The Widow's Mite in Mark's Gospel
We come now to the grand conclusion of Jesus’s public controversy in the Temple. Mark sets the scribe and the widow in contrast, certainly, but they’re representative of something greater. They represent the contrast between the Jerusalem authorities and the faithful. Indeed, the scribes display the diametric opposite of love of God and neighbor. In terms of St. Augustine’s theological anthropology, they’re turned in on themselves and turn everything and everyone else to themselves. The scribes represent those who self-aggrandize, who consume, who take, and never give. The widow, in contrast, represents the ideal disciple in giving everything she has to God, in two small coins, her whole living. As such, she represents Jesus, who also gives all he has to God, his very life (10:45).
Jesus, apparently addressing the crowds, tells them to “beware” (blepō) the scribes (12:38), just as he had told the disciples to “beware” (blepō) the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (8:15), indicating just how dastardly the scribes are. Indeed, toward the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, they had deemed him demonized (3:22).
What Jesus says about the scribes in Mark 12:38–40, while polemical, fits the historical possibilities. Scribes were treated with serious veneration. They would be given seats of honor at the front of the synagogue, thus facing the people during worship. They would be greeted in marketplaces with great honor. Seating at meals was a matter of strict honor, with the most important guests to the front (compare Jesus’s parable in Luke 14:7–11, advising his hearers to take the seats not of great honor, lest they be told to sit further back, but the seats further back so that they might be honored).
Jesus’s line about devouring widows’ houses deserves especial attention. Scribes were not paid, but rather subsisted on the generosity of others. Far from being beggars, however, they could be supported generously through arrangements that were more or less patron–client benefices. And, as widows had no right of inheritance, it’s possible a situation would obtain where someone could support a scribe by impoverishing a widow for whom he would otherwise be responsible. In Jesus’s view, scribes abused the system to the point of being as rapacious as highwaymen. Perhaps Jesus’s allusion to Jeremiah 7:11 (“den of robbers”) in Mark 11:17 has something to do with dirty financial dealings after all.
The Old Testament, of course, condemns the exploitation of widows and commands their care in emulation of God (see: Exod 22:22; Deut 10:18; 24:14–21; Is 10:1–2). Of special interest is Jeremiah 7:6, within the great prophecy of the first Temple’s coming destruction, which mentions oppression of widows. Mark’s anti-Temple polemic continues here. Just as the people of Jeremiah’s day could have been spared had they not oppressed widows and others but would suffer destruction because of it, so too the people of Jesus’s day will face the destruction of their Temple in great part because of their leaders’ injustice, especially the impoverishing of widows. And all this covered by an ostentatious, fake piety. Jesus’s final words are more forceful than most translations manage: they will receive a most severe judgment (12:40).
Mark then relates Jesus observing many putting money in the treasury (12:41). Receptacles shaped like rams’ horns received the coinage and guided it to metal boxes. We can imagine the noisy clanging and clanking of many coins being poured in by the rich Mark mentions. Whether a given rich individual was sincere or hypocritical in his giving, it’s a physical recipe for a public ostentation, much like the ostentation of the scribes making a show of florid prayers (12:40).
In contrast, Mark reports that a poor widow comes and puts in two lepta, the smallest Jewish coins in circulation (12:42), all she has to live on (12:44).Perhaps a scribal beneficence had reduced her to absolute penury. And as she gives all, her piety is true. The scribes take all, but she gives all. She displays total love of God and neighbor, while the scribes display twisted love of self. She is the model of the disciple, for, in Mark’s Gospel, discipleship means surrendering everything. The two pairs of brothers left everything behind to follow Jesus (1:16–20), and Levi left his livelihood (2:14). Peter reminds Jesus at one point, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you” (10:28). And Jesus calls those who would follow him as disciples to embrace the Cross and surrender their very lives (8:34–38), which Jesus himself will do (10:45; 15:21–39). The widow gives her living; Jesus gives his life. The injustices done to her and to Jesus will mean the destruction of the Temple.
Mark explains to his Roman readers that these two Jewish coins equal one Roman quadrans, the smallest Roman coin in circulation.