Year B: Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Denunciation of the Scribes.

Mark 12: 38-44 

In the course of his teaching he said, “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.”

 Discussion Questions: 

  1. Spiritually speaking, why do you think Jesus values giving from our poverty more than our surplus?
  2. Does your work give you prestige in the eyes of others? How important is this recognition, or lack of recognition, to you?
  3. Is generosity to the point of making ourselves vulnerable like the Widow in this Gospel really what we’re called to as disciples of Jesus? Don’t we all give primarily from our surplus?
  4. As a steward of your resources, what are “places of poverty” you could try to give from?
  5. In what ways have you been God’s instrument of providential care for others?

Biblical Context

Mark 12: 38-44 
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

This week’s Gospel begins by depicting scribes as the antithesis of Elijah and his widow friend. These scribes have precious little in common with the one we watched in conversation with Jesus last week. Like fashion queens whose clothing tells the world how much they can afford, the flamboyant scribes flaunt the religious garb that sets them apart from profane society. But even worse than their silly costume parades, Jesus says they “devour the houses of widows.”

This probably refers to the fact that because women were legally prohibited from managing their financial affairs, the religious men acted as their trustees and were famous for over-compensating themselves for the service. (See Chad Myers, Binding the Strong Man) Between their use of religion for prestige and their self-serving, this sort of scribe provided a too-powerful living antithesis to the love of God and neighbor.

The second incident we hear about in today’s Gospel brings us into the Temple itself, to what was called the Court of the Women. The Temple of Jesus’ day was anything but place of hushed and reverent silence. It bustled with pilgrims, vendors, priests directing worshippers, and probably pickpockets and people who simply wanted to gawk. The first courtyard of the Temple was called the Court of the Gentiles. Everyone was allowed to enter there and they would find themselves in what was like a marketplace. In this court, people could change their money and purchase animals for sacrifice. The next section was called the women’s court because women could advance no further than this area. This court held the treasure chests into which people could put their sacrificial and charitable offerings. According to Mark, this is where Jesus sat facing the area where people made their donations. Mark has subtly positioned Jesus as a judge of what is happening in front of him.

The statement, “Many rich people put in large sums,” points out that the public could see just what each donor was offering — at least in a general way. The ostentatious givers mirrored the scribes who loved attention. But what caught Jesus’ attention was a poor woman whose demeanor must have matched the miniscule donation she was able to offer.

It would be no surprise to think that Jesus had to call his disciples’ attention to her. She exemplified those whom society deems inconsequential, apparently having little or nothing to contribute to anyone. Still, she made her offering to the treasury, perhaps as a statement of her dignity and self-worth.

According to Scripture scholar Chad Myers, Jesus called his disciples to pay attention to her, not to praise her sacrifice, but to critique the business of the Temple and its so-called religiosity. The same religious leaders whom Jesus had just condemned for their pretense had also convinced people like the widow to provide for them and their treasury. Unlike the sacrifice of solidarity of the widow of Zarephath who shared her morsel with Elijah and then received his help, the sacrifice of the widow in the Temple was unilateral. No one even paid attention, much less brought God’s blessings to her.

This week’s readings lead us to evaluate all our “religious” activity. The underlying question is “Whom do we serve?” The criteria for judging is how well our actions build solidarity and help the needy.

 The Treasury of Poverty

Fr Michael K. Marsh

Today’s gospel reminds me of my 34th birthday. I sat down with Cyndy and our boys to open my cards and gifts. Our younger son, Randy, jumped up and said, “Wait, not yet!”  He ran to his room. He came back a few minutes later. He was excited, bouncing off the walls. He was beside himself as he gave me his present. It was a sandwich baggie with one hundred pennies. He had taken a black magic marker and had written on the baggie, “$1.00.” He was thrilled with his gift to me and could not wait to give it to me.

He thought he was giving me $1.00. But the truth is he gave me everything he had. And I do not mean the contents of his piggy bank. That little baggie contained more than just pennies. He gave his love, presence, bounciness, excitement, joy, life. He gave me his very being. For what else does a four-year old boy have to give? What else do any of us really have to give?

We all know this text as the “widow’s mite.” We’ve read the commentaries and heard the sermons – “The poor widow is an example of generosity. You should be generous like her.” I suspect most of us have heard that one or something similar more than once. Sometimes I think that we are so familiar with this story that we no longer hear or even look for another meaning. So we expect and settle for the usual interpretations. We are not surprised when this text is used for the annual stewardship campaign. Or we anticipate its use to criticize the rich for not giving more. And it holds before us the fact that there is an unequal and often unfair distribution of the world’s resources reminding us that the majority of the world lives without enough – without enough money, food, shelter, education, healthcare.

All of that is valid. There is truth in those interpretations. But there is also something else going on in this story. This gospel is not simply about the treasury of money. It is, rather, about the treasury of poverty. Hafiz, the great Sufi poet of the fourteenth century, offered this prayer:

“God, grant me the riches of poverty for in such largesse lies my power and glory.”

The riches of poverty. Most of us, I suspect, have not seen or experienced the riches of poverty very often. Instead, we tend to view poverty as a problem to be fixed and not as a source of power and glory. Poverty is often a problem to be eliminated and solved but not in today’s gospel. The poverty of the poor widow is not a problem to be fixed but rather a virtue to be interiorized. The poor widow becomes our teacher and we, her students.

She embodies the virtue of spiritual poverty. She has no need for the money of the rich, the long robes of the scribes, or marketplace respect. She has no need for the best seat in the house or even the appearance of holiness. The absence of the widow’s need to have becomes her need not to have. So she does what makes no sense. She gives her last two coins. “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” For what else does a poor widow have to give? She has no abundance, only the riches of poverty

The riches of poverty come not from acquiring but from letting go. All authentic spirituality is about letting go: letting go of comparison, competition, expectation, judgment; letting go of status, reputation, and appearances; letting go of the need for power, to control, to succeed, to win, to be right; letting go of our need for approval and perfectionism; letting go of all the illusions we create or buy in order to make ourselves feel better. Ultimately it means letting go of ourselves and the ones we love most.

Spiritual poverty begins with letting go and it always reveals the fragility of life. It takes us to the border between life and death where there are no guarantees – only hope, where there are no answers – only faith, and where there is no security – only love. This is where the poor widow lives. This is where God lives. And they live in union as one. In the face of the poor widow – the face of spiritual poverty – the Christ sees and recognizes himself.


Spiritual Commentary from: Interrupting the Silence.  Fr Michael K. Marsh