This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 12:38–44:
In the course of his teaching Jesus said to the crowds, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
As a writer, the start of today’s Gospel reading gives me no small amount of pause. “Beware of the scribes!” seems to fit pretty well in today’s context of an open market of opinion and analysis. In fact, we all spend a lot of time writing about how we should beware other scribes, sometimes with only a dim idea of applying it to ourselves.
The scribes in those times weren’t writers as such, of course, or at least not in the main; they were learned men who had achieved a high proficiency of literacy, which was not at all common in those times. As such, their services were very valuable, especially for those in authority. They kept records, both private and public, of finances and actions, and recorded the histories of their times. In the time of Jesus’ mission, the scribes studied, copied, and interpreted the Law. Much like all human endeavors, these tasks could be done well and with integrity. The Old Testament exists for us today thanks to the scribes, who copied it so thoroughly and accurately over centuries and millennia that its texts are entirely reliable.
Just like other human endeavors, however, these tasks could be corrupted by human ambitions and greed. The scribes supported the contemporaneous temple authorities, the Pharisees, and participated in their same sinful behavior. Jesus calls out the scribes along with the Pharisees a number of times in the Gospels, and at other times the scribes criticize Jesus. In Matthew 9, they accuse Him of blaspheming when He forgives the sins of the paralytic, at which point Jesus heals the paralytic in order to demonstrate their error.
Like the Pharisees, Jesus accuses the scribes of seeking their own personal aggrandizement through the Law, rather than the benefit of all for whom it was given. They desire the glamour and power that they can glean from their work, and the money they can seize from the afflicted, all while claiming a mantle of righteousness through pompous public prayer. Jesus focuses specifically on widows, whose economic plight would have been among the worst in a subsistence economy.
To demonstrate the disparity between worldly materialism and grace, Jesus waits for the widow to give her offering to the temple. Her offering reminds us of our first reading today from 1 Kings and the widow whom Elijah met in Zarephath. When the prophet appears at her door, he calls out for a small morsel of bread, but she replies that she has none to give. The widow had a small son and little resources to ensure they would not starve, and so was hoarding the small amount of flour and oil she had left, and was about to use it to make a last meal for the two of them.
What does Elijah tell the widow? “Do not be afraid,” the prophet responds, assuring her that the Lord will provide for her. He instructs her to make the meal but to give him a little bit first, and the Lord would promise not to let the jars of flour and oil go empty. Rather than balk at this, the widow puts her trust in the Lord’s promise and does what Elijah instructs. By putting her trust in the Lord, the widow never goes hungry again.
This is precisely what the widow in this Gospel reading is doing, and why her sacrifice is so much more meaningful. She is following the law and the testament that the scribes have copied by emulating the widow of Zarephath. She is putting in her two coins, perhaps all she has between survival and starvation, in service to the Lord. She has received no specific promise but trusts in the Lord to lift her up. The widow understands that material wealth is not the god that she should worship.
This is the point of the law which corrupt scribes and Pharisees miss. They have placed themselves above the widow that trusts in the Lord when they should have her service as their first concern. They do not trust God to sustain them, but instead have manipulated wealth from the lowly to raise themselves up as overlords. Throughout the gospels, scribes and Pharisees offer endless commentary and criticism of Jesus, tossing in their two cents’ worth, so to speak, when they should be mindful of the needs of those whose two cents are all they have left.
This episode reminds us of the special love that the Lord has for the poor and lowly, those who lack access to the resources needed for a good life. It also reminds us that our own greed and vanity can blind us to those whom we should serve in our good fortune. The Law of God is not a vehicle for our own aggrandizement, but a means by which we might form ourselves in caritas to live out the two greatest commandments of all — to love the Lord with all our hearts, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
And for us scribes of the modern era, perhaps there’s another lesson to learn — to make our own two cents’ worth as meaningful as that of the widow in Mark’s Gospel.
The front-page image is a detail from “Feast of Simon the Pharisee” by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620. On display at the Hermitage Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.