Difficult as it is, we Christians must constantly discipline ourselves to listen to what the gospel Jesus actually says, not to what we’d like him to say. Nowhere is this more a problem than in today’s gospel pericope. Once our church “got institutionalized” this narrative took on a meaning totally counter to what Mark and the historical Jesus originally intended. Any priest or deacon who leaves out verses 38-40 of this passage will one day have to answer to both at the pearly gates. Their inclusion is essential to correctly understanding what Jesus says about the widow’s “two small coins.”
Mark’s Jesus begins by warning his followers never to give in to the temptation of imitating a leadership model that is completely at odds with the model he himself lives and teaches. “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the market places, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.”
He then brings up one of their most atrocious, hurtful practices. “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” Such unscrupulous leaders prey on the poorest, most powerless people in the community, expecting them to support their scandalous lifestyle. But, don’t worry. After these helpless individuals have given their last penny, they have their leaders’ guarantee: “We’ll say one for you!”
After this seething rebuke, Mark has Jesus sit down “opposite the (temple) treasury” to present “Exhibit A.”“A poor widow . . . came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.” The very thing he warned his followers never to do was taking place before their very eyes.
We’ve so often heard this event quoted on the occasion of priests and ministers pleading with their communities to either up their weekly donations or make a pledge for a new building project that we supply something to the text that’s conspicuously missing: Jesus praising the widow for her generosity. At no point does Jesus ever say, “Isn’t this great? I expect my followers to imitate her unselfish example.” Homilists usually tell us that’s the point of the story; but in the gospel Jesus never mentions it. In this context he’s simply pointing out how some leaders have religiously brainwashed their constituents into believing they should give their all to take care of the religious institution, even those poor individuals whom the institution should be taking care of. How could we have so misconstrued Jesus’ words and intentions?
The true biblical concern for others is at the heart of our Elijah reading. The prophet not only is taken care of by the widow of Zarephath, he, in turn, takes care of her and her son; “the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jar of oil run dry... .“
When our Hebrews author speaks about Christ “not entering into a sanctuary made by hands, a mere copy of the true one,” he seems to be buying into Plato’s belief that everything in our world is just a poor copy of the real thing in heaven. The writer wants his readers to understand how Jesus’ actions in our lives are far superior to anything humans experienced before his death and resurrection. No building or institution can replace what he did for us and others.
In a North American College lecture over 45 years ago, Cardinal John Wright asked, “What if every church owned piece of property would suddenly be destroyed; how would we live our faith?” Were that to happen, we might actually be forced, like Jesus, to concentrate more on people than on things.