In many ways, Jesus surveyed his culture as though he was a social psychologist. His insights into psycho-social dynamics suggest that he was a keen observer of the human condition. This morning’s gospel (Mark 12:38-44) is a case in point.
As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like 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! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
In Jesus’ day scribes could read and write contracts based on the Jewish law. They were both lawyers and theologians, roles for which they enjoyed social and economic status.
Jesus accused them of ostentation, grabbing attention for themselves by dressing in long robes and selecting places of honour at the front of synagogues facing most of the people and at banquets. For the sake of appearance (they) say long prayers suggests that their prayer-life was a theatre of the self-promotion rather than a sincere attempt to engage God. One can imagine that, as Jesus sat in synagogues, he noted that the well-dressed scribes were talking with one another, looking around the room or fidgeting rather than paying attention while others did the public scripture reading or preached.
Next, Jesus escalated his charge from vanity to dishonesty and hypocrisy.
Widows, in Jesus’ day, had no automatic inheritance rights from their husbands. They would have had to rely on the integrity of the trustee, their children or on charity.
The phrase, they devour widows’ houses, likely refers to the fact that, as lawyers, scribes could have themselves appointed as trustees over the estates of widows and earn administrative fees but perhaps also swindle the widows from inheriting any benefits from the husband’s estate.
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.
When Jesus watched the scribes in the treasury, he did so with an eye to what the intention was, beyond the act itself. The treasury consisted of trumpet-shaped collection boxes in the sanctuary, labelled for different purposes such as yearly temple tax or bird offerings. It was in a public place to remind people of the need for support.
There was no paper money in Jesus’ day. Coins were made of copper and would clink as they hit the walls of the receptacle and one another, thus drawing attention to the giver. Jesus’ comment about self-promotion likely referred to the sound of the coins that the rich deposited as their offerings. The larger the sum, the more noise it would have made.
A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are 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.”
The Greek word used for coin, lepta, was the smallest monetary denomination in circulation. Despite its small, objective amount, proportionally the widow had offered a larger percentage of her wealth than the rich scribes. In fact, Jesus said, it was all she had to live on.
When Jesus called his disciples together, he began with the word Truly, indicating that what followed was a solemn statement. In particular, Jesus said that God would weigh the gift, not by the objective standards of the amount, but by the sacrifice that it signified. She had offered everything she had to God.
Throughout scripture, God shows a preferential bias towards the poor and the marginalized. In the Old Testament reading for today, Elijah asked a widow for what seemed to be her last remaining food. Yet, according to 1 Kings, after she had made the cakes there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.
This is only one of many passages in which God was the ultimate defender of widows (and orphans). Jeremiah 49:11 reads, your orphans, I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me.
Psalm 68:4-5 says,
Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds[a]—
his name is the Lord—
be exultant before him.
Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
The widow in this morning’s gospel was both poor and marginalized by her widowhood.
(Some biblical scholars debate whether Jesus’ statement about the poor widow giving all that she had represents his “supernatural” knowledge or whether he had learned of her situation prior to this event or if he surmised the information from the woman’s appearance and behaviour. - The latter would be consistent with the theme of Jesus as a keen observer of human behavior. - But for the purpose of the contrast between the scribes and the widow, the source of his knowledge is not important.)
In the role of social psychologist, Jesus offered another insight with this morning’s gospel; behaviour is often influenced, sometimes unconsciously, by our consideration of who, if anyone, is watching. It seems that the widow had imagined God’s response to her offering and that it was God’s regard that affected her behavior. It also appears that the scribes were more conscious of the impression they made on others in the synagogue, rather than God, and that it was the synagogue “audience” that affected their behavior.
Practicing an awareness of the presence of God is a deep form of prayer. The scribes may have been deceiving themselves when they dressed up pretending to do so to honour God and that they were donating coins for the benefit of the temple and God when their real intent was self-aggrandizement.
Jesus’ judgement of the scribes and widow was incidental to the instruction that he was giving to his disciples. He wanted them to be aware of whom they were “playing to” in their daily actions. Was it God? Or was it other humans for their own benefit? Jesus knew that their reference point would make a difference to how they acted.
It is appropriate and often an act of compassion to consider how our words and actions affect other people. Beyond consciousness of other people, though, it is our understanding of how God would see the behavior that matters most.