Lesson Focus Jesus contrasts the self-righteous scribes with a humble and generous widow who gave to others out of the little she had. We are called to be more like the widow as we seek to follow Jesus.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the comparison that Jesus makes between the scribes and the poor widow.
Be encouraged to reflect upon who they are more like, the scribes or the widow.
Be encouraged, in the power of the Spirit, to become more like the widow in her humility and generosity as they seek to follow Jesus.
Catching Up on the Story Jesus and his disciples are in the city of Jerusalem, where there has been no shortage of conflict. While Jesus was greeted warmly upon his arrival to the city, he got no love from the religious establishment. The Pharisees and then the scribes question Jesus, intent on goading him into saying something they might use against him. For the most part, the questions have been antagonistic in nature. Last week, however, we encountered a scribe who harbored no ill will toward Jesus.
The scribe wanted Jesus to summarize the Law for him. This kind of request was a routine and was aimed at distilling a rabbi’s belief into a sentence or two. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, and Leviticus 19 as he affirms that the greatest commandment is to love God with all that we have and to love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves. The scribe found Jesus’ statement agreeable and interpreted Jesus as meaning that loving God and loving others is more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. The scribe’s interpretation prompts Jesus to declare that the man is not far from the Kingdom of God. In other words, the scribe has it right.
Denouncing the scribes While Jesus has a positive encounter with one of Israel’s scribes, he knows that not all scribes are good. If anything, the questioning scribe from the previous passage is an outlier. At least, that is, in Mark’s presentation of the facts.
The scene has not shifted from the previous few verses. Jesus is in the Temple. The flow of Mark’s narrative invites us to read the passages of chapter 12 as a continuous story. This week’s selection, which we can split up into two sections, verses 38-40 and 41-44, can be contrasted with the previous story of the well-intentioned scribe. If some scribes are open to the Kingdom of God as Jesus brings it, many others have lost themselves in the trappings of religion. Their behavior betrays their true intentions, and indeed their true god.
Jesus continues to teach, warning his followers to beware of the scribes so that they might not become like them. What Jesus warns against is vainly displaying the outer vestments of religion. Jesus describes the scribes as liking to “walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.” Jesus specifically mentioned three behaviors that would have seemed commonplace in Jerusalem but have no place in the Kingdom Jesus is bringing.
The long robes to which Jesus refers are not the standard scribal uniform. Instead, the robes are the vestments that scribes would wear on special festival days. Instead of walking around wearing their everyday clothing, the scribes don their best garments. The effect amounted to everyone knowing that the individual was a scribe, thus, a person of honor. Scribes dressed so are clearly better than others not similarly dressed.
As the scribes walk around in their long robes, Jesus tells us they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. It does seem very odd that a person would wear special clothing to stroll through such an ordinary and likely messy place. It was the social custom in Jesus’ time and place for the person of lower social status to initiate the greeting when encountering someone with higher social status.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the dynamic at play here. It has been played out over and over in history in every conceivable place with every possible social structure. Those who accumulate status, power, or importance like the recognition they receive from inhabiting their position of prominence. It happens all the time in places like your local High School. A student might wear their letterman jacket or football jersey everywhere to display their status as an athlete.
No doubt, behavior like this continues to happen in religious circles. As annoying as such behavior is when encountered outside of a religious setting, it is relatively benign. Jesus warns us that even though the behavior for some might be “normal,” it has no place in the Kingdom of God. Flouting your importance, especially if you are among those called to serve in leading people in their religious devotion to God, might get you praise from those around you. It will also get you “the greater condemnation.”
Jesus sets up a comparison. Those who boast in their religious importance will receive more judgement than they would have otherwise received. James’ letter echos Jesus’ warning here, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1). Humans are hard-wired to imitate the behavior they see in others. Is not the behavior, for better or worse, of religious leaders implicit teaching?
