Today's gospel passage is one of the most misunderstood in all of Scripture.
Rarely does a Christian institution embark on a fund raising project without someone in charge bringing up the widow who "from her poverty, contributed all she had, her whole livelihood" to the Jerusalem temple treasury, usually with the comment, "That's what Jesus expects us to do."
Not when you put it back in the context in which Mark gives it to us. Jesus has just finished condemning the Jewish religious leaders ". . . 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." In other words, "If you give me your money, I'll 'say one' for you."
Mark's Jesus then immediately gives us "exhibit A:" an example of the latter sin. "He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasure. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents."
Notice that, unlike many Christian preachers, at no point in the pericope does Jesus ever praise the widow for contributing "all she had." He simply employs her action as one proof of religious leaders "devouring the houses of widows." Instead of taking care of such impoverished people, this money motivated individuals have successfully brainwashed the poor into believing it's their obligation to take care of them.
Anyone familiar with the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures knows Jesus stands shoulder to shoulder with his prophetic predecessors on this issue. One of the most biting condemnations of such practices is in Hosea 4, where Yahweh, referring to the priests receiving "a cut" of all the offerings made at the local shrines, states the obvious: "They feed on the sins of my people." If the priests don't hammer away at the sinfulness of their worshippers, they're not going to offer any sin sacrifices, forcing priests to tighten their belts. (Through the years, some Catholic commentators have actually brought up this passage when dealing with our practice of preaching about the "poor souls in purgatory," and our custom - even obligation - of giving priests stipends to "say a Mass" for them.)
Elijah, in our I Kings reading, demonstrates this prophetic option for the poor in his treatment of the Gentile widow of Zarephath. Though he asks her to provide him with "a bit of bread," he also makes certain "... her jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry...." Unlike the Jerusalem priests, Yahweh will not put her and her son in peril because of her generosity to a prophet.
Our first and third readings might lead us to look at our Hebrews passage from a different perspective. The author here is making his well-known comparison between Jewish priests and Jesus as priest. Both are engaged in taking away "sin," but, according to the writer's opinion, Jesus does it infinitely better. But after hearing Jesus' condemnation of the financial abuse of the poor by religious institutions, we've got something to add to our examination of conscience. Jesus' definition of sin is almost always more inclusive than our own.
How do we take care of the poor? Is part of our weekly collection earmarked for people in need beyond our own parish? Are we concerned to build up our own parish "treasury" with no thought of the needs of others, especially the poor?
That's the trouble with being a follower of Jesus. There's always something to think about today that we hadn't even noticed yesterday.