and places.
Today’s selection from Hebrews 9 reminds us that there are three phases in the priestly work of Jesus: cleansing from sins in the past (“to take away sin by his sacrifice”), ongoing mediation for us in the present (“that he might now appear before God on our behalf”) and final deliverance in the future (“[he] will appear a second time…to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him”). The priestly work of Jesus has established for us the possibility of right relationship with God, gives us confidence to approach God boldly and frees us to live in hope for fullness of life in God’s kingdom.