In the last year of Jesus' ministry, while teaching in the Temple precinct, he covered a range of issues, and in the two passages before us he touches on the issue of religiosity. In Mark's comparison between the righteous churchmen and the godly widow we learn that "God measures our charity not by its amount, but by our means and by the spirit in which we give", A.M. Hunter. As Paul would put it, these things "were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come", 1Cor.10:11.
v38-39. The theologians of the day (priests, Levites, scribes - the clergy and teachers) were highly respected, addressed as "Rabbi", "Father", "Master", and given the seats of honour at the synagogue and at feasts. The people even stood as they passed by in their flowing white robes. The point Jesus makes is that people who are so meticulous at keeping the law would surely know that God alone should receive the praise of men. Their self-intoxication exposes their hypocrisy.
v40. Not only are they status-ridden, but they abuse their privileges. Scribes could not be paid for their religious duties and so often sponged on the hospitality of people with limited means. Justice was set aside and replaced by religious display. This selfish behavior cast them under God's judging eye.
v41-42. The hypocrisy of righteous Israel is now fully exposed by comparing the devotion of the scribes with that of a poor widow. In her devotion to God she gives all that she has. She has two coins, so she could have kept one back, but she gives everything (unlike those who "devour widows' houses"). The coins were the smallest minted in Palestine, a copper "lepton". For his Gentile readers Mark notes that a "lepton" is a fraction (about one eighth) of the smallest Roman copper coin, a "quadrans" ("a penny"/"cent"). While Jesus is seated on a bench, he sees the widow place her coins in one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped money boxes found against the wall in the Court of the Women.
v43-44. Jesus uses the widow's gift to teach his disciples about the nature of service to God. A sizable gift, with its capacity to do great things for God, is not as valuable in God's sight as the motivation behind the gift. The widow's expression of total commitment to God is far more valuable than a generous gift which does little to the affluence of the giver, even though the gift may achieve wonderful ends.
"Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart", 1Sam.16:7.
What point is Jesus making in the story of the widow's two cents? For example, does it serve to pass a moral judgment on affluent societies? Is it telling us that for the poor at least, the coming kingdom will mean deliverance from oppression and the fulfillment of hope in God? What does this story teach us?
This episode serves as an indictment upon religious Israel, the pious rich, the "righteous" ..., and thus points to impending judgement; "such men will be punished most severely." Yet, Jesus' righteous judgement upon religious Israel is not just for reading "in" church, but rather "for" church. The widow does not serve to image what we must be to receive the fulfillment of our hope (salvation), rather she serves to expose the hypocrisy that is already ours, a hypocrisy that places us under condemnation. The danger facing we churchies, is that our religiosity can easily hide our true life-motivations - motivations toward status, privilege, wealth.... God views the substance of our behavior, not the external act and its consequences. He looks at the heart.
God is not fussed whether we give all as did the widow. Maximizing our resources for the kingdom is a worthy financial ideal to work toward, as is a piety of total dedication toward God, a total giving of self to the Lord. Yet, it is more important that we know ourselves as He knows us - unrighteous, but forgiven and accepted in Christ.
The danger we face is the danger of self deception. Not only can we convince ourselves of our own moral rectitude, but we can spend our whole life trying to convince others. Church is a good place to play the self-righteous game. For example, in every church conflict I have been involved in, and I've been in a few (and sadly sometimes of my own making), I've always been on the right side. The trouble is, my opponents thought they were on the right side as well. In a conflict, both sides believe they possess the moral high ground. With protestations of innocence and offense we can easily fool ourselves while we "devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers".
Beware the danger of self-righteous piety.
1. Why do "they like to walk around in flowing robes"?
2. How do "they devour widows' houses"?
3. What lesson does Jesus draw from the widow's gift?