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The Scribes vs. The Widow

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘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.’
Our reading for today contrasts two different types of people. First we have the scribes. There is nothing wrong with being a scribe in and of itself. Jewish scribes took up where the prophets left off. Since the time of Ezra, their job was to interpret and teach the law of Moses. They are also referred to as rabbis. The Pharisees were scribes. We never read of the Sadducees being scribes. The latter were involved more in the Temple.

However, the scribes that Jesus de-scribes (!) liked to walk around in long robes, which were probably expensive. They noticed when people greeted them with respect and when they didn't. They were very aware of their position in society and maintaining it. They liked to have the best seats in the synagogues and at parties rather than giving up their seats to others. They took advantage of the poor, like the widows, rather than caring for them properly. They said long prayers, again, to draw the attention of others to themselves. Notice that the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to say was short and to the point, what we know as The Lord's Prayer. Presumably these scribes were among the rich who put large sums into the Temple treasury, again, as an attention-grabber. Jesus is clear in condemning their behavior: "They will receive the greater condemnation."

Jesus contrasts the rich and ostentatiously religious with the poor widow (there was probably no other kind in that society) who put into the Temple treasury all she had: two small copper coins that were not worth anything in the eyes of the rich. Jesus says that this woman contributed more than the rich because the latter gave a little off the top of their abundance whereas the widow put in all she had.

Notice: Jesus does not commend the example of the widow as something for us to follow. Actually, the story of the widow (when seen in context and juxtaposition to the scribes and other wealthy people who live only for themselves) calls into question the entire system which leads this woman to think or feel that she must give up what she has in order for the religious system to continue.

What application does this have for us today? This story certainly raises certain questions. What can we do to change our economic system so that the poor are truly and properly cared for in our society? What can we do to help the poor individually? There are certainly many charitable organizations that we can support to help the poor get out of their poverty. Compassion International is one such organization which I commend for your consideration. And this story raises the final question: what can those of us who are religiously (in terms of knowledge) and physically (in terms of money) do to serve others and God rather than continue to simply secure our own position and serve self?

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