As Mark’s Jesus walks toward Jerusalem and his death, he comes across an assorted group of little people who embody Gospel values: a grieving father who cries, I believe, help my unbelief; a bevy of children who remind him of what it means to enter God’s kingdom; an unknown exorcist who casts out demons in Jesus’ name; a blind beggar whose faith brings healing and who bounds up to follow Jesus. In today’s Gospel, which recounts Jesus’ final public act before his farewell speech to the disciples and subsequent passion, a poor widow gives her whole livelihood (lit. life). She is a model of Jesus, who will shortly give his life for others. In the reading from the First Book of Kings, a widow who has barely enough food for herself and her child welcomes the prophet Elijah, only to be rewarded by God with an abundance of food.
In the ancient world widowhood was a frightening prospect, as reflected in the frequent refrain in Israel’s laws calling for special care for the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger in the land. The Hebrew and Greek terms for widow come from roots that suggest helplessness, emptiness or being forsaken; and what these people had in common was their isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness. In traditional societies today a similar fate often awaits, crystallized in the statement of one such widow: We are considered bad omens. We are excluded from all auspicious events. I am accused of being a witch who killed her husband, and my children were beaten and kicked out of our house by the brothers-in-law. We live by begging, in continual fear. In our seemingly prosperous society widows (and widowers) often suffer, in addition to their deep grief, from economic loss, the burden of raising a family alone and a strange isolation from friends, which often sets in soon after protestations of support at the funeral.
This Gospel (in the longer form) is a two-edged sword. Jesus teaches in the temple, which had recently been magnificently reconstructed by Herod, one of the great builders of the ancient world, a parade example of the edifice complexalong with even nastier proclivities. The temple area was twice as large as the Roman forum, and the sight caused Jesus’ disciples to point to the wonderful stones and wonderful buildings (Mk. 13:1). It was a religious and commercial center with a large staff, requiring great financial resources.
After a number of disputes with the temple establishment, Jesus lashes out at the scribes, pillorying their social and religious posturingwearing elaborate vestments, glorying in signs of honor, but most harshly devouring the houses of widows by promising to recite lengthy prayers. (This sounds hauntingly like certain contemporary religious fund-raising techniques.) Jesus then sits, faces the treasury and watches people donate money, most likely putting it in boxes marked alms, which have been found by archaeologists. A poor widow comes by; Jesus notices her as she throws in a couple of coins, the equivalent of a few pennies.
The contrast is stark, not only between the rich, who give out of their surplus, and the widow, but also between the widow and the scribes. In fact, many commentators argue that Jesus’ statement that this poor widow put in all she had, is not primarily praise of the woman but a prophetic indictment of the temple establishment who took advantage of such little people. In effect Jesus is saying: Look at the way the scribes posture. This is what it all comes toexploiting poor widows.
Yet Mark clearly focuses on the widow’s deed. In contrast to the external signs of honor sought by the scribes, she possesses true honor in God’s eyes. Her action not only symbolizes what Jesus will do but provides a bookend with the action of the woman in Mk. 14:1-11, who with extravagant largess anoints Jesus for his death. These nameless little people are great in their courage and service, even in the face of powerful institutions that can exploit them and crush their loved ones. Their sisters are all around us today.