Forming Faith Blog

Scribes & Widows (March 22, 2020)

Hands holding a single coin. The widow had only two small coins, and she gave them both.

Much has changed in the United States and the world in the past week since I wrote this blog entry. However, the centrality of God’s radical call for us to love our neighbors is more important than ever. Please be safe and my prayers are with you as you adapt to a new, and hopefully temporary, model of ministry.

We are approaching the end of Lent. This lesson is the end of our thematic unit on God’s call for us to serve. We started Lent with an encounter between Jesus and a rich young man, whom Jesus asked to give away his belongings to those who are poor and follow him. Among the multiple stories contained in this week’s reading are more rich and important people and a widow who is very poor.

The Wise Scribe

Most of our passage (Mark 12:28-40) relates to the scribes, experts in the law. The first section describes a scribe who approaches Jesus with a question: where does Jesus fall in his overall philosophy on the Torah? Which is the most important of the commandments? Jesus’ response? He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the declaration of God as one, and the command to love this God completely. Although the scribe only asked for one commandment, Jesus answered with two. He quotes from Leviticus 19:18: love your neighbor as yourself.

Most Important

For this scribe, this was not a trick or a trap but an honest question, and Jesus is impressed. He told Jesus that he agreed and that following these commandments were more important than acts of worship. This echoes Amos 5:21-24, wherein God condemns the empty acts of worship which are done in the absence of justice. In fact, these greatest commandments address the two main condemnations that God gives the people of Israel through the prophets: idolatry and injustice. Idolatry when we value other things more than the one God, the opposite of loving God completely. Injustice is the passive and active state where people, especially those who are most vulnerable, are ignored, mistreated, and taken advantage of. This is clearly the opposite of loving our neighbor.

Son of David?

In the second part of our passage, we see Jesus teaching in the temple, criticizing the scribes. He describes a teaching of theirs and then refutes it. This is the most confusing part for me. The teaching Jesus is challenging is that the Messiah is a descendant of David. But it’s true. That’s part of the description of the Messiah given in the Prophets. Huh?

Not Loving Neighbors

The third part of this reading is Jesus criticizing these scribes for their actions. This is likely not every scribe, but this behavior is clearly part of a larger pattern. It’s all about their egos. They take walks in the marketplace possibly solely for the purpose of having everyone fawning over them. They take for themselves seats that show how important they are. And, they like to give long-winded prayers so that everyone can see how pious they are. Their behavior is selfish, and selfishness is the opposite of love. In their selfish arrogance, they ignore one of the clear commands of God to care for those who are vulnerable, in this case, a widow. They not only ignore widows but actively prey on them. It’s no surprise that theirs is the greater condemnation.

The Widow

Now we move to the fourth and final part of our passage. Jesus decides to do some people-watching near the temple treasury. He sees several rich people donate a lot of money. Then, his attention is caught by a woman, a widow forced to live in poverty. The connection between this widow and the generic widows oppressed in verse 40 is clear. This woman is one who is not being cared for; she only has two very small coins to her name.

Jesus points her out to his disciples. At a minimum, he gives them a math lesson. The rich people donated more money than she did. Does this mean that they are more generous? No, it’s about percentages. They may have given a lot of money, but it’s only a small percentage of their total income/net worth. The widow, on the other hand, gives a very small amount of money but beats the rich when you look at percentages. Even if the rich were following the law and giving 10% of their income, she’s giving 100%, everything.

The Widow’s Gift: Interpretation I

In my mind, there are two main ways to interpret and apply this last story, both of which I think are valid. First is the “traditional” way—traditional at least in the sense that this the way I’ve always heard it: to focus on the percentage. Okay, that’s not how most people put it, but that’s the gist. Here, Jesus is commending the widow’s actions and calling his disciples to follow her example. She gave everything she had, presumably trusting in God’s provision. This is reminiscent of the story of the young rich man; Jesus told him to sell all he had and give the money to those in need. Sacrificial giving requires faith. One note to add is that, like that story of the rich man, interpreters often let listeners off the hook from giving 100%.

The Widow’s Gift: Interpretation II

The second interpretation, which I have heard more recently, points out a few different details. First, where this story is found in both Mark and Luke, it is preceded by the accusation that the scribes devour widow’ houses.

Second, the words Jesus uses to describe the woman’s actions are factual and without a clear value judgment.

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:43-44

He doesn’t say, “Look at her faith!” or “You should follow her example!” It’s a simple lesson of percentages.

Comparison

The third detail is a bit harder to see at first glance. It is clear that Jesus is comparing the size of the offerings of the rich ones and the widow. But implicit in this is the comparison that there are rich people, and this vulnerable woman only has two small coins to her name. The Torah, Psalms, and Prophets are very clear that God expects us to take care of those who are vulnerable. This is not happening.

Condemnation, Not Commendation

So, in this second interpretation, Jesus is not so much (or not only) commending the woman’s example, he is implicitly condemning the scribes and the rich for not caring for her as God demands. The scribes are supposed to know the law well and teach it to others, so they should know what God expects here. The rich people are not following the command to love their neighbor.

Either Way

I don’t know what Jesus’ intent for making this observation or Mark’s intent to include it here. But both interpretations contain truth that is borne out in other parts of Scripture. Jesus values sacrificial giving, suggesting it to the rich man and instructing the disciples that the greatest is the servant of all. Jesus and the whole of Scripture condemn selfishness and greed, and demand justice for those who are vulnerable.

So, which way to go? Why not both? You can lift up the widow’s faith and condemn her situation which others could have solved.

Free Resource

This week, our free resource focuses on the greatest commandments. “Commandments in the News” challenges participants to find events in the world in which someone is loving God or loving their neighbor. This activity is from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (Narrative Lectionary) curriculum. While this activity is intended for in-person small groups, it can still be used virtually in homes or even through a Facebook or other online forum. This is a time when our creativity will be challenged.

May you experience the peace of God this Lenten season.

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)


Exciting news! Our Living the Word (Narrative Lectionary) resources for 2020-2021 are now available to order! On our website, you can find more information for our Year 3 (2020-2021) products and see our current release schedule.

We are also excited to announce that we are introducing our first product for the Revised Common Lectionary, a Cross+Gen Education curriculum inspired by our Narrative Lectionary Cross+Gen Education product. More information coming soon!

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence