Summary: A contrast between acquisitive Scribes, and a gift given out of penury.
FROM VICTIM TO VICTOR: THE WIDOW’S MITE.
In our previous reading, Jesus pronounced one Scribe, ‘Not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34). Yet Jesus’ opinion of the Scribes in general was not unlike His opinion of the Pharisees (cf. Luke 11:43). ‘The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses seat,’ said Jesus elsewhere (Matthew 23:2) - ‘but all their works they do to be seen by men’ (Matthew 23:5).
The robe of a Scribe was a legitimate badge of office within the context of his place of employment: a bit like the cap and gown of academia today. However, some delighted to show off their robes wherever they went. They enjoyed the attention it drew in the market places, causing men to pay them deference (Mark 12:38).
They loved to sit in the best seats in the synagogues, and the choicest places at feasts (Mark 12:39). As to the first, such partiality is totally inappropriate in the assemblies of the church (cf. James 2:1-4). As to the second, such behaviour where one is an invited guest shows a complete lack of humility (cf. Luke 14:7-11).
Some Scribes also “devoured widows' houses” warned Jesus (Mark 12:40). The Scribes were the lawyers of their day, supposedly applying the law of Moses: but were they perhaps lining their own pockets at the expense of vulnerable widows? Were they condoning a system of religion in which the widow was a victim, giving her last penny to line their pockets (cf. Mark 12:42)?
“And for a pretence they make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40). Jesus teaches elsewhere that those who pray ‘to be seen of men’ (Matthew 6:5) ‘have their reward’ - in other words, their prayers will not reach heaven, but only the ears of the men they are seeking to impress. And as for the length of our prayers, they should lack the ‘vain repetitions’ and ‘many words’ by which ‘the heathen’ think they will be heard (Matthew 6:7).
In the second part of today’s passage, we see Jesus out in the Temple courtyard, watching people throwing their money into the trumpet-shaped receptacles designed for the collection of financial gifts and offerings (Mark 12:41). Jesus knew better than anyone that the offerors were putting part of their earnings into a system that had outlived its usefulness, and that the very stones of the Temple would soon be removed from that place (Mark 13:2). Jesus had come as One greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6), to fulfil all that the Temple stood for (Matthew 5:17).
Now the rich, as you would hope, put in much (Mark 12:41). But one impoverished widow - perhaps one whose house had been devoured by the acquisitive Scribes (cf. Mark 12:40) - put in only two small copper coins (Mark 12:42). Jesus is merely stating the facts and figures, so to speak.
He said nothing of the fact that she, having ‘cast her bread on the waters’ would ‘after many days find it’ (Ecclesiastes 11:1). Nor of the fact that she, having sown her seed, would receive back thirty, sixty, a hundredfold, or whatever (Matthew 13:23). He said nothing of the fact that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Corinthians 9:6-7); nor how, if there is a willing mind, the gift is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what one does not have (2 Corinthians 8:12).
All Jesus said was that, whilst others gave whatever they chose (whether a tithe, a first-fruit, or a freewill offering), she gave her all (Mark 12:44). She stands in the commendation of the Macedonian churches, who ‘out of extreme poverty’ freely gave ‘according to their means, and beyond their means’ (2 Corinthians 8:2-3). In this respect, she rose from being a victim of her circumstances, to a victor over them.