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Herb Montgomery | November 5, 2021
“This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.”
(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)
Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,
As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12.38-44, emphasis added.)
I interpret this week’s critique as aimed at the political economy of Jesus’ society, not its religions. Some of those who were deeply religious made the lives of poor people more difficult and exploited their situation. I reject any interpretation that would place Judaism itself in a poor light, because Jesus’ concern for the widow in this story is in perfect harmony with deeply held Jewish values.
Deuteronomy, for example, imagines a society where poverty is eliminated:
“There need be no poor people among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4)
And the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly single out and express concern for the kind of people centered in our story this week: widows.
“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)
“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)
See also Isaiah 1:23 and 10:2; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10; and Malachi 3:5.
Common interpretations of our story this week fall short. Typically they exalt the poor widow’s religious piety, her willingness to give her all rather than critique a system that would take her all. These interpretations often communicate the idea that God values the gifts of the poor more than the contributions of the affluent, and they praise the sacrificial nature of the worship of poor people. I find these interpretations deeply harmful and oppressive to the poor.
Social location always matters. How we interpret any sacred text depends on what questions we bring to it, and those questions are determined by how we experience life. We don’t all experience life the same way. Therefore, those in different social locations bring to their sacred texts a different set of questions and get a different set of answers as they read. To get life-giving answers, we must first ask life-giving questions, and the common interpretations of this week’s story are not life-giving. They are the interpretations of those with privilege and status.
This week, I want to offer a different reading of this story, a reading grounded in Mark’s Jesus repeatedly stating that the reign of God means a great reversal: those who are presently valued as last are centered and made first and those presently privileged as first are made last.
First, Jesus accuses the pious, elite class of his society of devouring widow’s houses. Then, in the very next story, Mark offers an example. Far from praising the widow for giving all, Mark’s story condemns all systems, whether religious, political, economic, or social, that condition her to give her all and gleefully take it from her.
“Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.” (A. Wright, The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, CBQ, 44, p 256.; Quoted in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 321)
So just as Jesus warned, the widow in this story is being “devoured,” i.e., being robbed of her very means of existence.
I think of taxation systems that devour the resources of poor people today. Regressive tax systems place a greater weight of sharing space in society on the poor. Progressive taxation is rooted in the concern that the wealthy pay their fair share of the cost of sharing space in society.
Earlier this year here in WV, some legislators pushed to remove West Virginia’s income tax. It would have been a regressive move that would have further transferred society’s tax burden away from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. For now, this harmful push has failed. I want my taxes to be used for the common good, to help those in need, and I favor tax systems that do so progressively not regressively. In this week’s story, Mark’s Jesus condemns a flat, regressive tax structure that “devours the houses” of those already struggling to live through poverty.
I also don’t subscribe to an interpretation of this story that makes light of the gifts of the wealthy and places an inequitable burden on the poor. Those who see in their wealth as a call to share their superfluous “plenty” with those who have less or whose daily needs are not being met are following the principle we read elsewhere in the Christian scriptures: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14).
I think, too, of the multitude of nonprofits in the world doing good with individuals and working for systemic change .They exist solely from contributions given by people with the means to support that work. These gifts are the lifeblood of those organizations. As we work toward a day when these kinds of organizations may not be needed, we must also acknowledge how vitally necessary their work is in the meantime.
We should reject any interpretation of this week’s story that either diminishes the wealthy as they follow the ethical call of the gospel to give their wealth away or praises systems that burden those barely surviving. These interpretations contradict the overarching economic themes found in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. The same Jesus that called the rich man to give his possessions to the poor also condemns any system that devours widows’ houses under the guise of something praiseworthy such as national fidelity, cultural pride, and/or religious piety. The widow’s motive in the above story could be any of these.
Ultimately, Jesus’ desire in the stories is that people would have life and have it more abundantly—“to the full” (John 10:10). This isn’t abundance in a prosperity gospel or capitalist sense but in the sense of a human community where every person in the community is thriving. Whether we call it eternal life, abundant life, or just a sustainable life, this is a community where no one has too little while others have too much. It’s an imaginative vision of a world where every person is connected to and committed to others, where every person’s needs are being met, and where no one is becoming wealthy off the exploitation of another. No matter how glorious exploitative systems of luxury may look on the outside, they are not sustainable. As Mark says of the eventual end of these systems, “Not one stone here will be left on another” (Mark 13:2).
This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. What does a life-giving sharing the cost of shared public space, giving to causes and organizations, or sharing with those who have less than they need look like for you? Discuss with your group.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week
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