It is not enough that the scribes have a tendency toward religious boasting; they also use their status to prey on the week. Jesus’ does not mince words. The scribes “devour widows’ houses.” We can’t know for sure what precisely these scribes did to take advantage of widows, but I’m not sure it matters. Throughout the Old Testament, God instructs Israel to care for those who are vulnerable. Widows were a group often explicitly mentioned. Taking advantage of a widow so as to leave them more vulnerable than they otherwise were one thing. It is entirely different from taking advantage of a widow while claiming to represent the God of the vulnerable.
The Widow’s Offering Verse 41 offers a sense of movement. Jesus has finished teaching in one area of the Temple but finds a different spot to instruct his followers. This time, Jesus is in the outer courts of the Temple, where thirteen trumpet-like openings were located. These openings were for the collection of the Temple tax as well as other offerings for the poor.3 It is an excellent place to watch people.
Jesus sits down and observes “Many rich people” who put in large sums of money. One gets the sense that some of those rich people were scribes. Mark doesn’t tell us who is donating at this time, but the context might lead us to think so. Regardless of if scribes are in the mix or not, Jesus’ intent in this little bit of teaching isn’t aimed at condemning wealth or even wealth gained at the expense of others.
In the mix of wealthy donors comes a poor widow. This widow deposits two copper coins into one of the receptacles and goes on her way. The word Mark uses here denotes the smallest coin in circulation, worth about 1/100 of a denarius, the typical day wage. The two small coins are only worth 1/100 of a day’s pay, yet the widow gives them anyway.
Seeing the woman put in her offering, Jesus calls his disciples to gather around. “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who were 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.”
So What? There is a simplicity and humility at play in the poor widow’s action. If it were not for Jesus, her actions would have remained unknown to everyone. While we can’t get into the woman’s mind, we can know with a fair amount of certainty that being showy or braggadocios about her offering was not her intent. Instead, she was likely motivated by true faith, a faith that has called her to give for the sake of others. Her faith is a faith in the God of Israel, the God who looks after the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Who knows, perhaps in her impoverished state, she had gained just a little bit of margin in her finances, and because she was so well acquainted with what it was like to be vulnerable, that she wanted to help alleviate the suffering of others. Or, she was so grateful for the little she did have, she was compelled to give back in an act of praise and thankfulness.
Whatever her reasons, she stands in stark contrast to the religious leaders of the day. Humility and generosity are contrasted with pride and greed. It is clear which set of characteristics are encouraged in God’s Kingdom.
So it is that we are called to identify with one of these sets of characters. Are we too often like the scribes? Do we overly value what others think of us? Are we constantly looking for people to recognize our importance? Do we take advantage of others to gain an advantage or pad our wallets? Do we practice our faith in ways that are intended to gain attention to ourselves instead of God?
Or, are we humble and generous. Do we live resting in God’s provision for us? Do we seek not to make ourselves known, or even our church, but to make Christ known? Are we looking out for the needs of the vulnerable? Are we generous with the good gifts that God has given to us?
The way of the Kingdom of God is visible in the poor widow. May we become more like her than the scribes as we seek to become more like Jesus.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Have you ever known anyone who does their very best to let all those around know how important they are? What behavior made you think this? Have you ever acted that way?
As Jesus teaches his disciples in the Temple, he warns them to watch out for the scribes. What reasons does Jesus give for making this warning?
The long robes the scribes would have worn were for special religious occasions, not for daily wear. Why would scribes go walking about the marketplace wearing their special clothing?
Greeting people with respect isn’t itself a bad thing. What makes the scribes desire to be greeted with respect, a bothersome thing in Jesus’ eyes?
Widows were some of the most vulnerable people at that time. What do you think “devour widows houses” means?
Jesus says that the scribes will receive “the greater condemnation.” What do you think he means by this?
The two copper counts that the widow puts in the offering are worth about 1/100th of a day’s wage. Why does Jesus put so much emphasis on her gift?
Why do you think the widow gave as she did?
Jesus compares behaviors and their acceptability in God’s Kingdom, and he blesses the widow’s behavior. Do you find that you act more like the scribes or more like the widow?
What kind of things or practices might we avoid or engage in so that we behaviors more like the poor widow than the scribes?
 Ezra Palmer Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark, International Critical Commentary (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 239.