By Chuck Queen
What are we to make of the Gospel story of the poor widow who put in the temple treasury all she had to live on (Mark 12:41-44)?
In the previous Markan paragraph Jesus denounces the self-righteousness of the scribes who seek the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets and “devour widows houses,” that is, they take advantage of the most vulnerable in their society.
Some interpreters see the story of the widow as further indictment against the scribes. They ask, “What sort of religious system would encourage a poor widow to give all she has to live on so that the system’s leaders may continue to live lives of wealth and comfort?” One commentator writes, “The scribes are like leeches on the faithful, benefiting from a religious system that allows poor widows to sacrifice what little they have.”
While that may be true, Jesus commends the poor widow who drops a couple of small coins in the temple treasury. Jesus says, “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.”
She does not literally give more, but she gives more proportionally. She gives out of her poverty, while the wealthy give out of their abundance.
I recently had a conversation with my daughter, who was bemoaning the taxes she has to pay on the profits of her part-time business. My daughter, whom I love dearly, was arguing for a flat tax. I tried to explain how unfair a flat tax would be. It would make the disadvantaged even more disadvantaged. I wish I had thought to quote Jesus, who said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I know my kids just love it when I quote Jesus. So while the poor widow only gave two copper coins, she gave more than the rich folks who gave large sums. Surely this has something to teach us about what constitutes legitimate taxation principles, does it not?
But is that all there is to the story? What would compel this woman to give so freely? There is nothing in the text to suggest that she was coerced to give. So what would motivate her to do this?
We probably wouldn’t call this woman foolish out loud, but we think it. She gives to support an institution that has become corrupt, an institution Jesus both protested and predicted would be destroyed. Obviously Jesus is not commending what she is giving to. He is commending the condition of her soul.
We carefully calculate what we give, do we not? We make sure we have enough to live on and play on and that we have a surplus. We make sure we are comfortable. We have attachments. We have responsibilities. This woman gives completely free from the kind of attachments that bind us.
This woman has absolutely no interest in the kind of things that the religious scribes cared so much about. She has no interest in being seen or how she appears to others. She has no interest in being honored or recognized. She has no interest in merit badges and status symbols. She is not even worried about survival even though she gives all she had to live on.
Apparently, she has such radical faith in the grace of God that she believes she will survive, that her needs will be met and, if not, God will be with her and sustain her in her want and neediness. Here is a woman who is not clinging to anything. She is so unencumbered and so full of faith in God’s grace and provision that she can freely give all she has without any regret or second thoughts and she can trust God to see her through.
I’m guessing that most of my readers are like me. We find it hard to even imagine what it would be like to have that kind of freedom from attachments and that kind of radical generosity and faith. What would it be like to live with such freeness and fullness within this present moment? It’s so beyond where we are we simply can’t image what it would be like to have that kind of faith.