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Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12.38-44, emphasis added.)
I interpret this week’s critique as aimed at the political economy of Jesus’ society, not its religions. Some of those who were deeply religious made the lives of poor people more difficult and exploited their situation. I reject any interpretation that would place Judaism itself in a poor light, because Jesus’ concern for the widow in this story is in perfect harmony with deeply held Jewish values.
Deuteronomy, for example, imagines a society where poverty is eliminated:
“There need be no poor people among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4)
And the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly single out and express concern for the kind of people centered in our story this week: widows.
“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)
“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)
See also Isaiah 1:23 and 10:2; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10; and Malachi 3:5.
Common interpretations of our story this week fall short. Typically they exalt the poor widow’s religious piety, her willingness to give her all rather than critique a system that would take her all. These interpretations often communicate the idea that God values the gifts of the poor more than the contributions of the affluent, and they praise the sacrificial nature of the worship of poor people. I find these interpretations deeply harmful and oppressive to the poor. I’ll explain why, next.
(Read Part 2)