Jesus lived in a time when the pressure to assimilate was strong. Greco-Roman culture held out both power and pleasure to anyone who adopted its conventions. By the time of Jesus’ birth, Judaism had been under this foreign influence for over three centuries. Certain Jewish communities responded to the pressure with extravagant displays of Jewish practice. Among the most visible of these were the observance of the Sabbath, food laws and ritual washings. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mark adds ostentatious dress and elaborate public prayers to the list of markers of a certain kind of Jewish identity.
‘Beware of the scribes, who like to accept greetings
in the marketplaces and places of honor at banquets.’
What have you given to God?
Did it come from your surplus or your poverty?
What can you give God in secret?
Mark’s Jesus was no fan of the Romans, but he held the scribes and their practices in similar disdain. At one time, scribal dress and public prayer were acts of courage. Jews had lived through times when signs of their heritage could lead to martyrdom (see 2 Mc 6:10). In Jesus’ day, the Romans tolerated traditional religions, but they generally offered patronage or power only to subject peoples who embraced Romanitas, that is, those who assimilated into Roman culture. Participation in the imperial cult was a requirement, so Roman patronage was not available to pious Jewish scribes. The suspicion with which the Romans held them had an odd effect, however. To fellow Jews, the scribes appeared brave, and it increased the respect shown them.
Jesus questioned their bravery. He noted that their public displays of Judaism opened as many doors as they closed. Anywhere pious Jews met, scribes were welcome. They had seats of honor and public recognition. Their knowledge of ancient texts allowed them to offer traditional prayers on others’ behalf, and they grew rich off the fees. Certainly, they took some risks; in the complicated and hostile climate of first-century Palestine, any public display of faith was bound to irritate someone. Nevertheless, their risks were calculated and, in sum, the scribes’ actions resulted more in power than in peril.
Jesus contrasted their behavior with that of the widow. She may have been one of those poor Jews who appreciated the scribes’ apparent sacrifices. She may have been one of those whose inheritance the scribes consumed. It is possible that she was both. In contrast to the scribes, for whom donations to the temple were yet another public display of Jewish identity, the widow’s offering was a true act of faith. The scribes took care of their own needs first and gave to God from the surplus. The widow gave her whole livelihood. Jesus recognized an irony: The scribes who grew rich teaching and observing the covenant had missed its call to radical dependence on God. It was the poor widow who responded to this appeal. She gave her last coins and entrusted her well-being to God.
To give God everything and receive no human honor in return is challenging for many people in every age. Such radical dependence is the example Jesus left us. Whatever we give—time, resources, skills, attention—the offering ought to be like the widow’s: complete, courageous and with total trust in grace.