Forming Faith Blog

Devouring Widows’ Houses (Mark 12)

Does Jesus celebrate the piety of the widow who gives everything to the temple, or is he condemning those responsible for her poverty in the first place? Or both? And what does he want us to do?

Grayscale photo of concrete house with broken windows and cracks on walls, perhaps like the widow's home.
Photo by Mustafa Akın on
The Call to Serve

In the previous three weeks, we’ve been looking at readings through the lens of service, corresponding to our products’ theme of “The Call to Serve.” Jesus invited the rich man to give his wealth to those in need and follow him. Then Jesus commends serving others as the highest goal in God’s kingdom after teaching his disciples what messiah truly means. Last week, Jesus criticized the religious leaders for holding onto their power and ownership rather than acknowledging their role as stewards. Today’s assigned reading concludes this theme.

Multiple Directions

The 20+ verses in this reading can be broken into four separate passages, at least according to the headings in my Bible. While you can cover all four parts in a survey teaching (which is what I did four years ago), it can be better to focus on one passage, or at least a single theme.

The first passage (Mark 12:28-34) is without an argument the most important: the greatest commandments. It is a full half of our basic theological perspective here at Spirit & Truth Publishing (the first half being the unconditional, inclusive, and transforming love that God gives us). But while that is the most important, it is not the most vivid and attention-grabbing, at least from my perspective. That description better fits the last passage (Mark 12:41-44): the widow’s offering. More even than being vivid, this story bothers me.

Removing the Headings

As I mentioned, within the version of the Bible I use (NRSV), this assigned reading has four sections divided using four headings:

  1. The First Commandment (vv. 28-34)
  2. The Question about David’s Son (vv. 35-37)
  3. Jesus Denounces the Scribes (vv. 38-40)
  4. The Widow’s Offering (vv. 41-44)

One thing that’s important to understand here is that these headings are not actually a part of the “Bible” (as in the texts of the Old and New Testaments). They are added in by translators or editors to help readers understand and not be overwhelmed with columns of unbroken text. And they are very useful. But they are added after the fact and subject to the translators’ or editors’ interpretations of the text. And they can influence how we understand what we read. My question is, what happens when you remove the heading between verses 40 and 41?

The Plight of Widows

First, a bit of historical and cultural context on widows. To be very eloquent, losing a loved one sucks. Understatement. And this is for all time, regardless of culture. But in ancient Israel, the matter was made worse by the fact that women could not (usually) own property or work in socially acceptable jobs. So, a woman was reliant on her father, her husband, or her adult son. If a widow were to have none of these, then she was reliant on the charity of others. [Note: As with everything else, I’m sure that this topic is very complicated, so take this as an oversimplification.] This is why widows, along with orphans and immigrants, represent people who were vulnerable—and dear to God—in the Torah and Prophets.

Widows in Mark

As I understand it, the term “widow” is used three times in the Gospel of Mark (compared to nine times in Luke) and these three are all within four verses (vv. 40-43). The first instance is disturbing:

“[The scribes] devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Mark 12:40

I’m not quite sure what “devouring” looks like in this case, but the widows were left with almost nothing…

And now we move to Jesus’ observations of a real widow that has absolutely nothing to do with being devoured. I’m sure that she only had two lepta (one source I saw suggested that she might have been able to purchase three individual grapes with that amount) because of her wasteful and lavish spending. Right. And Jesus made a point to emphasize her poverty:

“But she, out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:44
Giving 100%?

Is Jesus instructing his disciples, and therefore us, to give away everything we have? That seems consistent with his instructions to the rich man to sell what he owns and give the money to people in need. And he expected his other disciples to leave all they had and follow him. Jesus taught that we should give to God what is God’s (i.e., everything). So, “sacrificial” giving does have biblical precedent. And, as long as you don’t go overboard, it’s a good thing to teach (it’s related to our Point for the lesson).

On the other hand, there’s an important detail common in Jesus’ teachings about giving everything away. They were specifically directed at people physically traveling with him, not discipleship in general. He didn’t condemn Martha and Mary for having a house in Luke. Jesus could not have wanted everyone to abandon work and property. His disciples, widows, orphans, and everyone else wouldn’t have food or shelter. Society and the economy would collapse. So, while Jesus may (or may not) have been commending the widow’s piety, I do not believe that he would have wanted her to do what she did. I think that he was condemning the scribes and rich people for their greed and lack of charity.

Loving God and Widows

Looking back at the first section of this reading, Jesus responded to a question (from a scribe): “Which commandment is the first of all?” (v. 28). He answered with the Shema (God is one, love God with your entire being). Without prompting he added the second greatest commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Note, connecting these two verses as the summary of the Torah is not unique to Jesus or Christians.]

There’s a reason why he added the second: because you can’t love God completely without following God’s commands to take care of others. Unlike the wicked scribes (and rich people), we must support those who are vulnerable or in need. Under our watch, the widow (anyone vulnerable) should have a lot more than two lepta.

In God’s unending grace,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the “The Best Gift” activity from our Living the Word: Youth (NL) curriculum. This activity can also be done in intergenerational groups, youth, adults, and even at home!

Order Faith Formation Resources

We are now in Lent! Have you ordered faith formation resource for the Spring quarter (Lent through Pentecost Sunday)? Purchase and immediately download the Spring quarters for the Narrative Lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, or even a classic Sunday school Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th. Our faith formation resources are easy-to-use, theologically sound, and inclusive.

Introducing our newest Learning Together unit: Created to Care! Wonder at God’s creation and learn about what we can do to protect and heal it in these five lessons, intended for children and intergenerational groups, family or churchwide events, a Lenten series, or Vacation Bible School. We also have six other topics, one of which is FREE!

Our 2024-2025 resources have launched and are available to order! Narrative Lectionary, Revised Common Lectionary, Classic Sunday School, and more.

At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we might just have exactly what you are looking for:

Stay updated by liking our Facebook page, subscribing to our e-newsletter, or following this blog!

Leave a Reply