(Reprinted from Mennonite World Review, Dec. 7 issue)
One story in two tellings:
Telling #1 — Jesus and his disciples are visiting the Jerusalem temple. They’re sitting around, people-watching. They observe worshipers placing money in offering containers lined in the court of women. They’re not alone in their scrutiny; temple attendants and onlookers constantly hover here, noting how much each worshiper puts in the trumpet-shaped boxes.
Most of Jesus’ disciples are working-class peasants. Their eyes widen with amazement at the staggering wealth poured in by well-groomed businessmen. No one but Jesus notices the bone-thin figure slipping through the crowd. That’s she’s an impoverished widow is clear from her tattered clothes and how she clutches two small coins against her chest. She approaches a box and slides her meager offering in, ashamedly shielding it with her body. But Jesus sees. What’s she’s just offered is less than a modern dollar; it would hardly buy a handful of grain.
Jesus points to her retreating back and says to his disciples, “Do you see that poor widow none of you noticed? She just put more in that offering box than everyone else here combined. They’ve all given of their excess, but she? She just put her whole life in that plate, everything she had to live on.” That’s a literal translation of Jesus’ words—she put in “her whole life.”
Telling #2 — Jesus and his disciples are visiting the Jerusalem temple. They’re sitting around, people-watching. They observe religious elites hobnobbing with businessmen and politicians on the way to worship. Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Beware of scribes who make a living purveying ‘religion.’ They like to walk around in flowing robes and occupy the front pews, feeling important, when all the while they’re devouring poor widow’s houses and praying only to their egos.”
Jesus then observes the offering boxes, watching the privileged pour in money to support construction projects and the booming economy of temple life. He sees a widow slipping through the crowd who is clearly in desperate need of new shoes and a decent meal. She shakes the last two coins from an empty purse and slides them into the gleaming plate.
Jesus points to her retreating back and says to his disciples, “Do you see that widow? All these others gave from their abundance what they could clearly spare. But that poor woman gave her last dollar, her only hope of a meal, her very life itself—because these comfortable ‘experts’ told her she should. And where will it go? To yet another temple wing or new robes for the scribes? The system established to support people like her now devours her to feed itself.”
Jesus gets up and strides out of the temple, with bewildered disciples trailing behind. One of them stammers, “But look, Teacher. Look at the massive stonework, the incredible construction that holds this temple together. They’re magnificent buildings, aren’t they?” Jesus replies, “These ‘great buildings’ you admire? A day is coming, sooner than you think, when God will turn them into dust.”
A few months ago, while shaking hands after a worship service, I saw two men I knew to be homeless slip a few dollar bills in the offering box on their way out of the church.
What is the story in Mark 12? Is it a lesson in radical generosity, taught us by the poor? It is no less than that. But do we even think to wonder, as we marvel at the widow’s offering, why two pennies is all she has? Do we consider what it means that she chose to spend them here? Do we dare to ask what obligation might accrue to us, purveyors of the temple construct, by the presence of her life in our offering plate?
One thing seems clear: we never know how close the day may be when our sacred bricks and mortar crumble. But the widow? She’ll remain. Whoever has ears, let them hear.by