In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath.
As he arrived at the entrance of the city,
a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her,
"Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink."
She left to get it, and he called out after her,
"Please bring along a bit of bread."
She answered, "As the LORD, your God, lives,
I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar
and a little oil in my jug.
Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks,
to go in and prepare something for myself and my son;
when we have eaten it, we shall die."
Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid.
Go and do as you propose.
But first make me a little cake and bring it to me.
Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son.
For the LORD, the God of Israel, says,
'The jar of flour shall not go empty,
nor the jug of oil run dry,
until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.'"
She left and did as Elijah had said.
She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well;
the jar of flour did not go empty,
nor the jug of oil run dry,
as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.
Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary
with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world.
But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages
to take away sin by his sacrifice.
Just as it is appointed that human beings die once,
and after this the judgment, so also Christ,
offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time, not to take away sin
but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.
In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds,
"Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes
and accept greetings in the marketplaces,
seats of honor in synagogues,
and places of honor at banquets.
They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext
recite lengthy prayers.
They will receive a very severe condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury
and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.
Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents.
Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,
"Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury.
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had,
her whole livelihood."
The vast majority of people hearing today’s gospel pericope will get the wrong message; certainly not the message Mark’s Jesus conveys.
From “time immemorial” religious preachers have employed this passage whenever they want their people to give to causes they’re touting. Seems Jesus directly had them and their causes in mind when he pointed out a desperately poor widow in the Jerusalem temple who had just deposited her last two mites in the collection plate. “This poor widow,” he says, “put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. They have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” In other words, “Go and do likewise! Give till it hurts!”
There are several obvious problems with this interpretation, problems most of us don’t see.
Notice the gospel Jesus never praises the woman, nor encourages his disciples to imitate her behavior. He simply wants people to notice what she did. No more than that.
But, in what context did he point her out? Since WWII, gospel scholars have stressed “redaction criticism.” They’re very interested not only in what Jesus says, but what happened right before or after he says it. What’s the context of the verse? It’s also important to notice how one evangelist changes – redacts - what a prior evangelist has written. Each is trying to convey his unique theology. If he weren’t concerned with that endeavor, we’d have just one gospel: Mark’s. One surfaces his theology in his redactions. (Just as people can surface my theology on clericalism by noticing I always redact the Eucharistic “And with your spirit” to “And with you.”) Since Mark wrote the first gospel, we don’t have to worry about redaction here. But we do have to worry about context.
Mark’s Jesus is constantly concerned for the poor. But in today’s pericope he’s also concerned with how some of them became poor. The evangelist begins this passage not with the widow, but with a warning: “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.” The gospel Jesus points out these revered functionaries use their “clerical” relationships with widows to eventually impoverish them. But not to worry; “I’ll say one for you.”
The impoverished widow is “exhibit A.” Jesus wants all his followers to know these religious dignitaries have no shame. Even after they devour the woman’s house, they even take her last two mites. Instead of caring for her, they continue to expect her to care for them. No wonder Jesus only lived six days after he arrived in Jerusalem. He’s an immediate danger to the institution.
Mark doesn’t just say the poor must defend themselves against the institution, he also wants the institution to know one of their main tasks is to help the poor . . . always.
Certainly the widow of Zarephath is to be praised for her generosity toward Elijah, and Yahweh is to be praised for his/her caring for her and her son. But on the other hand, the author of Hebrews couldn’t have foreseen the day when Christian communities would actually have “sanctuaries made by hands” that needed to be cared for – often over the needs of the poor. The writer is impressed that Jesus, freely sacrificing himself for us, has stamped “no charge” on our receipt.
Institutional church finances will always be a problem. But if we actually create the very abomination Mark’s Jesus refers to in today’s gospel passage, we certainly have no idea how his/her risen presence should be redacting our lives.